Only the week before in her graduate creative-writing class at Virginia
Commonwealth University, professor Susann Cokal had downplayed the
importance of winning awards to her students. “They don’t say much about who you are as a writer,” she told them.
And then Cokal learned that she had won an award. Quite a nice one, in fact: the Michael L. Printz Award (silver) for excellence in young adult literature — one of the major prizes in the genre — for her “The
Kingdom of Little Wounds.” The award was announced at the recent American Library Association Midwinter Meeting in Philadelphia.
“So, I’d given them this talk about not caring so much about awards,” she said with a laugh, “and then I was, ‘Wow! It is really awesome to win a medal!”
Another local author also made out particularly well at the ALA conference, with Meg Medina’s “Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass” winning the Pura Belpré Award, presented annually to a Latino/Latina writer whose work “best portrays, affirms and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth.” She was on the train coming home from Philadelphia when the happy phone call came.
“It really did come as a shock,” Medina said. “It just boomeranged out of nowhere, and it was really lovely.”
Cokal, an associate professor in VCU’s department of English and the author of two previous novels, said she was so taken aback that when the call came on a Sunday morning alerting her to the award she thought it was an overzealous telemarketer and almost hang up. News of the award, of course, greatly improved her day.
“It’s huge,” said Cokal, who has been dealing with the after-effects of a concussion suffered in a fall. “Despite my cavalier dismissal (of awards), I’m very excited, and it makes me really really want to write.”
Cokal believes she decided to become a writer — perhaps without even understanding there were such things as writers — when she read her first book at age 4: “Rumpelstiltskin.” A photograph of that momentous book, which she recalls reading to her ailing mother, is featured on her website.
“I’m not sure I realized people wrote the books,” she said. “I just knew the books existed and I really loved them.”
“The Kingdom of Little Wounds,” published last October, is, by Cokal’s description, “set in a watery, witchy, mermaidy kingdom in Scandinavia, 1572. Young women's bodies are the batttlefields as three outcasts — a seamstress, a slave, and a mad queen — plot against patriarchal court politics in order to save themselves and the little princesses.”
She did not write “Kingdom” with a “young adult” audience in mind, rather it turned out that way almost by accident. She contacted a friend for agent advice, which led to a conversation about her unpublished manuscript.
The friend, a high-ranking editor at Candlewick Press, an independent children’s publisher, asked to read it. Cokal thought she was merely being polite, figuring the subject matter was a bit too mature for a children’s publishing house. Her assumption was off base: her friend loved it, and Candlewick published it.
Cokal is grateful that Candlewick, based in Massachusetts, is unafraid of taking on books that could stir controversy. Her friend Medina feels the same way. Candlewick also published “Yacqui Delgado” and did not shy away from a children’s book with “ass” in the title (which prompted at least one school to cancel an appearance by Medina to talk about bullying because of that word).
Medina makes no apologies for the title and says any concern about choice of words is terribly misplaced and missing a far larger point that children are being hurt every day by bullying because grown-ups are unwilling or unable to address the issue in an open and real manner.
Which is one reason the Belpré Award is so gratifying to Medina. Another is the recognition of the cultural subject matter of “Yaqui Delgado,” the story of a child named Piddy Sanchez who learns during the first few weeks at her new high school that another kid, whom she doesn’t know, wants to beat her up for reasons that elude her. The threat leads Piddy to explore, among other things, her identity and her culture. Such cultural exploration is a common theme in her books.
The award from an organization that spotlights works involving Latino culture means a lot to Medina, who was the first American-born citizen in a family that had immigrated to the U.S. from Cuba. Her mother named her Margaret Rose, which was just about the most American name she could think of, Medina said with a laugh.
“But what that meant was I had this other identity,” she said. “As soon as I walked through the door, the U.S. ended.”
She grew up speaking English at school and Spanish at home. Foods and customs were different, but she became comfortable in both settings, though there are inherent problems for children who often must navigate the treacherous waters of serving as cultural interpreters for their families at home while facing uncertainty of their identity — and even ridicule — on the outside.
“Especially when the conversation gets toxic about immigration,” she said. “It’s easy to absorb shame.”
That’s a primary reason Medina writes about the subjects she does.
“I just feel kids need to see their lives in books,” she said. “We need to read all kinds of stories … to see what’s universal and what humanizes all of us and how we’re all sort of connected.”
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