Working Writer Not Writing

So I left my FREEDOM SUMMER quilt and my newly painted home last Thursday and drove to Birmingham, where LITTLE BIRD was awarded the Alabama Book Award. I was born in Mobile, and spent my first five years there, listening for the ice-cream man and his singing truck, a nickel hot in my fist; riding my red tricycle on the sidewalk, my brother standing on the back and holding on to me; watching Captain Kangaroo on a black-and-white television that my father installed in the wall of our family room, and coloring in fat coloring books, using the luscious colors I found in the 64-count box of Crayola crayons with the sharpener in the back that I received for Christmas one year.

What you know first stays with you, as Patricia MacLachlan writes.

You know you're home when the name on your books is "Deborah Wiles" and folks engrave an award plaque with "Debbie." This means they know you and claim you as kin, don't you think? I certainly hope so. I love both names, and use "Deborah" for work -- it just happened that way and I like it -- but I never mind being called "Debbie," which is what my Habibi calls me (more on this new-to-me word in a moment).

I had great good fun at the Alabama Library Association meeting. Here are all the Alabama Book Award winners -- aren't I in good company? Let me tell you about these books -- some are new-to-me stories (don't you love finding a brand-new story?). I had to buy one of each and have them autographed, especially after hearing these authors speak.

Many of you will know Watt Key (far right) and his book ALABAMA MOON, which won the E.B. White Read Aloud Award -- this makes us alumni of the E.B. White Award, Watt and I. Cool. I've wanted to read his book for eons, and now I can. Watt is adored in Alabama, was also born in Mobile (Point Clear), and is hailed as a home-town boy. He's also a warm-hearted, funny speaker, and a genuine human being... that's the impression I got from all the award winners -- what genuine human beings.

I did not know about the Redstick War of 1813 until Gregory Waselkov (wonder if some folks call him Greg?), winner of the non-fiction award, spoke about his book, A CONQUERING SPIRIT: FORT MIMS AND THE REDSTICK WAR OF 1813-1814. This uprising in Alabama is said to have led to much of the reasoning behind the eventual eradication of the Indians in the American South -- this is fourth-grade history to Alabama kids, said Gregory Waselkov, but is unknown to most Americans -- we have forgotten this story. Waselkov is an archeologist by trade; listening to him tell this story, I was fascinated and full of questions. I can't wait to read the book.

On my left, next to Watt Key is Daniel Alarcon. His book, LOST CITY RADIO, won the fiction award. Daniel (does he go by Dan to some?), who grew up near Birmingham, joked that the book had absolutely nothing to do with Alabama, other than its author was from Alabama. Daniel's family is from Lima, Peru. In Lima, there is a call-in radio program in the evenings that links families looking for missing members -- Daniel told a poignant story of listening to this program, of going back to Lima and finding that members of his own family/community were now lost, of feeling a kind of survivor guilt over the fact that he was in the United States growing up while his family members were living in the midst of a civil war. Daniel Alarcon -- a compassionate human being and a novelist to watch.

I'm proud to be part of this group of award winners, and I am proud to be from Alabama. This year, the committee awarded books with diverse themes about diverse ethnic populations to a diverse set of writers... this is a good thing. Thank you, Alabama librarians, and book award committee members, for honoring LITTLE BIRD and the other award winners, and for helping put these books into the hands of young readers.

I have 24 hours to turn around before I'm out the door to Houston, so I'll write you tomorrow about the trip to Frostburg, and about the wonderful time I had with Ted and Betsy Lewin (who taught me the meaning of "Habibi," a word I'd heard but hadn't known meant "Darling..." so now I have a new name for my darling),Kaethe Zemach, the staff of the Children's Literature Center at Frostburg University, and western Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, and Pennsylvania readers. Awesome doesn't begin to cover it (and this fine bunch of old-home folks calls me DEB! heh heh. I am home with that family, too, and proud of that -- and them)... what a place, what a spirit, what a time. What bad punctuation in this paragraph! I will leave it for now -- my bathtub ring awaits.

I need to clean my bathroom and make up the bed in Hannah's room before I hop on a plane. When I come back from Houston on Wed. night, Coleen Salley will be waiting for me in the airport. We're going to spend the day together at my house on Thursday, finally getting to that oral history.

Then... the International Reading Association in Atlanta begins and a round robin of people flow in and out of this house as we hurtle toward the conference and then Hannah's graduation on May 10. Whew. I just need to hold on!

In case I forget and you are coming to IRA: I'm in an all-day Institute on Sunday, May 4, with Nancy Johnson, Cyndi Georgis, Allyn Johnston, Ralph Fletcher, Mark Teague, my good friend and great teacher Marianne Richardson, and many more. We are Institute 1: Side by Side, When Literature and Literacy Intersect. Hope to see you there. You can read all about us here.

I am signing books on the convention floor at the Georgia World Congress Center on Monday, May 5, from 11-12 at the Harcourt booth, and from 2-3 with Scholastic Book Fairs at their booth. Then I'm scooting home, but would love to see you while I'm there -- come on out!

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