Rather than reveal this year’s Golden Kite Award winners during its winter conference, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators presented the awards in a stand-alone program on March 15. SCBWI announced winners live on Zoom, in an event featuring National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature Jason Reynolds.
SCBWI executive director Sarah Baker welcomed attendees to “the most prestigious literary awards for children’s books that are judged specifically by our peers as creators themselves.” Golden Kite nominees and judges come from SCBWI’s membership; winners receive $2,500 plus $1,000 for the nonprofit of their choice, while honorees receive $500 plus $250 to donate.
Reynolds, though a raconteur par excellence, admitted to having started the day uninspired: “I’m always trying to figure out, ‘What exactly have I not said? What ways can I frame the things I’m thinking about?’ ” It so happened that his 76-year-old mother had called him to fix her broken mailbox, and the saga of his chilly Washington, D.C., morning became grist for his mill.
“My mother is a proud woman, and this is unbearably embarrassing for her, to have this mailbox that’s looking a little raggedy,” Reynolds began. “I try to be as patient as possible, because she’s been patient with me for a very long time. I also understand that our elders are a vulnerable population, and we tend to sort of dismiss them. So I try to always say yes, no matter what the ask is.” He would circle back around to this concern for the vulnerable.
Reynolds spun a tale of finding a new mailbox, choosing from a big-box store’s “cornucopia” of replacements, and realizing that someone designs every cheap plastic or pseudo-chic metal mailbox to keep the contents safe and dry. Letters, coupons, bills, and cards come “from places that I’ve never been, from friends that I haven’t seen in years, from strangers. Who knows what’s going to be in there?” he asked. As Reynolds riffed, the Zoom chat lit up: “Jason can turn *anything* into the best story ever,” one viewer commented.
Circuitously, Reynolds recognized the humble mailbox as a communication hub for young readers, “a population just as vulnerable as my mother. Literally, I thought to myself, oh, snap, I make mailboxes.” Mailboxes deliver and guard information in every genre, whether junk mail or a thank-you note. “We the writers, we the advocates, we the ambassadors, have to do everything we can to protect our books, protect our stories,” he said. “There is an identity that can be stolen if we don’t protect the containers of the letters.”
Reynolds closed by musing, “Now I gotta call my mother and say thank you for putting me through all that this morning.”
Golden Kite coordinator and emcee Bonnie Bader took over to introduce the awards categories. First up was the award for Picture Book Text, announced by Lift author Minh Lê. Joanna Ho won for Eyes That Kiss in the Corners, illustrated by Dung Ho (HarperCollins), directing her donation to the educational equity nonprofit First Book (“They are the reason I was able to revamp my school’s entire library,” Ho said). Winsome Bingham received the honor for Soul Food Sunday, illustrated by Charles G. Esperanza (Abrams), with a donation to Bronx literacy organization Start Lighthouse.
Poppy Takes Paris illustrator Kristi Valiant announced the awards in Picture Book Illustration. Stephen Costanza took home the Golden Kite for King of Ragtime: The Story of Scott Joplin (Atheneum), with a donation to San Antonio arts organization Musical Bridges Around the World. During his acceptance, he sat at his piano and played a few bars from Joplin’s 1902 ragtime hit “The Entertainer,” reinforcing the African American composer’s “simple but radical trick of syncopation.” Micha Archer received the illustration honor for Wonder Walkers (Penguin/Paulsen) and supported literacy nonprofit Barbershop Books.
Nonfiction categories, announced by Sonny Rollins Plays the Bridge author Gary Golio, were up next. Writing for younger readers, Colleen Paeff won for The Great Stink: How Joseph Bazalgette Solved London’s Poop Pollution Problem, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter (McElderry), and sent her donation to L.A. library organization Access Books. Cynthia Levinson, author of The People’s Painter: How Ben Shahn Fought for Justice with Art, illustrated by Evan Turk (Abrams), received the young readers nonfiction honor, and recognized the Highlights Foundation.
Two winners were awarded in the category of nonfiction for older readers. Ariel Henley received the award for A Face for Picasso: Coming of Age with Crouzon Syndrome (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), and sent her donation to My Face, an organization serving children and adults with craniofacial differences. Growing up, Henley said, “I never got to see faces like mine in the media, and so writing this book was my dream. When my book came out in November, I got a couple of messages on social media of kids with craniofacial conditions, holding my book in Barnes & Noble. And I have no words to explain [how much] that means.”
Anton Treuer likewise received the nonfiction award for Everything You Wanted to Know About Indians but Were Afraid to Ask: Young Readers Edition (Levine Querido), and donated in support of the Minnesota Area Indian Bar Association.
Pieces of Why author K.L. Going announced the Middle Grade Fiction winner, Red, White, and Whole by Rajani LaRocca (Quill Tree); LaRocca supported the World Literacy Foundation with her proceeds. LaRocca also shared advice with her SCBWI fellows: “I am one of you, and I am with you. If you ever wondered whether you should write the story of your heart, you should. And if you ever wondered when to do it, the time is now.” Adrianna Cuevas accepted the honor for Cuba in My Pocket (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), and directed funds to Lambda Literary LGBTQ Writers in Schools, supporting inclusive K-12 curricula.
Mike Curato, author of Flamer, presented the Illustrated Book for Older Readers category. Fahmida Azim won the Golden Kite for illustrating Rukhsanna Guidroz’s Samira Surfs (Kokila), and she donated to the Rohingya Children’s Projects. Eugene Yelchin received the honor for The Genius Under the Table: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain (Candlewick), and shared his good fortune with the Dream Builders Project.
Aminah Mae Safi, author of Not the Girls You’re Looking For, announced the final category, Young Adult Fiction. Pamela N. Harris took the prize for When You Look Like Us (Quill Tree), which she said she wrote “to bring necessary attention to missing Black girls whose cases are too often ignored, dismissed, or downplayed” and to promote “more empathy for Black and brown children.” Harris’s donation is slated for the Down Syndrome Association of Greater Richmond. The YA honor went to Olivia Abtahi for Perfectly Parvin (Putnam), with Abtahi calling attention to The Word, A Storytelling Sanctuary.
Bader closed the event with heartfelt appreciation: “I am really happy I put on waterproof mascara, because all of the speeches brought me absolutely to tears.” Zoom spontaneity (and a brisk pace) helped bridge the distance between audience members and the newly crowned winners.
This article has been updated.