The eighth annual Walter Awards Ceremony and Symposium took place as a hybrid event at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Washington, D.C., and online on March 17.
Publishing professionals and students from the D.C. area were invited to attend the Walter Awards Ceremony, hosted by former National Ambassador for Young People's Literature and award-winning author Jacqueline Woodson.
In her opening remarks, Woodson spoke on the relevance of the award’s theme this year, which was Books Save Lives. “A diverse book can teach empathy, it can help us feel seen. It can even, yes, save lives,” Woodson said. “And we will continue championing these stories and fighting back against the bans until everyone here can find themselves in the pages of a book.”
The first event of the morning was a panel featuring the 2023 Walter honorees Sonora Reyes, Sabaa Tahir, and Ibi Zoboi, moderated by We Need Diverse Book CEO and founding member Ellen Oh. Honoree Christina Soontornvat was unable to appear for the event.
The theme of the panel was life-changing books, and authors cited books from their own personal experiences such as Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, Seven Daughters & Seven Sons by Barbara Cohen, Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat, and Meet Cute Diary by Emery Lee as titles that rescued them.
“To see Edwidge Danticat as a celebrated author on a national platform [such] as the Oprah Winfrey Show let me know that my personal story, as niche as it may seem, can be celebrated,” Zoboi said of her book selection.
In light of the unprecedented rise of book bans, authors shared their perspectives on book bans and how they’ll continue to fight them.
“I can’t say with all certainty that everything’s going to be fine and we’re going to come out on the other side, and it’s going to be great,” Reyes said. “What I can say is that I’m going to keep writing for vulnerable youth and I don’t think I’m ever going to stop doing that. And I think that that is what’s going to be healing for me in this time, and hopefully that can also be healing for some other people too.”
Tahir said, “Every single one [of us] is like, you know what, more books, louder books, angrier books, happier books, more joyful books, just more of everything, because we absolutely refuse to be silenced. And if you’re not ready to share your stories, or if you are not ready to have your voice heard yet, that’s okay. Because we will keep yelling until you’re ready to join that shout.”
The panel closed with questions from students in the audience regarding craft, how they got their start in the publishing industry, and which aspects of themselves show up in their works.
Following the panel, Amina Luqman-Dawson, recent Newbery Medalist for her middle grade novel Freewater and a We Need Diverse mentee gave a speech about youth standing in their power in the face of rising book bans.
“The fear that book banners have is about the power of your ideas,” Luqman-Dawson said. “It’s not the ideas, even if people like me who write the book that they’re afraid of, or even the teachers who teach them know. It’s about your power, because they know the ideas in your mind can and likely will change the world.”
After a video highlighting the life and career of the award’s namesake, Walter Dean Myers, the 2023 honorees of the young readers category all took to the stage to accept their awards. This year’s Walter Award in the Younger Readers category went to Choosing Brave: How Mamie Till-Mobley and Emmett Till Sparked the Civil Rights Movement by Angela Joy, illustrated by Janelle Washington.
In her acceptance speech, Joy spoke about the importance of We Need Diverse Books, and what she described as the “full circle moment” being surrounded by its founding members. She went on to discuss the inspiration of her picture book Choosing Brave, noting that she knew it would be a “tool for conversation” in helping young people navigate the realities of police brutality in America.
“It is up to us as adults to help these young people process the trauma,” Joy said. “I’m not an expert. I’m just a mom. But from what I know, one of the best ways to deal with trauma is with a book.”
Writing about an instance of police brutality became “devastating” as the picture book went through editing amid the George Floyd murder and protests, and during those moments Joy said she wanted “to be like Mamie and choose brave. We have to dare to believe that we can make it better.”
Joy gave a rendition of an original song on the lessons and morals children are being “carefully taught,” and closed her speech by noting, “We have the power to change the world, one child one book at a time.”
Choosing Brave illustrator Janelle Washington spoke about her childhood love of reading and her hopes for young readers to be able to find that love through diverse literature.
“The books I read felt like forever friends and wise teachers comforting me and educating me by offering me an insight into a world outside of my four walls,” Washington said.
Citing the books that sparked her passion for reading, including Betty DeRamus’s Forbidden Fruit, Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of Butterflies, Langston Hughes’s The Best of Simple, Washington said she hopes “children all over have the same magical feeling I had as a child, and I’m thankful for organizations like We Need Diverse Books that create programs and platforms that elevate our humanity shared bonds.”
Woodson welcomed the 2023 honorees in the teen category onstage to accept their awards and passed the mic to the morning’s final speaker, Andrea L. Rogers, author of this year’s Teen winner, Man Made Monsters. Illustrator Jeff Edwards was unable to attend the event in person.
Rogers referenced several works by Walter Dean Myers throughout her speech, starting with an essay where he challenged the lack of diversity in children’s literature, and she expanded on how writing for children offered an answer.
“For me, reading provided an escape, but writing provided me a way to say we are here,” Rogers said. “In this way, I get to live, I wrote myself into existence. I write therefore I am.”
Rogers also shared the publishing progress for Man Made Monsters, which she says is a novel that “almost didn’t exist.” A book 20 years in the making, it wasn’t until she found her editor at Levine Querido that Rogers finally felt “someone saw me.”
In closing, she referenced Myers once more, quoting his words: “We all think we’re different. When it comes around, we end up needing the same things: somebody to love us, somebody to respect us.”