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Find more The Coretta Scott King Book Award
On what seemed like the hottest day ever during the New Jersey Library Association meeting in May 1970, 20 librarians bestowed the first Coretta Scott King Book Award. The gathering was not permitted in an American Library Association convention hotel because, back then, the Coretta Scott King Book Award was not an official part of the American Library Association. The small group met in a nondescript hotel anteroom. That first “ceremony” was a far cry from the Coretta Scott King Award breakfasts of today.
“As meager as the setting was, we made it a great beginning,” remembers Henrietta M. Smith, professor emeritus at the School of Library and Information Science at the University of South Florida and editor of The Coretta Scott King Awards, 1970–2004 (2004). One of the award’s early trailblazers, Smith says that when the Coretta Scott King Book Award launched, its purpose wasn’t apparent to the American Library Association. “They didn’t see a need for it—but that didn’t matter to us,” Smith recalls. “Our attitude was ‘We’re here. We know who we are, and we’re not going to stop.’”
The Coretta Scott King Award was the brainchild of the late Glyndon Flynt Greer, a school librarian from Englewood, New Jersey. The idea struck Greer and librarian Mabel McKissack in 1969 as they walked through the ALA Annual Conference convention hall and quickly noticed that no books by black authors or illustrators had been recognized for their excellence.
Thanks to pioneers such as Greer, McKissack, and Smith, and hundreds of librarians who followed their example, the Coretta Scott King Book Award has been a powerful train on a steady course. Those founding librarians launched what has become one of the most high-profile and emotionally relevant events of the American Library Association Annual Conference—a breakfast that now hosts nearly a thousand people.
As a publisher and Coretta Scott King Award–winning author, I’m often asked if winning this award increases book sales. The simple answer is yes—winning titles do show a bump in sales due to the award’s recognition factor. But more important is the broader impact the award has on the publishing industry and on the children who read and enjoy the books. These intangible gifts cannot be measured by sales figures.I’m frequently asked, too, if, in my publishing opinion, Coretta Scott King Award–winning books are best suited to Black History Month. This is a tired question that should not need answering in the year 2009. But the inquiry still comes up, and it’s a sad reminder that we have not yet conquered the misconception that Coretta Scott King Award winners and Honor Books are only worth reading once a year. To me, the question is like asking if our new president can most effectively do his job in February.
Though we’ve come far, and the Coretta Scott King Award has been embraced by many, this is just the beginning—even after 40 years. As Martin Luther King Jr. put it, “We need to remind America of the fierce urgency of now.”
There’s still more to be done to wake people up to the power of the Coretta Scott King Book Award. The truth of the matter is, even after 40 years of shining a spotlight on some of the best books published, Coretta Scott King Award winners are not given mainstream media and retail attention in the same way that Newbery and Caldecott winners are.
The “fierce urgency of now” has come. What started with a scattering of librarians bringing a candle into a dark room has grown a hundredfold to thousands of committed people—librarians, publishers, teachers, parents, retailers—who hold a bright ray of determination that will continue to get the Coretta Scott King Book Award noticed, celebrated, and embraced by even more people.
As we enter the award’s fortieth anniversary year, the publishing community has joined forces with the Coretta Scott King Committee Task Force to launch a full-scale public awareness campaign. We now have an army of committed foot soldiers ready to take the Coretta Scott King Book Award to a new level of recognition. As they say in show biz, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”
To the doubters who don’t understand the reason for the Coretta Scott King Book Award, or who wonder if so many supporters really have the ability to lift the award to even higher heights, I ask you to take to heart the words of a modern-day orator: “Yes, we can!”
Andrea Davis Pinkney is vice president, executive editor, at Scholastic. She is honorary cochair of the Coretta Scott King Award 40th Anniversary Public Awareness Campaign and winner of a Coretta Scott King Author Honor citation for Let It Shine! Stories of Black Women Freedom Fighters. The Coretta Scott King Awards, 1970–2009, edited by Henrietta M. Smith, will be available later this year from ALA Editions.
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