Taking Flight in Children's Books

FlyingLessons200If it's been a while since you've read a truly special children's book, I've got a recommendation for you...  Written in partnership with We Need Diverse Books, Flying Lessons & Other Stories is a collection of short stories by a venerable who's who of children's literature--Jacqueline Woodson, Grace Lin, Kwame Alexander, just to name a few.  Their stories made me laugh, cry, and sometimes that really weird laugh/cry at once thing.  As soon as I put it down there was no question in my mind that it was our spotlight pick for the best kids' books of January.

One of the first things I noticed about Flying Lessons & Other Stories is the dedication.  The book is dedicated to award-winning author Walter Dean Myers, recipient of the very first Michael L. Printz award, former National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, and a man who inspired countless authors and readers.  Seeing his name on that page made me all the more excited to dig into the stories, and I wanted to know more about how the dedication, and the book came to be.  I also wondered if there was a particular story among them that resonated the most with the book's editor, Ellen Oh.  Not her "favorite" of course, because really who could ask that, but rather, is there a story that has special meaning or connection for her.  You'll see Oh's answer to this question, and the others, below.


On the dedication to Walter Dean Myers...

Mr. Myers truly cared about diversity in children’s literature.  Not only was he one of the greatest writers of our generation, but also our strongest diversity champion and advocate. I am reminded of his earlier New York Times op-ed piece on November 9, 1986, titled CHILDREN'S BOOKS; 'I Actually Thought We Would Revolutionize the Industry'. In that piece, he said “If we continue to make black children nonpersons by excluding them from books and by degrading the black experience, and if we continue to neglect white children by not exposing them to any aspect of other racial and ethnic experiences in a meaningful way, we will have a next racial crisis.”

There is no doubt in my mind of the absolute truth of his words. I can’t help but wonder if the rise in hate crimes that we’ve seen would have happened had there been more diversity in children’s books available in all schools for all kids. Empathy comes only from shared or learned experiences. Books provide one of the best ways for children to see into the lives of those who are not like them. If we are to make a difference in the world, if we are to raise a future generation of empathetic children, then we must not only publish more diverse books, but also market them to everyone. Only then can we truly uphold Mr. Myers’s legacy. Flying Lessons is dedicated to Walter Dean Myers because WNDB is committed to continuing his mission and making sure that his vision of revolutionizing the industry comes true.

On the inspiration for creating Flying Lessons & Other Stories...

The idea of the anthology came to me after a night trading hilarious stories about our crazy families with Soman Chainani, author of The School for Good and Evil. We were laughing so hard that I couldn’t help but think how great it would be to have a book of stories about our different families. Nearly a year later, WNDB was up and running and I decided an anthology filled with stories like the ones Soman and I had laughed over, was exactly what we needed. So I think it is only fitting that the title of the anthology is Flying Lessons, Soman’s story, as it was because of him that this anthology exists. When we were figuring out who else should be included, the first place we looked was to WNDB’s own advisory board. That’s how we got Matt de la Peña, Grace Lin, Tim Federle, Meg Medina and Jacqueline Woodson. And when I happened to be on a panel with Tim Tingle and Kwame Alexander, I made sure to snag them up for a story each!

One of the most enjoyable experiences I had as part of this anthology was being a judge for the short story contest. We received hundreds of submissions and it was really hard for our team of judges to narrow down to a short list. But our winner was a unanimous choice. Kelly Baptist wrote a story that made every single judge cry. It was a story that touched us all. And being able to tell her that she had won the contest and would be a published author was a real highlight. I can’t wait to see what else she will publish in the near future.

In answer to the question, is there a story that resonates most for you?

Trying to choose a favorite story is like trying to choose a favorite kid. It’s impossible and I’m not going to do it.  But the surprise in the anthology for me would be Walter Dean Myers’s “Sometimes a Dream Needs a Push.”  It was wonderful that we could include it in our anthology.  When I read it, I felt as if we’d been given a gift.  That it is so strong and lovely is not a surprise – after all, it is a story by Walter Dean Myers!  And, what a great feeling – to be able to introduce readers to his writing in a book dedicated to him.

-- Ellen Oh

 


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