Last month I had the privilege to accept an award for my uncle, someone who has been very influential in the world of children’s literature and has changed the face of children’s poetry. Not only has he entered the Guinness Book of World Records for having the most published poetry anthologies, he also has encouraged and mentored aspiring poets, has sponsored writers’ workshops, given speeches to groups of teachers, librarians and students, and has many other books to his name (this is just a smattering of his accomplishments).
So, being asked to accept this award was something special for me. Although I know that he has accomplished all this, I really just think of him as my uncle. When I was young, besides seeing him for holidays, I spent a week with him most summers and we did fun stuff – theater, amusement parks, wandered his garden, and browsed his library.
I first heard him speak at an event for librarians in Somerville, New Jersey when I was in high school. I noted that he was a very good and engaging speaker. Although I grew up reading his books, interspersed with those of other wonderful writers, I had never thought about the process that took place before those treasures entered my hands.
I believe the next time I heard him was at my local elementary school, where he mesmerized the entire student body before engaging smaller groups of the older students, inspiring one class to write a poem in his honor. This was exciting because I was involved with the planning and got to spend a couple days with him in my town. More recently, I had the opportunity to see another side when he was presented several years ago with The NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children in Philadelphia. I was fortunate to celebrate with him that day and enjoyed listening to a parade of fellow writers talk about how he helped them, both professionally and personally. This was the first time I realized how profound and widespread his influence in today’s world of children’s poetry really is. (It was also when I discovered that “Dear One,” which he used to start his correspondence with me, was the salutation he used for many close friends and family members.)
I had a couple months to prepare myself to accept the award and honestly, I was very comfortable with the idea. I have gotten up in front of people before. I have written a speech or two. I wouldn’t know anyone there. The entire event had nothing to do with me. By the week of the event, I had a rough draft complete. The night before I was to leave, the muse awoke in the middle of the night with better ideas than were on paper, so I went downstairs and complied, getting the text in the computer, knowing I had hours to polish it the next day before leaving. I took care of these details with hours to spare, hit print, and panic set in. Why? I still can’t answer that question.
Off we went to Hershey. The nerves continued. The next morning, I tweaked a bit more, deleting a couple paragraphs (which have reappeared here) and it was time. We got to breakfast, where I picked at my meal (If you know me, you know that is really weird) and then it was time. I got up and accepted the award, with legs like jelly. Kind words followed, but I know I could have done better (after all, I know I can pronounce all the words I had written, there was no excuse for stumbling over them). I have never liked hearing recordings of myself. Maybe that is somewhat behind my reluctance to watch the video (taken at my request so my uncle could see it).
The experience was overall a good one, and I am happy that I was able to be there for my uncle. I also attended one of the workshops that morning, which was good for me personally, as it was given by the two authors who had also been presented “Readers Choice” awards that day by some of the students who had voted to select their books. These authors were engaging and inspirational, as well as very personable and generous with their time and advice. A month out, I am still holding onto the motivation to get my own book complete and out there. Maybe, with a little luck, there will be some of my own speech writing to do in the future.