President's Message

Image of the Boxcar Children book cover.Children’s books saved my life. 

The first time I remember understanding that I was “different” was while walking to Kindergarten one day with my two best friends; I’ve assigned them various pseudonyms over the years, but here, I will call them Rebecca and Brett. The three of us walked together to school every day, but when I met up with them on this particular morning, they told me that they had decided that they were now dating. I remember walking the rest of the way to school and feeling left out. I watched the two of them walking side-by-side a few steps in front of me. I remember feeling jealous. And I remember the exact moment it registered within me that my jealousy did not result from the fact that Brett got to date Rebecca, but that it was Rebecca—and not I—that got to date Brett.

I remember an immediate wave of both fear and understanding that this meant I didn’t “fit” with how things were supposed to be and that the feelings I had were not “normal.” I can recall other moments in the years that followed in which parallel feelings emerged, mostly manifesting themselves whenever I realized I had a crush on some male classmate or another or while playing the “shirts versus skins” games I dreaded in physical education class. It wasn’t until seventh grade that I learned this type of different had a name (“gay”) and realized that I wasn’t the only person in the world that felt the way that I did. My family was watching some evening entertainment news show that ran a story about an openly gay male character on a U.S. daytime soap opera. I remember the simultaneous joy of validation and, again, fear that I felt in that moment. I remember my mother saying the word “disgusting.” I wrote about it in my diary. Later, I tore that page out of my diary, ripped it up, and flushed it down the toilet.

By the time I was 5 years old, though, I already understood that it was not okay to be who I was; I understood that I didn’t belong. I also knew that the real world could be unpredictable and unkind, and that people--even those you love--can not always be trusted. There were very few spaces that the world made sense to me. One of the most profound places of refuge in my life was found in books. Regardless of what else was happening, I knew that each evening, just before bed, my mother would tell a story or read a couple chapters from a book to me, my older brother, and younger sister. In those moments, I remember believing that somehow, someday, everything would work out.

When my mother read us The Boxcar Children, I fantasized about disappearing into the woods, discovering an old train car, and living on my own. For several years, I re-enacted that story again and again while playing alone in the backyard. It was sometimes hard to distinguish reality from fantasy. As I grew older, I read and re-read The Boxcar Children and its sequels. I can still picture those paperback books lined up on a shelf in my room, their variously colored spines in numerical order. I can also recall my irritation when some were slightly different heights or the volume numbers were not in alignment with those of the other books. I remember pretending to be asleep with a book hidden under my pillow when my dad would come to check on me to make sure I was asleep at night. Most of the time, I couldn’t fool him. I remember wanting to be left alone so that I could read when my parents instead insisted that I go outside to play with the neighborhood kids.

In the third grade, The Boxcar Children was replaced by The Secret Garden, my imaginary train car becoming a locked garden tucked deep in the woods beside our house. And eventually, The Secret Garden, too, would be replaced by another book and then another one. My childhood was shaped by the likes of T. A. Barron, Roald Dahl, M. J. Engh, and C. S. Lewis. I also want to make the obvious point that the books I’ve referenced here as “landmark books” in my life are quite problematic in terms of gender, race, nationality, dis/ability, and so forth. As a white, middle-class Christian boy growing up in the suburbs of Michigan within the United States, I had many opportunities to find books that appealed to and represented people like me. In spite of this, and in spite of all the books that I read over the years of my childhood and adolescence, it wasn’t until I was in graduate school that I first found a book that included a character that represented the “whole” me (that book was David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy).

Books have always been my friends. Granted, they would have been better friends to me as a kid if they had characters in them like the ones I found once I was an adult. But books have been dependable in ways and at times when real people are not. I know that I can trust children’s books and that they will be there when I need them; they will take me on adventures and into lives that sometimes feel more real than my own. Stories and books still provide refuge when the real world is intolerable. Today, the copy of The Boxcar Children that my mother read to me as a child is one of my most cherished possessions, as is the “secret garden key” that my great grandmother gave me for those times I played make-believe in the yard.  Although today my memory is impossibly bad, I can usually figure out when something happened in my life when I can relate the event to whatever book I was reading at the time.

It will not surprise you, then, to read that I am grateful to have the Children’s Literature Association in my life. ChLA is a space in which I know I am among people who understand the power of literary representation and who also care deeply about children’s books and the various contexts in which they have been released and read. Like so many ChLA Presidents before me, I will publicly profess that there are things that I love about ChLA. Yet, at the time I was asked to serve as Vice President/President-Elect, I had been distancing myself from this organization. In fact, I was not planning to renew my ChLA membership. As a good friend reminded me, though, when you love someone or something, you want that thing to be its best. When things are out-of-joint or mistakes have been made, the solution is not to walk away. When it truly matters to you, and when and if you can, you try to help what you love be and do better.

In light of this, my goal is to use my limited time in this position to build on the legacies of those who have served before me in an effort to help ChLA be the best organization that it can be. I think we all know that I am not going to do this work flawlessly. Despite my very best efforts and the personal work I do to be reflexive and cognizant of my positionality, I can already tell you that I am going to occasionally mess things up. I can already identify mistakes that I’ve made in this role.

I am a gay 40-year-old white man. I am currently, and have been at various points in my life, a person of size. I am a survivor of sexual assault. I am physically nondisabled and have been assigned an array of labels from the long list of psychologists with whom I’ve been working since before I was even a teenager (social anxiety, bipolar II, generalized anxiety, panic attacks, depression, and obsessive thoughts). In short, I am a lot of different things. But none of my identities or social locations negate or excuse any harm or violence I cause in this role or elsewhere in my life. None of it excuses the results and effects of my privilege or ignorance.

Simply because I am gay, for example, does not excuse harm that I cause as a white man. All of us, regardless of age, race, gender, sexual identity, dis/ability, religion, and so forth, are accountable for the harm we cause others--intentional or not. I am responsible and accountable for all my actions and shortcomings and, during my time in leadership with ChLA, I also accept responsibility and accountability for the shortcomings of our organization. While I am far from perfect and am afraid that I am going to let all of you down, I am here to do the work and do it the best that I can.

There are fractures in society and fractures within ChLA. I hope that we all make efforts to do the work that scholars do: Dig in. Analyze. Consider the contexts in which others exist. Step away from the heat of a given moment. Consider who is speaking, about what, and why they might be speaking that way. We are a small community of scholars. From our respective potionalities, each one of us might read what I have written here and feel that it validates our own position on any given topic. Our task is to step away from that validated position and see from other vantage points.

ChLA is a microcosm of what we are all experiencing across the United States and around the world, a society that has harmed so many, for so long, and that takes comfort in a false sense of merit and justice. Although cliché, these truly are unprecedented times. We are in the midst of a global pandemic and a critical moment in civil rights history. ChLA exists within this moment, a moment both tragic and painful and also one of great opportunity and of vital importance for all of us as educators, scholars, and human beings. It is difficult to plan for the exact circumstances we will encounter and experience over the next year. Please know that I am committed to navigating this with you.

I am grateful to have this opportunity to serve alongside a remarkable team of leaders, including our Association Manager, our Executive Committee, our Board of Directors, and our committee chairs and committee members. I am also grateful for (and benefitting from) the mentorship and visionary leadership of Past Presidents Karen Chandler and Kate Capshaw and all our previous board and committee members. I ask you to please join us in this work by nominating yourselves or others in our upcoming elections. ChLA needs you.

Thanks to our incredible team of leaders and volunteers, our organization’s recent accomplishments includes the adoption of a set of Core Values (inclusivity, diversity, integrity, development, and celebration) that align with and will help us further advance our mission. We have also approved, staffed, and empowered our new Accessibility Committee and are currently in the process of holding a special election to elect members who will advance the much-needed work of our new Ombuds Committee and Ethics Committee. In July, we released a special edition of the ChLA newsletter and are planning to offer a follow-up later this fall (as detailed elsewhere in this newsletter, we invite your submissions and responses). I want to express my gratitude and appreciation to Althea Tait, Karen Chandler, Cathryn Mercier, Amy Pattee, and Jamie Reed for bringing that newsletter to fruition. In addition to ChLA’s ongoing Virtual Meetings and Workshops, I continue to hold monthly Office Hours. These are times set aside specifically for ChLA members to share their thoughts, ideas, and concerns directly with me. I have enjoyed getting to speak with many of you and will continue to share what I learn from you with our association leadership.

Over the next year, ChLA will be writing and adopting a new Strategic Plan (2022-2027) that will further ensure our organization continues to work toward our stated priorities and common goals. Additional information about this work will be forthcoming, including details about how interested members can join ChLA leadership in crafting this document. As a penultimate example, in the very near future, ChLA’s ad-hoc committee led by Board Members and Co-Chairs Cristina Rhodes and Althea Tait will be reviewing responses to our “Request for Proposals” from agencies that provide consultation services and professional development and who will help ChLA assess our organization and implement actions to address issues of equity and justice across the organization. Finally, we are looking for members with expertise and experience in organizing critical literature discussions who can help us implement our initiative to offer members virtual spaces in which to discuss professional texts on anti-racism and anti-racist literature for young people. Please contact me ([email protected]) and Jamie Reed ([email protected]) if you are interested in helping lead the implementation of this initiative.

In closing, my next President’s Message is scheduled for release as part of the Winter 2021 newsletter. It is hard for me to begin to guess what the world will look like when I sit down to write that message. There are, however, two things I feel like I can write with some certainty:

  1. The world in Winter 2021 is going to look (and be) different from the one in which we are living right now. It is my hope that the world in Winter 2021 will be one in which we have advanced in our efforts to create a safer, stronger, better, and more just organization, country, and world. But I do not think we can assume this is inevitable, nor can we dismiss the very real possibility that the opposite will be true. There are many lessons that we can learn from the history of the world, even over the past century. One lesson that some of us may now understand in ways we never have before is that institutions (from nonprofit organizations like ChLA to public schools to entire systems of government) must be actively defended and protected. If you are able--and in any form that you can—I urge you to join me in supporting those institutions that help preserve the things that matter to you. We cannot assume they will take care of themselves. If ChLA is one of those institutions, we would be grateful for your support. Donations can be made through the ChLA website.

  2.  Children’s literature will continue to play a vital role in fostering peace and global and intercultural understanding. One of the highlights of my life has been the time I have been able to research and teach a study abroad course at the International Youth Library in Munich, Germany. The library was founded by author and journalist Jella Lepman to support and re-educate children who had suffered trauma during World War II and who had been indoctrinated under national socialism. Lepman’s exhibit of children’s books from more than a dozen countries was continually expanded and, today, is the world’s oldest and largest library devoted to international youth literature. The library continues to advance its mission of preserving cultural diversity. As its website notes, “Cross-cultural understanding being an urgent ideal, international children’s books were meant to help build a bridge between nations that could ensure a peaceful, democratic and tolerant future for the growing generation.” All of us affiliated with ChLA know that children’s books can entertain, educate, and inform. We also know that they can miseducate and harm. Books help shape our understandings of ourselves and the world in which we live. And, regardless of what the world looks like in Winter 2021, children’s literature can and will continue to open the minds and hearts of readers of all ages. And it will continue to save lives.

Thank you for reading. As always, I welcome your feedback, input, and suggestions.

With gratitude and in solidarity,

President of the Children’s Literature Association


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