Star Struck at the Irma Black Awards


Many people find themselves star struck over famous movie stars or athletes. I’ve long known that for me it’s a little different…

I get star struck by big thinkers in my field. Attending institutes at the Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Project, for example, is like a version of the Oscars for me. There, I see educators who inspire me and speak a language I aspire to speak. I get star struck by leaders who see the world or a school or an institution through a social-justice construct with a level of intellect and care that brings me hope.

A few weeks ago, I found myself star struck in a different way – by authors of children’s picture books. It’s really not so surprising, given my love for books, stories, and reading, but it has gotten me thinking…


I had the privilege of heading uptown for a morning to Bank Street College of Education for the announcement of the esteemed Irma S. & James H. Black Award for Excellence in Children’s Literature and for the Cook Prize for Excellence in Presenting STEM Principles. An annual event in my very own city, this was the first year that I had journeyed uptown to attend. I’m so glad I did.  To learn more these unique book awards and to see the winners, look here and here.

The keynote speaker for the awards ceremony, Scott Magoon, a 2013 Irma Black Award recipient for his work with Michelle Knudsen on Big Mean Mikecaptured me with his words. He spoke of the short life-span that picture books tend to have and encouraged audience members to counter it by embarking on a re-read-a-thon of picture books as a vehicle for seeing more and learning more about ourselves. He caught me. Give books time. Take our time with them. Go back to books, again and again. Those messages floated in my head during and after his address. I loved those words. His words reached me and resonated with me. I was… star struck.

When the awards were presented and authors and illustrators spoke (either in person or by video), I was watched and listened to them with a youthful excitement. They spoke of their books, the processes they undertook in creating them, and the people who supported them. While their stories are different, two things were the same. They lived with their stories for a long time, and they had editors and friends who helped them. Jon Agee, the winner of the Irma Black Award said that his book It’s Only Stanley lived in his filing cabinet for several years. He knew there was something there, but he was not sure how to make it work. When he finally came back to it, it was his editor who suggested that it could be a love story. He worked on that book for many years, and it was with the help of a friend and colleague that he was able to problem solve and find the magical thread that brings ties the book together with an added, hopeful, beautiful message.

So, my take aways are a few…

  1. Time. Picture books take time. Time to write, time to read, time to live with and learn from. And, It’s Only Stanley, is a most wonderful example of this. As you live with this book, you find new details, messages, and bits of humor that not only help you to understand the story but also might tap into aspects of your own life.
  2. Friends. Picture books (and really any writing) flourish with collaboration. Our friends, our colleagues, classmates, neighbors – they can help us see things in our writing and spark ideas for our writing that all alone we just will not have. Writer’s need to rejoice in the power that a good writing friend can have on our work!
  3. Stars. I been a bit embarrassed by my lack of knowledge of pop and movie stars and my heart-thumping reaction to the stars in my world of education. My morning at Bank Street reminded me that my sense of stardom goes beyond educators. I am touched by those whose I admire, and I admire people who do things that I have taken the time to learn about and appreciate. For some people, that means movie actors and pop singers are their stars. For others, scientists or athletes might be their stars. For me, writers for and teachers of children tend to be my biggest stars. So, back to that take away – what does this mean for children? We, the adults in their lives, need to help children develop admiration and knowledge of people and their work. We need to give children a chance to develop their own stars. It is our job to show children that there are many types of work worth valuing and growing starry-eyed over. I hope that some day, instead of always hearing the words pop star and movie star, we might also hear mathematical star or teaching star. Hmmm… Imagine a world like that!

The Irma Black Awards and the Cook Prize Ceremony inspired me to take my time with picture books, to go back to them, to learn from them in new ways. The Ceremony inspired me to remember as a writer that writing takes time, some times a very long time and that our writing friends can make a big difference in the success of our work. The Ceremony inspired me to be explicit about these messages with children. And, lastly, the Ceremony empowered me to feel good about my stars and to encourage children to find and relish in stars of their own. 


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