CAROLE BOSTON WEATHERFORD: PRESENTING THE PAST WITH A VIEW TOWARD THE FUTURE
by Catherine Reef
On Saturday, May 11, Guild members and their guests came together at Clyde’s of Gallery Place, in Washington, DC, to celebrate Carole Boston Weatherford, the forty-first winner of the Children’s Book Guild Nonfiction Award. The award recognizes Weatherford’s body of work, which consists of poetry collections and picture books on historical and biographical subjects. The events and people that Weatherford has explored in verse range from the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, to the origins of rap; from Harriet Tubman to Arturo Schomburg and Billie Holiday. Maria Salvadore, chair of the 2019 Nonfiction Award Committee, praised the breadth and music of Weatherford’s writing. “Carole has said that Billie Holiday is her muse, and I believe it,” Salvadore commented.
Weatherford began writing poems as a child growing up in Baltimore, but she had no early dreams of becoming an author. She had never met any authors, and she had a mistaken notion that the men and women who had written the books she liked to read were all long dead. She was a good student who in the eighth grade became fascinated with the Harlem Renaissance and did a project on Countee Cullen. Young Carole did outstanding work, but her white teacher gave her a B and questioned whether she, an African American, had written her paper without help. “I had exceeded the teacher’s expectations of me,” Weatherford understands today. “He was not going to give me an A.”
Rather than feel discouraged, Carole excelled. “Doubters have propelled my imagination,” Weatherford said, and she takes pride in coming from a family of people who “defy the system and defy the odds.” She mentioned an intrepid aunt who refused to drink from “colored” water fountains when traveling in the South during the years when racial segregation was enforced, who claimed never to have heard of “colored water.”
Weatherford has made it her mission, she said, “to mine the past for hidden stories and forgotten struggles” that she can delve into in her books. She takes on tough subjects unhesitatingly. “Children can handle the truth,” she said; “children deserve the truth.” Thus, in her picture book Freedom in Congo Square, about the enslaved people of New Orleans gathering in an established place on the Sunday afternoons they were allowed off, Weatherford presents the harshness of the people’s working lives on the other six days of the week. Children will often ask her if the historical realities that she describes really happened. “Kids are appalled, and I’m glad they’re appalled,” she said. But, she added, she writes “not only about the racist past, but about how we have prevailed.” In other words, she documents the past but also looks to the future. She said that her books have value for teachers as much as for their students, because “educators can’t teach what they don’t know.”
What’s next for Carole Boston Weatherford? She revealed that she has several books in various stages of completion. One will be on Thurgood Marshall; another will be a novel in verse about Marilyn Monroe, with the working title Beauty Mark.