Charlotte Award Speech for A Northern Light

I’m so excited! I received an early Christmas present this year – actually, I received 14,000 of them!

Last month, New York State’s school kids voted A Northern Light their pick for the 2006 Charlotte Award. 14,000 kids read the Charlotte Committee’s suggested book list, then voted for their favorite books in three categories: primary, intermediate, and young adult.

Now, maybe – just maybe – all 14,000 kids didn’t actually vote for A Northern Light – but that’s besides the point. What thrills me to bits is that 14,000 – 14,000! – children read books and thought about books and talked about books and then decided to make their opinions about those books heard.

What follows is my acceptance speech which was given to the Charlotte Committee and to the attendees of the New York State Reading Association’s annual conference in Saratoga on November 9, 2006. (NYSRA sponsors the Charlotte. To learn more, check out their website at

I can’t even begin to tell you how proud I am that A Northern Light has been chosen to receive the 2006 Charlotte Award for Young Adult literature.

A Northern Light has won some really nice awards, but this one, given by the children of New York State, means the world to me because I was once one of those children. I was born and bred in New York. I attended public schools in Lewis and Westchester counties, and graduated from the University of Rochester. I now live in Brooklyn and Tivoli, New York, and I can’t imagine living anywhere else but here.

A Northern Light was written as a love letter to New York’s north country and to its people, and to know that New York’s children have embraced the book so passionately means the world to me.

When I was a child growing up here, I loved books and I wrote stories and poems, but I never really saw myself becoming a writer. That was for other people. Better people. Smarter people. More exciting people. At least, that’s what I thought until another New York writer showed me I was wrong.

I spent part of my childhood in Port Leyden, a very small town at the western edge of the Adirondack mountains. And while I lived there, I heard about Walter Edmonds, a writer who lived one town over in Boonville. I remember being very puzzled by that. After all, writers came from New York City, or London, or Paris – didn’t they? What on earth was one of them doing in Boonville?

And then I started reading Edmonds, and I met characters like Tom Dolan fromBert Breen’s Barn, and Lana and Gil from Drums Along the Mohawk, and I realized that books could be about people from places like Remsen and Utica. And writers could be from places like Boonville. Maybe even from Port Leyden.

In A Northern Light, Mattie, the main character, a teenaged girl who lives in Eagle Bay, is frustrated by always having to read books set somewhere else. “Why is it always other places and other lives that mattered?” she wonders.

Reading Edmonds showed me that the local and the personal are universal. He told me that books are for us, but also about us. He taught me that the place where we live matters. And that the lives we live matter.  Even my place. Even my life.

Books show kids – all kids – that they matter. They tell kids that their hopes and dreams have merit, that their lives have meaning. And when kids believe that they matter – there is no stopping them.

No stopping them from reading. And writing. From painting. And singing. From making books and movies, buildings and bridges and gardens. From leading and inventing and discovering. From reaching higher than they ever thought they could. From dreaming. And working to make those dreams come true.

I want to thank you, all of you, all the librarians and educators and volunteers, all of the parents and caregivers who participated in the program, and of course the Charlotte Committee members, for making the Charlotte program such a success. You’ve worked so hard to encourage our children to get involved with books. You’ve encouraged them to read, and then to think and to talk about what they’ve read. You’ve gotten 14,000 kids – 14,000 of them! – to vote for their favorite books. The Charlotte program is growing and succeeding brilliantly and it’s because of you.

But most of all, I want to thank the children, all 14,000 of them, who read the Charlotte books and voted for their favorites.

I know that sometimes children feel that they don’t have much power, much say in things. But you kids have shown the world otherwise. You’ve done an amazing thing. With your passion for books, your voices, and your votes, you’ve sent a message that reading matters.

It’s hard to believe that message sometimes. With all the noise in our lives, it’s sometimes hard to even hear it. But nonetheless, that message is true – reading does matter. The seemingly small, simple act of picking up a book and reading it is neither small nor simple. It’s huge. It’s astonishing and incendiary, even revolutionary. It’s an act that blazes with meaning and hope.

Read and you exercise your most precious freedoms – the freedom to feel and think as you please, to learn and grow, to question, debate and protest. Read and you honor all children in the world today who do not have these same freedoms. Read and you defy ignorance, repression, despair, and violence.

Books can work magic. They can change lives. They can make us think and feel when so much of the world conspires to numb our minds and emotions. Books can break boundaries – the ones inside of us and the ones outside of us. They can bring us closer to our fellow human beings  – whether they reside here in New York State or half way around the world.

Thank you guys for reading. Thank you for caring about books. And thank you for this incredible honor.

I have my award certificate and my cool spider statue – after all, the Charlotte is named for the Charlotte of Charlotte’s Web – on a shelf front and center in my library. I smile every time I walk past it.

During the holidays, it’s the adults who are supposed to be giving the kids the gifts, but this year, the kids of New York have given me a gift, one I’ll always cherish.

Best wishes to readers everywhere for a lovely holiday and a very happy and book-filled new year.

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