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Literacy: Privilege or Right? Highlights from the 2018 Virginia Hamilton Multicultural Literature Conference , a guest post by Lisa Krok

This year, the Virginia Hamilton Multicultural Literature Conference for Youth joined forces with the Annual Literacy Conference to tackle the theme “Literacy: Privilege or Right?” at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio.  Now in its 34th year, the colloquium’s beloved namesake is still ever present in spirit.

vh1Virginia Hamilton was born, as she said, “on the outer edge of the Great Depression” on March 12, 1934. In 1960, Hamilton married poet Arnold Adoff. Virginia wrote forty-one books, winning every major award in youth literature. In 1984, the Virginia Hamilton Lecture in Children’s Literature was established at Kent State University, in Kent, Ohio, and has since grown into the Virginia Hamilton Conference. Hamilton passed away in 2002, but her legacy lives on. The Virginia Hamilton Conference is the longest running event in the United States that focuses solely on multicultural literature for children and young adults.

The event kicked off on a Thursday evening with the presentation of the 20th Annual Virginia Hamilton Literary Award to Marilyn Nelson. Nelson’s keynote address informed us that her father was one of the Tuskegee Airmen, and that she, her mother, and her grandmother were all teachers. This background instilled in Nelson the belief that literacy is more than a privilege or a right, it is an obligation. She is also concerned when she watches the news, worried about the poor and the people of color. Reading aloud from her book American Ace (Dial Books, 2016), she asserted “Yeah, but what about the poor? Hey, what about the people of color? I feel like there’s a blackness beyond skin, beyond race, beyond outward appearance. A blackness that has more to do with how you see than how you’re seen. That craves justice equally for oneself and for others. I hope I’ve found some of that in myself.”



Above: Annisha Jeffries presents Marilyn Nelson with the Virginia Hamilton Literary Award

Next up was the Arnold Adoff Poetry Awards, affectionately referred to as the “Rudini” awards, in honor of Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, whose “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors” remarks have inspired many. Hope Anita Smith, Nikki Grimes, and Laura Shovan were in attendance to receive their awards personally. All of the winning and honor books are listed below:


After the awards, a panel of authors featuring Laura Shovan, Wade Hudson, Cheryl Willis Hudson, and Nikki Grimes discussed how Virginia Hamilton and Arnold Adoff have influenced or inspired their writing. Some of the comments included:

“Virginia and Arnold had such impact in terms of promoting inclusion and diversity… I have seen Arnold put himself on the line many times to move the needle down the road to have more opportunities for people of color to become writers.” – Wade Hudson

“Arnold Adoff had a sense a playfulness on the page… it is the first time they are being told ‘I can create’… poetry is playing with language. This set the stage for Kwame Alexander, Jason Reynolds, and other writers of verse novels.” – Laura Shovan

“That book [Zeely, Scholastic, 1967] propelled me into writing for children.” – Cheryl Willis Hudson

“Whenever you have a reluctant reader, poetry is the way to go. The white space opens the door… and then they are hooked.” – Nikki Grimes

The evening concluded with book signings and many smiling faces.


Left to right: Laura Shovan, Wade Hudson, Cheryl Willis Hudson, Nikki Grimes

Friday morning bright and early, the conference reconvened with a keynote presentation from Dr. David Bloome of the Ohio State University. Bloome introduced jazz music as a metaphor for reading comprehension. The audience was treated to music samples from Herbie Hancock, Michael Camilo, Mongo Santamaria, and Albert King, and asked to make comparisons among versions of the same song originated by Herbie Hancock, Watermelon Man, and covered by the others.


Dr. David Bloome


After the morning keynote, attendees dispersed to attend a variety of workshop sessions. With a total of thirty-one amazing workshop offerings within the three breakout time slots, it was challenging for attendees to decide where to go next.

Sam Bloom and Elisa Gall, contributors to the blog Reading While White, presented Holding Up the Mirror: What Does #WhitenessinKidLit Look Like? Bloom began by stating, “As White people, we do not have the lived experience and expertise IPOC have – we are working towards understanding and strengthening our own racial awareness to make White racism visible so that we can push against it.”

Gall continued by sharing lessons, insights, and questions inspired by What Does it Mean to be White? by Robin DiAngel: “We are assuming today that we agree that racism exists. Today the goal is looking at how we live in a society in which we SAY race has no meaning… but by every measure we have racial inequity. Our ‘open-mindedness’ or ‘being good people’ has not ended racism. If anything, it has helped keep those inequities in place. When you feel uncomfortable, please take that as a learning opportunity.”  Gall describes oppression as a result of groups embedding their discrimination into the fabric of society, based upon who holds power. We then end up with “–isms” and “–ias”, (think sexism, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, etc.). Those in a position of privilege may take their own identity status for granted, since it hasn’t gotten in their way.  Racism needs to be the first priority, because “if we attempt to undo sexism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, etc. without first undoing racism, we will inevitably undo those -isms and -ias for White people only.” Bloom and Gall continued with too many incredible quotes to include in this article, and finished their session with “What would you do?” type scenarios of varied situations/interactions that addressed the issues discussed in their presentation.


 Above, Elisa Gall : “How might my glasses shape how I view myself and others? What might my glasses make it easy for me to see? What do my glasses prevent me from seeing? How might my glasses shape my expectations, what I do or do not take for granted? What I see as ‘fair’ or ‘normal’?”

Workshop two on my agenda was Trafficked Child Soldiers in International Literature by Linda T. Parsons and Lisa Patrick Pinkerton, both instructors from the Ohio State University. Several books were shared via book talks that portrayed tragic patterns of brutal abduction, dehumanization, and indoctrination. The audience received index cards with passages from one of the books presented. Participants read these aloud to create a found poem by putting together different passages in new ways. Next, the group was given a printout from a chapter from Chanda’s Wars by Allan Stratton. Each person read through the chapter while highlighting certain passages that stood out to them. The passages could then be sequenced in various ways to create poetry that is “found” within the book. This is a great option for teens who say “I can’t write poetry.” Once they are introduced to found poetry, they may become more confident and interested in poetry in general. A handout was given with geographical locations and character ages depicted in the books discussed, so that choices can be tailored for middle grade students and teens.


Novels Referenced:

de Graaf, A. (2006). Son of a Gun. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Books for Young Readers.

Hutton, K. (2017). Soldier Boy. New York, NY: Farrar Straus Giroux.

Lewis, G. (2015). Gorilla Dawn. Illus. by S. Mleyer. New York, NY: Caitlyn Dlouhy/Atheneum.

McKay, S. E., & Lafrance, D. (2013). War Brothers: The graphic novel. Buffalo, NY: Annick Press.

Perkins, M. (2010). Bamboo People. Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge.

Stratton, S. (2008). Chanda’s War. New York, HY: HarperTeen.

After lunch, it was time for session three. Barbara Tschantz introduced attendees to multiple works by award winning illustrator, Bryan Collier. Although these are picture books, they are used in middle grade and high school classrooms. They can be used to teach kids how to create a richer experience reading for meaning by using an element-by-element analysis. Repeated elements that could be visual metaphors, use of light, details that seem significant, and perspective/point of view are analyzed to gather deeper meaning. This works especially well when breaking students up into small groups.


Barbara Tschantz


 The final stop of the day was the closing keynote by Wade Hudson and Cheryl Willis Hudson, creators of Just Us Books. Using Virginia Hamilton’s Zeely as an inspiration, they stressed that their books are “accessible, authentic, culturally specific, global, and yes, UNIVERSAL.” Cheryl shared an anecdote about Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop’s mirrors. “Mirrors should not be reminders  of Snow White… not associating fairness with fair [skin]/whiteness.” She now sees the term fair as “equitable, true colors shining like a beautiful rainbow.”  Just Us Books also endorses fair hiring, training people of color, and demanding textbooks and trade books are accurate.

The Hudsons’ most recent book, We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices, is an anthology of diverse authors. They define RISE as “being in a state of alertness or curiously awake”, RESIST as “deciding to take action”, and RAISE as “speak up, speak out, offer our truth”. They certainly do.


Wade Hudson and Cheryl Willis Hudson

Alexa Sandmann, co-director of the conference, thanked today’s presenters and stated, “We READ, therefore we rise, we resist, we raise our voices”. What a perfect quote to wrap up the day!  Mark your calendars for the 35th Virginia Hamilton Multicultural Literature Conference, April 23, 2020.


Left to right front row:  Lauran Shovan, Marilyn Nelson, Nikki Grimes


Left to right back row: Lindsay Bonilla, Wade Hudson, Cheryl Willis Hudson, Julie Rubini

More resources from the conference, authors, and presenters:










https://etd.ohiolink.edu/rws_etd/document/get/osu1376439323/inline (found poetry)





Lisa Krok is a branch manager in the Cleveland Public Library system, a Kent Alumna, and a Ravenclaw. She can be found being bookish and political on Twitter @readonthebeach.

Many thanks to Christina Getrost for sharing her photos to add to those of the author.

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