A Conversation with Carole Boston Weatherford, Author of 'Unspeakable,' the Most Honored Title of 2022 Youth Media Awards

The author spoke to SLJ about Unspeakable, the impact of the Youth Media Awards, white supremacy, and late illustrator Floyd Cooper.

With four awards, Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre, written by Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrated by Floyd Cooper, was the most recognized book at the 2022 Youth Media Awards (YMA), winning the Coretta Scott King (CSK) Author Award and Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award, as well as being named a Caldecott Honor title and a Sibert Honor book.

The honors come at a time when there is a fierce battle to keep such books and history in schools.

“The irony is not lost on me that the American Library Association honored Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre at a time when GOP-controlled legislatures are depriving children of the truth to preserve white supremacy,” says Weatherford. “Today, the same folks who have oppressed people of color for centuries are feigning concern that children might feel uncomfortable learning about America's shameful past.”

A few days after the YMA ceremony announcing the winners, Weatherford spoke with SLJ about awards, her picture book, white supremacy, and the late Cooper, who died in July. Cooper’s work on Unspeakable was honored with the CSK Illustrator Award and the Caldecott Honor.

“I just wanted that so much for him,” Weatherford says of the Caldecott recognition. “I just wanted him to get the accolades so that his family could celebrate that achievement, even though they don't have him with them anymore.”

The inability to share the recognition with him makes the awards bittersweet for Weatherford, but it is the inability to partner with him in the future that she mourns the most.

“That's the real loss for me,” says Weatherford. “The awards are nice, but the work is what drives you as an artist, as a writer. It's doing the work and, if you're a picture book writer or Illustrator, finding the right people to collaborate. He was the right person.”

Unspeakable was also on the National Book Award longlist and earned a Boston Globe-Horn Book honor title. Along with the ability to work so successfully together, Weatherford and Cooper shared a philosophy.

“Floyd Cooper and I shared a belief that children deserve the truth,” says Weatherford. “If children could suffer at the hand of racism in the past, then today's children can learn about that history and about how systemic racism persists.…

“I hope that Unspeakable will find a home in classrooms and in family and community settings, because it's an important bit of history,” she adds. “It's a traumatic example of where racial hatred can take us, [and] we must never go back there again.”

In states across the country, legislators are attempting to pass laws limiting or completely erasing what can be taught about racism and the history of the United States—along with making concerted efforts to ban books by and about Black and brown, as well as LGBTQ+, people.

“I'm afraid and angry, because I think that white supremacists will stop at nothing at nothing,” Weatherford says. “They will suppress the vote. They will storm the capital. They will ban books. They will tell schools, school districts what they can teach."

One could hope that the YMA platform could help get Unspeakable into schools without opposition, but Weatherford isn’t sure about the influence of the awards.

“It probably has an impact, but it's fairly minuscule and incremental,” she says. “I may never know what the impact is, and that's often the case when you put a book out into the world. Whether it wins awards or not, you never know who's reading it, and you never know [the] impact. What the award should mean it sometimes doesn't mean for African American books. It should mean that more people will buy the book. So if the award translates into sales, then yes, it's it helps the struggle, because more people will know about this incident and more kids will ask the right questions.”

Whenever she shares her books with kids, she says, they always ask the same questions. The first one is always, “Did that really happen?” Followed by, Why did white people treat Black people like that? Why was there so much unfairness? Why was there so much hate?

Carole Boston Weatherford.
Photo by Gerald Young

“If my books get kids to ask the right questions, then I feel that I have succeeded,” Weatherford says. “Because if they ask questions, they are beginning to cultivate empathy. And that's really what's necessary to be anti-racist; you have to be empathetic, and to be humane.”

The students aren’t the only ones who need to learn. Weatherford learned early on that her books about African American history are often teaching educators about the people and events for the first time, too.

“If teachers don't know about the Tulsa Race Massacre, they can't teach it,” says Weatherford. “If teachers don't know about people like Mary Hamilton, the civil rights activist who is the subject of my latest book, they can't teach kids about her. If all teachers know is Harriet Tubman, and Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks, and Barack Obama, then kids are gonna miss out on a whole lot.

“African Americans have always had to take initiative to learn about our history, and our struggle, because it wasn't always taught in school. And as soon as there's a push for more inclusivity with it comes to the conservative backlash: ‘Oh, no, you’re never going to be teaching that our ancestors did anything wrong.’ So it's a constant struggle to shine a light on the truth.”

As Weatherford vows to continue her mission—"I'm going to write what I'm going to write, regardless of whether those topics are popular in terms of marketing potential or popular in terms of the politics"—the pushback is getting stronger across the country.

“People who are in power are inclined to prop up the white supremacist system, the systemic racism,” she says. “They don't want the truth to come out about what their ancestors did.”

Weatherford reflects on the truth and reconciliation commission in post-Apartheid South Africa. “The objective was to find out who did what to whom,” she says. “We've never done that in the United States. So, with my books, that's my little contribution toward that, to document who did what to whom.”

Having these books and knowing the historyproviding Rudine Sims Bishop’s mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doorswill make an impact long after the text is read.

“We need to experience each other,” she says. “If we can't do it socially, we can do that through books. We can come to learn that we hold some of the same beliefs, we hold some of the same aspirations. Our parents want the same things for us. Through books, we can find commonalities and universalities that make us all human.”

The Tulsa Race Massacre is a painful piece of history that Weatherford felt obligated to document. make visible,

“It's a traumatic true story that I felt a responsibility to bear witness, not only for those who perished, but those who survived the massacre,” she says. “And it is always my aim when I write histories to give voice to those whose stories were muted, marginalized, or muzzled in their lifetime. I just hope that I have done the ancestors justice with that story.”

Weatherford’s voice suddenly changes from reverent to joyful.

“Of course, Floyd got feedback pretty quick, because he's up there with his Grandpa Williams,” she says, referring to Cooper’s grandfather, a survivor of the Tulsa Massacre. “I bet his Grandpa Williams is so proud of him. So proud of him.”

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Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (kyorio@mediasourceinc.com, @karayorio) is senior news editor at School Library Journal.

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