So. So, Plain Kate won.
This time yesterday I was going through a checklist: Little Black Dress? Check. Fresh manicure (cobalt blue)? Check. Big earrings? Check. An undergarment so supportive that I no longer bent in the middle? Check. Time to go off to the Canadian Children’s Book Centre awards, where Plain Kate was up for the big prize, the TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award for most distinguished book for children. My goal for the evening was to not throw up. At least not on anyone important.
The event was at the Carlu, the old Eaton’s Centre ballroom from the days when department stores had ballrooms: a restored Art Deco beauty of a place. There were seven hundred people there: book sellers, librarians, publishers, editors, writers — all people who love children’s literature. There was great food (I was too busy to have any) and a drink named after Plain Kate, the Plain Kate-tini. (Vodka and Sour Puss Raspberry Liqueur.) So we mingled and schmoozed than then all us nominees got sent to sit in the front of the gorgeous theatre.
I had written a speech, just in case (remembering about Francis at the Tonys) and memorized it. But as I waited for the big award announcement, which of course came last, I got more and more nervous. I thought: If I have to get up there, my jaw will just drop open. Nothing good will come out. I figured I’d better make a cheat sheet, so I did, on the back of the program with a lipstick pencil. The awards ceremony was great, especially because all the books I was rooting for won. (The Agency! I Know Here! The Glory Wind!) Still, the “don’t throw up” goal was beginning to prove challenging.
And then — well. Then I won. Here is the citation:
“Plain Kate is a triumph of imagination. With astonishing skill, Erin Bow creates the world of Kate, whose talents as a wood carver mark her as a witch. The fascinating, intricate plot bravely explores the wrenching complexities of cruelty and of love. Bow’s prose is at once lyrical and raw, and her characters are indelible. This is a book that will be read for generations.”
I got up on stage without either tripping or barfing and stood there for a second. Frank McKenna handed me a very big cheque and told me to cash it right away, as the markets were taking a beating.
Wow, I thought. Big Room, I thought. Bright Lights, Big Room. Wow. I’m pretty sure my jaw did fall open.
But then I did collect myself and gave my speech. I have no idea what I actually said, but this is what I had memorized.
This is my first novel, and I wrote it very slowly; it took me six years. It’s been very strange to put it out into the world. My Kate is an unloved and outcast girl — and yet when I put her out into the world, she was embraced. Maybe even loved. And while a writer is not her work, I can’t help feeling that I’ve been embraced, too, by the kind of people who are hear tonight: readers and writers and publishers and the true champions of children’s literature, booksellers and librarians. And for that I thank you, all.
There are of course some particular people I need to thank. First, TD and the Book Centre, for throwing this wonderful party for us. (Well, it’s a wonderful party for me.) It is good to see children’s literature on centre stage, not off in the side ring.
Second, of course, the Plain Kate team. It turns out (and as a poet I didn’t know this) that a novel is not just the work of an author. A lot of people who have put their professional energy behind Kate. Emily van Beek, my agent, loved her first — picked her out of the slush pile and read her while having her toenails done on rainy Tuesday. She called me the next day, I think. Emily found my editor, Arthur Levine. And from there the whole team at Scholastic, and in particular the wonderful people at Scholastic Canada, many of whom are here — everyone, thank you.
Finally, I want to thank some of the people who came here with me tonight. My husband James is here: my fellow writer, he’s been with me every paragraph of the way. Neither of us would be half as good a writer without the other. Thank you James. My mother’s here: She’s come a thousand miles out of her way for me, because she always does — everyone in my family always has. My little daughters Vivian and Nora — they are five and three — they are not here, because they have patience with Mommy’s A Writer. It would be hard to be a writer without that. So I thank them. Actually this is a complete lie, they cried when I left and I know they’re sulking now, but I have faith that someday they’ll be proud.
You know, everyone always says it’s an honour to be nominated, but truly — have you seen this list? I’ve read all these books. Burn — as a poet, I’m so pleased to see something formally adventurous get the nod. The Glory Wind — I just read that this weekend, and loved it so much the bath water got cold; it’s the best Middle Grade I’ve read this year. I really did Know Here. And of course I know there was a time in this fair land when the railroad did not run, but now we can see that made fresh again. To be among that company is amazing. To be up here is beyond words.
(photo credits: Me and Frank McKenna and the stack of books — The Canadian News Wire Services. Me speaking: Carly Popenko.)