Thank you, everyone! Thank you so much to my amazing agent and friend, Beth Phelan and the entire Gallt & Zacker family. Thank you to Andrea Davis Pinkney, for your guidance, and everyone at Scholastic. Thank you to my family, who couldn’t be here today, but has always supported my writing: mom, dad, Auntie Jacqui, Curtis, Memorie. Thank you to all of the adult readers, teachers, and librarians who have uplifted my books, and shared Hurricane Child with the young readers and students in their lives. Thank you to the folks who have worked tirelessly and endlessly, writing their own stories and paving the way so that I could have a chance to tell my story, too.
And, of course, thank you so much to the Stonewall Book Award Committee and American Library Association. I can’t begin to express my gratitude. This is the highlight of my writing career, which has now been changed forever, thanks to you.
The night that I found out Hurricane Child had been chosen as a Stonewall Book Award winner, I couldn’t stop crying. I couldn’t stop thinking about the child I had been, growing up on St. Thomas. I’d felt so alone. I’m trans, and I use they/them or he/him pronouns now, but I’d once lived life as a black girl at a predominantly white school. I was a target. I was spat on, not only by classmates, but even once by a teacher. I was hit. People made a game of following me and letting me know what it was that they hated about me. I didn’t quite understand my gender or queer identities yet, but I knew that it was wrong to be homophobic and became outspoken against the anti-queer comments and jokes my classmates would make. This didn’t help their treatment of me. It was clear that they didn’t want me to exist.
The night that I won the award, I couldn’t stop thinking about how desperately I wanted to reach back to the child I had been, and let her know that not only would she survive, but she would one day tell a story, so similar to her own, and that she would be accepted and celebrated. The little Kheryn from those days didn’t even think she would make it to sixteen. She couldn’t imagine a life away from the daily pain she felt.
I don’t tell many people this, and certainly not an entire room of mostly strangers, but the more I have the opportunity to meet with courageous young readers, the more I realize the importance of honesty and truth, not just in my writing, but in my daily life. Young people can see through the protective walls and barriers I put up. They know when I’m lying, and they know when I’m hiding something, and want to know why. They value honesty, to such an extent that I’ve made more of an effort to always speak my truth.
Honestly, growing up in St. Thomas, I wanted to die. I prayed to God that he would let me die in my sleep, and there were mornings when I would wake up crying, disappointed that I was still alive. I don’t say this for shock value, or to make you uncomfortable, or to look for pity. I say this so that we can all understand the stakes of writing for children.
Books save lives. It’s a phrase we’ve all heard, over and over again, and I think that for some, it’s become a tired saying, almost a cliché. But every time I hear the phrase, I feel the full weight of responsibility in every word that I put into the world, hoping that my book will end up in a child’s hands. Books save lives.
That book, for me, was Harry Potter. I’d been thinking of the fastest, least painful ways to die by suicide, when I realized that I couldn’t die yet. I was waiting for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix to come out, and I still needed to know what happened next. Something as simple as that—needing to know what happened next, wanting to delve back into a world of magic—saved my life.
I wonder what might’ve happened if I’d had a book that I loved as much as Harry Potter, but had a black, queer protagonist like me. A book that helped me understand my queer and gender identities so much sooner than I had as an adult. A book that let me feel seen and heard, a book that let me know that I wasn’t alone—that there’s a world waiting for me, a world that will love me, a world that can’t wait to welcome me for being who I am. I think about the children and teens who feel alone, and don’t know what’s waiting for them, and who are also contemplating ways to end their lives. I think about the children and teens who need those books right now.
In the time that Hurricane Child has come out, young readers have approached me with questions. My parents are homophobic. How do I come out to them? Or, I can’t bring your book home with me because the main character is gay. Can you sign this piece of paper for me instead?
I know that there have been serious strides thanks to our queer elders and ancestors, and I don’t want to erase the incredible work that has come before me, paving the way so that a story like Caroline’s, and like my own, can be told. But I’m also so aware of the work that still needs to be done. At a school visit a few months ago, a student told me that my books were the first time they’d ever seen a black, queer main character. That’s not an honor that I want. That should not be the case. I want shelves filled with queer people of color. I want a young reader to pick up a book, see themselves, and know that they are wanted here. I want them all to know that they’re loved, not in spite of their identities, but because of their identities. I want them to live.
This year is the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. It isn’t lost on me that, while it was already an incredible honor to win this award, it feels even more special that I’m able to receive this award on the year that my queer ancestors, led by mostly trans women of color, fought for not only their rights, but their lives. I fight for my life every day. Because most of society does not value me as a queer, trans person of color, I have always struggled with the question of whether I deserve to be alive. It’s taken me a while to come to a place where I realized I don’t need anyone else’s permission to exist. I don’t need anyone else’s affirmation. I affirm myself. I don’t need to be accepted by people who don’t look like me, or identify like me. I accept myself. I deserve to be here, and I’m so happy that I’m still here. My mission is for all young readers to feel that happiness, too. Thank you.