Culled from more than 40,000 pages of interview transcripts, Andrew Solomon‘s Far From The Tree takes an exhaustive look at families where the child’s identity is considered to be on the margins of society.

Within the book, Solomon considers how parents navigate the world when a child is deaf, autistic, a dwarf, a criminal, a protégée, has Down Syndrome, and four other identities. Solomon highlights the struggle and beauty in each family’s story, sharing how parents come to accept their children amid the differences that threaten to come between them. The book chronicles the immense love of family, the quest toward a more compassionate world, and the beauty of diversity in all forms.

In deliberations for this year’s awards, juror Steven Pinker wrote: “This is a monumental book, the kind that appears once in a decade. It could not be a better example of the literature of diversity.”

In a recent interview on the ThinkPiece blog, Solomon commented on the major theme that runs through all his books: 

My topic ever since I began, and I started work on my first book when I was twenty-four, has been the large question of how people are able to turn the experience of adversity into triumph. And how people transform the perception of their own life experience in order to achieve that point of view. A lot of that work is about pain. It’s really about what people do with pain. It’s about the idea that when you have an experience that is sad or painful, you needn’t say that life is over and there’s no point in going on. You can rather say, “I wish I didn’t have this experience, but I’m going to try to build something out of it.”

Anyone interested in the book should take a moment to visit the website,, a visually stunning complement. For example, you’ll find videos and resources for each of the themes explored in the book, including the book trailer (shown above), which does much more justice to the book than we could put into words.

Solomon is also the author of The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, which won the 2001 National Book Award for Nonfiction and was named one of the 100 best books of the decade by the London Times. Solomon lives with his husband and son in New York City and London.

Laird Hunt is the author of five novels and one short story collection. His latest book, Kind One, won the 2013 Anisfield-Wolf award for fiction. In a video interview with Rain Taxi, Hunt describes being moved by a short passage in Edward P. JonesThe Known World, which prompted him to start writing Kind One:

“He describes this anecdote about a woman who lives in this imaginary county he’s constructed, who lives with her husband and two female slaves. One day the husband comes up dead and the slaves turn the tables on her and enslave her in turn. And then it’s over and never mentioned again. But I got really interested in what would happen if this woman, many years later, describes what happens, with the idea of placing her voice somewhere in the slippery middle between victim and oppressor.”

Watch the full interview here:

Kind One was also a 2013 finalist for the Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction. Hunt lives in Colorado with his wife, poet Eleni Sikelianos, and daughter. (Fun fact: Hunt was helping his daughter with a project on Martin Luther King Jr when he received the call that he had won the Anisfield-Wolf award.) He is currently on the faculty of the University of Denver’s Creative Writing Program. 

For more on Hunt, visit his website at

We’ll be spending this week exploring the lives and works of the 2013 Anisfield-Wolf Award winners. Today we’re recognizing Wole Soyinka, this year’s Lifetime Achievement winner.

The greatest threat to freedom is the absence of criticism. ~Wole Soyinka

A playwright/poet/essayist, Soyinka is one of Nigeria’s most beloved figures. Repeatedly, he has risked his life to protest the corrupt governmental regimes. In 1967, he was arrested and put in solitary confinement for 22 months for his attempts at brokering a peace between the warring Nigerian and Biafran parties warmongering in his homeland. He kept writing during this time, creating ink in his cell and using scraps of paper to collect his poetry.

Wole Soyinka’s Ake: The Years of Childhood won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 1983. Three years later, he went on to become the first African to win a Nobel Prize for Literature.

At 78, he splits his time between the United States, where he teaches at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, and his home outside of Lagos in Nigeria. He narrates the introduction of the new documentary, “Fuelling Poverty,” which protests the Nigerian government’s oil subsidy scandal of 2011.

“[Nigeria] is one of the poorest and most corrupt nations in the world,” he says in the introduction. “This film, made by the younger generation, is about the oil subsidy scheme. It is about a culture of greed and corruption and its effects on the people. But it is also about a people of great resilience, of people who are finding their voice, who care deeply about their country and dare to ask for a better world for themselves.”

Watch the full documentary below (22 minutes): 

Soyinka is acutely attuned to global perceptions of Nigeria. He criticized “Welcome to Lagos,” a 2010 three-part documentary made by the BBC, for being colonialist and exploitative. He told the Guardian newspaper, “There was no sense of Lagos as what it is – a modern African state. What we had was jaundiced and extremely patronizing. It was saying, ‘Oh, look at these people who can make a living from the pit of degradation.'”

Soyinka added: “It is a pulsing city – in many ways too pulsing for me, which is why I live a little way out of it. But it is such a rich city, and it is deeply frustrating to see it given such a negative and reductionist overview.”

The jury has spoken and five new authors will join the Anisfield-Wolf family.

Our 2013 winners are: 

“The 2013 Anisfield-Wolf winners are exemplars who broaden our vision of race and diversity,” said Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who chairs the jury. “This year, there is exceptional writing about the war in Iraq, slavery on a Kentucky pig farm, the Filipino experience in the U.S., and the complexity of families in which a child is radically different from parents.”

Gates directs the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University, where he is also the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor. He praised the singular achievement of Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian whose writing won a Nobel prize in 1986, three years after he won an Anisfield-Wolf award for his memoir, Ake: The Years of Childhood.

Cleveland Foundation President and Chief Executive Officer Ronald B. Richard said this year’s winners reflect founder Edith Anisfield Wolf’s belief in the unifying power of the written word.

“The Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards rose from the philanthropic vision of one woman who realized that literature could advance the ongoing dialogue about race, culture, ethnicity, and our shared humanity,” Richard said.

The Anisfield-Wolf winners will be honored in Cleveland Sept. 12 at a ceremony at the Ohio Theatre hosted by the Cleveland Foundation and emceed by Jury Chair Gates. Stay tuned this week as we profile each of our 2013 winners. 

Laird HuntKevin PowersEugene GloriaAndrew Solomon


Quincy Jones turned 80 years old this year—a number he never thought he’d live to see.

“I guess if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans…right?” he wrote to his Facebook fans on the eve of his big day March 14. Turning 80 was but one highlight of his year as Jones arrived in Los Angeles Thursday night to be inducted into the 28th class of Rock and Rock Hall of Fame inductees.

After more than 60 years in the business, Jones’ reach is unparalleled. His production credits stretch from Sarah Vaughn, Ray Charles, Michael Jackson, Frank Sinatra, Duke Ellington and more. The albums he’s shepherded have sold more than 200 million copies, making him one of the most influential artists in the industry.

In interviews and in his lively autobiography, Q, which earned him a 2001 Anisfield-Wolf award, Jones repeats the story of how music saved his life. “I wanted to be a gangster until I stumbled upon a Spinet piano,” he has said. He’s parlayed that anecdote into a new business venture, Playground Sessions. After he recognized the popularity of video games like Guitar Hero, he wanted to help make that interest in music stick for kids, whose parents often can’t afford pricey piano lessons or instrumental rental fees. For a small monthly fee on the site, young musicians can learn to play popular songs, giving them a bit more than the traditional scales for beginners.

Clearly, Jones isn’t slowing down any time soon. He’s busy promoting his new artists (including 11-year-old pianist Emily Bear) and launching new philanthropic endeavors. We hope we’re as cool as Q when we hit 80. Or, you know, now.

Watch Quincy Jones’ Induction Video:

Also inducted into the rock hall was the late Donna Summer, rap supergroup Public Enemy, singer-songwriter Randy Newman, rock groups Heart and Rush, blues singer Albert King and producer Lou Adler. You can watch the televised induction ceremony on May 18 on HBO.

Few modern poets range as widely through time and geography as Rita Dove, the former U.S. poet laureate. But when she took the stage of the Ohio Theatre in downtown Cleveland April 11, the evening had the sweet tang of home.

“It’s always good to come back,” she said, 60 years after her birth in Akron. “There is something in the Midwest — particularly in Northeast Ohio — that never leaves your system. I come back and immediately I fall into the cadences of the Midwest.”

Dove, whose musical alto drew an audience of more than 700, grew up immersed in the Complete Works of William Shakespeare, during a childhood that also made room for fractal geometry and “Harold and the Purple Crayon.” Ronald B. Richard, president of the Cleveland Foundation, noted that the 1955 children’s picture book influenced the poet’s “sense of color and space, two primary concepts in her poetry.” As he introduced Dove, Richard praised her instrumental work as a juror for the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards.

Dove told her audience that her creativity “starts with a line, not a grand idea. It’s an ache, an absence that I am trying to fill.”

The evening flowed chronologically through Dove’s nine poetry collections. She began with “Geometry,” a poem that reflects her love for mathematics, and one, she told the audience, that also grapples with its limits:

I prove a theorem and the house expands:

the windows jerk free to hover near the ceiling,

the ceiling floats away with a sigh.

As the walls clear themselves of everything

but transparency, the scent of carnations

leaves with them. I am out in the open

and above the windows have hinged into butterflies,

sunlight glinting where they’ve intersected.

They are going to some point true and unproven.

From her second book, “Museum,” Dove selected “Parsley,” a two-part poem that addresses the mind of Rafael Trujillo, the dictator of the Dominican Republic who in 1937 ordered the slaughter of 20,000 black Haitians. (Trujillo figures prominently in Junot Diaz’s novel, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” which earned an Anisfield-Wolf award in 2008.)

Trujillo chose death for those who could not pronounce the rolling letter “r” in perejil, the Spanish word for parsley. As Dove explained this background, she encapsulated the horror: “Evil can be creative.”

Arthur Evenchik, who helps run the SAGES Fellows program at Case Western Reserve University, bought a ticket to hear Dove partly because of her work in “Museum.” He said he found out about her appearance from a SAGES instructor, Mary Holmes:

“Mary and I had never talked about poetry, and I didn’t know it was one of her interests,” Evenchik said in an email. “ But on this particular day, she mentioned lines from . . . a poem titled ‘Grape Sherbet,’ in which Dove recalls her father’s tradition of making dessert for Memorial Day picnics:

The diabetic grandmother

stares from the porch,

a torch

of pure refusal.

Evenchik continued: “Mary and I had just met up by chance on one of the quads when we had this conversation. It was wonderful to learn that we both carried this image in our heads, that Dove’s work had made such an impression on us both.”

The impression was heightened by hearing the words in Dove’s mouth, standing at a lectern with a stack of books, her hands often aloft, open, gesturing the music of the phrasing.

Dove turned her palms upward when she mentioned her initial doubts about “Thomas and Beulah,” a book that won a Pulitzer Prize in 1987. “I thought, will anyone want to read about Akron? And then I remembered Rilke’s ‘Letters to a Young Poet’:

“If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches; for to the creator there is no poverty and no poor indifferent place.”

Dove then read “Daystar,” a short poem about a young mother seeking a moment of peace. It ends:


that night, when Thomas rolled over and

lurched into her, she would open her eyes

and think of the place that was hers

for an hour — where

she was nothing,

pure nothing, in the middle of the day.

The audience response caused Dove to smile and say, “The mothers are applauding.” She paused to praise the Cuyahoga County Public Library, which sponsored her talk. Her gratitude took its form in what Dove often calls her “love poem to libraries”: “Maple Valley Branch Library, 1967.” She told the audience that was the year her parents wrote a note to the staff to let their daughter check out anything she wanted.

Watch Rita Dove read “Maple Valley Branch Library, 1967” in the video below.

Some of the fruit of that reading may well have nourished the pointed poem “Hattie McDaniel Arrives at the Coconut Grove,” set during the 1940 Academy Awards, when the actress won an Oscar for her performance as a maid in “Gone With the Wind.” Dove’s poem contains this question:

What can she be

thinking of? Striding into the ballroom

where no black face has ever showed itself

except above a serving tray?

Dove spent the rest of the evening dwelling on her latest title, “Sonata Mulattica,” a book-length cycle telling the story of the 19th century African-European violinist George Polgreen Bridgetower and his turbulent friendship with Ludwig van Beethoven. As with all her work, the attention to detail threads through a profound feel for history. Dove said the most difficult part of the work was freeing Beethoven from the plaster cast modern readers picture when thinking of him.

Dove, who wore a brilliant turquoise dress, acknowledged her relatives in the crowd, and read a new poem called “Reunion.” It begins: “Thirty seconds into the barbecue/my Cleveland cousins have everyone/speaking Southern.”

The sense of family was palpable, even for those whose kinship was aesthetic. “I felt that I was surrounded by fellow readers who appreciate her writing as much as I do,” Evenchik remarked. “That was a privilege almost as great as hearing Dove herself. “

As for Dove, she was generous and encouraging to the students who flocked to her after the performance. “Read your butt off,” she told them. “Read, read, read. Nothing is too low or too high. If you don’t love reading, you can’t love writing.

“The other advice is: live. Writing is about life, it is not about literature.”

Lisa Nielson, Anisfield-Wolf Fellow in Case Western Reserve University’s SAGES program, was profiled in the Plain Dealer’s “My Cleveland” column. In it, she talked about the ease of Northeast Ohio compared to her previous stint in New England and her favorite way to spend time outside of the classroom. Previously on the blog, Lisa shared her thoughts on David Livingstone Smith’s Less Than Human and how it changed her curriculum.

Gary Schmidt, the lanky author of winning children’s novels such as “The Wednesday Wars” and “Okay for Now,’ stood up before a dining hall at Kent State University and admitted to choking up early in the day. He had caught a 5 a.m. flight south from Grand Rapids, Mich., where he teaches at Calvin College, to join the Virginia Hamilton Conference, the longest-running event in the United States to focus exclusively on multicultural literature for children and young adults. It is held annually at Kent State in the spring.

Once in his airline seat, Schmidt got out his copy of “First Part Last,” a luminous book by the conference keynote speaker, Angela Johnson. “I’ve taught this book eight times to college classes,” he said. “And I got to the part where Bobby tears up the adoption papers and I start to well up. The people sitting next to me in seats 11 B and C asked if I was alright. They offered to sit with me if necessary.”

Schmidt paused and shook his head. “I was completely humiliated,” he deadpanned. “Thank you for that Angela.”

Johnson, the recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant in 2003 for her own children’s fiction, laughed. When it was her turn at the lectern, she let the audience imagine her at age 15, one year younger than Bobby, the mesmerizing narrator of “First Part Last.” He tells of teen fatherhood from a boy’s point-of-view.

Young Angie was angst-y. She wore a necklace made of razorblades. She stormed around her small town home in Windham, Ohio, threatening her brother with decapitation if he entered her room. Her writings were rejected by the school literary magazine for being too grim, too full of rats in tumbled down buildings. (What the adult Johnson didn’t mention was she was also a Windham High School cheerleader.)

Into this potent adolescent moment came Valerie Barley, “an old Beatnik teacher,” who commanded the attention of her students, including Angie, whose tastes ran to detective stories. “She got us to love the Beats,” Johnson said. “She got us to read about people on the road.”

The audience of about 150 was rapt. Johnson, 51, doesn’t own a car and rarely accepts speaking invitations. She joked that her Kent neighbors perceive her as a wacky character wearing “a hoodie and pajama bottoms” throughout the day.

She claimed to have overhead one woman whispering, “It’s OK. I think she’s a writer.”

That writer’s beginnings predate high school. Johnson said that she “didn’t say much as young child. I was a born listener. I was the child who sat under the table while my aunts talked – full of inappropriate stories, by the way. They’d throw their heads back and laugh and their laughs made me want to tell stories.”

Her first book, “Tell Me a Story, Mama,” started as a manuscript discovered by Cynthia Rylant, of “Henry & Mudge” fame. The older woman met a college-age Johnson when Rylant advertised for child care. The women got to know each other and Johnson remembered shelves of children’s books and “real food in the crock pot.”

Then, unbeknownst to the babysitter, Rylant copied the Mama story and mailed it off to her own publisher. The editor at Orchard Press offered to buy it on the spot.

More than 40 titles later—with three Coretta Scott King awards for “Toning the Sweep,” “Heaven” and “First Part Last”—Johnson still commands a room. In warm, mellifluous tones, she retold a family ghost story for the Kent State audience, describing the red dirt of Alabama caked on the feet of her father as a child. Every table was leaning in.

“Kids and teens are so much more interesting than adults,” Johnson once told the African American Literature Book Club. “Life is happening when you are a teenager. One minute you’re a child, the next you’re allowed to go out in the world by yourself. Who knows what will happen?”

Looking out on the audience in Kent, Johnson said, “I sometimes still feel like a confused teen or a small child stumbling. But the quest goes on, and I write on.”

Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager shot in the head by the Taliban last fall for being a vocal advocate for girls education, is releasing a memoir, due to hit bookshelves almost one full year after the brazen attempt on her life. The title is “I am Malala.”

“I hope the book will reach people around the world, so they realize how difficult it is for some children to get access to education,” Malala said in a prepared statement. “I want to tell my story, but it will also be the story of 61 million children who can’t get education.”

Malala was shot October 9, 2012, as she left school in northwestern Pakistan. The 15-year-old was taken to London for treatment at Queen Elizabeth Hospital, where she underwent several reconstruction surgeries and countless hours of treatments. She was released from the hospital February 8, with doctors reporting she had made “excellent progress” with her recovery. Malala pledged to continue to stand up for the millions of girls who seek an opportunity to go to school.

A few weeks ago, we profiled a new film, “Girl Rising,” which explores the lives of nine young women around the world, each one fighting to be educated. (Our 2005 winner for fiction, Edwidge Danticat, wrote the story of Wadley, the young Haitian girl who would not accept “Stay home” for an answer.)

Lucky for Clevelanders, the film will be premiering at Cleveland Film Festival. If you’re planning to attend, be sure to catch one of the screenings for “Girl Rising,” on April 8 or 9. See the trailer for the film below:

Below, watch a short video of Malala from 2009 and 2011 where she talks about hiding her school attendance from Taliban leaders:

Did you know that fewer than half of U.S. families read to their kindergarten-age children on a daily basis? That children who grow up with books in the home score better on standardized reading tests? That childhood literacy is closely linked to adult literacy? This is part of the reason why it is so important to instill in children a love of reading early on.

Sydney’s Book Club, a Pennsylvania-area nonprofit dedicated to early literacy, has kicked off its 20-4-30 literacy challenge for April. Every day, parents should read to their children for 20 minutes a day for the entire month of April.

The Sydney Book Club has hit upon a promising approach to increase literary rates in the United States. Participants can use this opportunity to introduce multicultural literature to their children. We have a list of resources for parents and educators to help them identify age-appropriate books (featuring protagonists from a variety of backgrounds) for their children and students (find it here). Noted author and parenting blogger Denene Millner also featured a list of children’s books featuring African-American characters on her blog, MyBrownBaby, which could be a good starting point for any parents looking to increase the diversity of their children’s book library.

Will you be joining in on this challenge?