Margo Hudson, a Clevelander who won the National Learner Award in Dallas two years ago, reflected recently on how “literacy turned chaos into opportunity.”

Her remarks kicked off the 2018 edition of Cleveland Book Week and attracted an early morning crowd to the East Cleveland Public Library under the banner of Creative Mornings – Cleveland.

After 11 years spent sitting for six tests, Hudson earned her GED – a fortitude reflected in her erect posture, elegant up-do and patience with audience questions. She said Seeds of Literacy provided the format — one-on-one tutoring — that allowed her to learn best.

“Literacy has made my life limitless,” said Hudson, who now tutors in math. “I am a different person, with a different life now. I am always learning. I am always looking for what’s next. I know I have more to offer now, and I am looking for the chance to do that.”

Jo Steigerwald, Seeds development director, said her literacy nonprofit serves about 1,000 adult learners each year. Eighty-four percent live in poverty, which is unsurprising, she said, because literacy is tightly linked to economic outcomes. She called low-literacy a quiet crisis that impedes two-thirds of city residents.

Here is Margo Hudson’s full speech:

Good morning! My name is Margo Hudson.

I am a graduate of Seeds of Literacy, a basic education and High School Equivalency prep program for adults in Cleveland, Ohio.

Today, I am honored to share my story of how literacy turned chaos into opportunity.

I grew up on the South Side of Chicago. I had a hard childhood, with abuse in the home. I left home when I was 16. I didn’t finish the 9th grade, or high school. I went right to work.

I had a lot of jobs, but none of them paid very well. I worked in nursing homes, fast food restaurants, as a home health aide and a housecleaner.

By the time I was in my 40s, I was working at the airport, cleaning airplanes. It was hard work. You were out in the elements and had to work fast, cleaning planes between flights.

I wanted something else, but I didn’t think I had anything to offer anyone. I didn’t have my GED. I didn’t have much self-confidence. I cleaned airplanes, and didn’t think I had anything in common with people who were flying on those planes. I never stood out.

I didn’t feel good about myself and was going through depression. I thought to myself, “I’ve got to do something with my life.”

I wanted to get my GED and check that off my list. I had tried programs before, but I didn’t finish. I came to Seeds of Literacy because it had one to one tutoring. I was determined that this time would be different.

I worked on my GED for 11 years at Seeds. I studied every chance I got: on my lunch break, 15-minute break, while waiting on my ride. On the bus, in the doctor’s office. I didn’t give up. During the time I was working on my GED at Seeds, I got a better job working in the President’s Club at the airport.

I took the GED 6 times before I passed. I will never forget the phone call from Chris at Seeds, telling me that I passed.

And my life changed at that moment. I didn’t know it at the time, but my life would never be the same. I thought I would be proud to finish the GED and get it off my plate. I would have never imagined what would happen next.

I started to read more. I started to think I had something to offer others. I had more self-confidence. I started volunteering at Seeds. I thought I could help with filing, but they asked me to tutor! So for the past 6 years, I’ve been tutoring students twice a week, on my days off. My specialty is fractions.

I had always wanted to play music, so I started taking keyboard lessons and practicing every day. I learned to make candy, knit ruffly scarves, and duct tape crafts. I kept learning new things.

I started talking to my customers at the Club. I felt that I had something to share. We talked about books we read, and our families, and I shared my story with them. Many of my customers are in business and government, and I would have never thought I had things in common with them. But I do.

In 2016, I won the National Learner of the Year Award. I attended a conference in Dallas to accept the award and participate in workshops. Governor Kasich gave me the Courage Award, and I was invited to lead the pledge of allegiance at a session of the Republican National Convention here in Cleveland.

I was named one of Cleveland’s Most Interesting People in 2017 by Cleveland Magazine. The Cleveland Foundation chose me as one of Cleveland’s Place Makers this year, and I am so honored to be a part of Creative Mornings today!

Best of all, I am now a literacy ambassador. Over the past two and a half years, I have shared the story about how education changed my life with people at homeless shelters, recovery programs, health fairs, back to school events, library programs, Senators and Congresspeople. I want to give back to the community, and I can do that by sharing my passion about literacy and how the GED changed my life. I am blessed to be out talking to people.

I would never have imagined doing these things before I got my GED. I see opportunities now that I didn’t before. When we feel shy or afraid, we miss opportunities, and the chance to share ourselves.

As Mel Robbins says in The Five Second Rule, “At any age, and with any goal, we have the power to own ourselves. Look inside, take a step and try something to change your life.”

Literacy has made my life limitless. I am a different person, with a different life now. I am always learning. I am always looking for what’s next. I know I have more to offer now, and I am looking for the chance to do that.

You know, whatever happened in our lives, we cannot go back. We are here now, and this is what we have to work with. It’s hard sometimes. You have to want it, and work at it. We need to continuously work on ourselves. We should be a different person than we were last month, or last week, or even yesterday.

I learned these lessons through improving my literacy skills. We can all learn. We can all change. My advice for dreamers is to go for it. Surround yourself with quality people to see what’s possible. It can be hard work and you need to be disciplined and persistent.

You might not get perfect, but you will get better!

Thank you.

The first few pages of Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut look like a coronation. The 2017 children’s book written by Derrick Barnes and illustrated by Gordon C. James features a young black boy holding center court, getting draped with a cape and surrounded by well-wishers.

The theme of the book is simple, Barnes says: to celebrate the black boy joy that erupts after a turn in the barber’s chair. For Barnes himself, that feeling came on Thursdays as a boy in a Kansas City barbershop.

“I look at barbers as artists,” he told the Kansas City Star. “After he did his job, he handed me that mirror and I didn’t even recognize myself. I had a high-top fade trying to look like Big Daddy Kane. There’s nothing like your mom telling you, you look cute.”

The genesis of Crown was a simple portrait Barnes’ friend, illustrator Don Tate, made of his son after a fresh haircut. Barnes, 42, wrote a poem capturing the essence of the portrait and James, 44, was tapped to illustrate, basing the main character on Barnes’ son, Silas. The two initially met while working at Hallmark together nearly 20 years ago, but this is their first collaboration in the years since.

The duo saw Crown awarded “all the stickers” this year: Caldecott, Newbery, and Coretta Scott King Honors, as well as the Ezra Jack Keats New Writer and Illustrator Award, among others. But Barnes’ literary career has weathered some bleak moments in the industry.

Illustrator Gordon C. James touching up the cover of “Crown.”

“When [my book] We Could Be Brothers came out in 2010, it seemed like [publishers] didn’t like to put the face of black characters on the cover,” he said from his home in Charlotte. “They’d have them shaded or have a picture of them from the back. Now I’ve seen more book covers, like Crown, where you see the beautiful black and brown faces of characters.” Campaigns like We Need Diverse Books are moving the needle, he believes.

Crown is Barnes’ ninth book: all have black protagonists of varying ages, a deliberate choice in his art. “As long as I write, I’m going to write books for the uplift of black children,” he said. “Almost every week there’s a story about children being mistreated. It’s imperative for us to lift them up, inspire them, every single way we can.”

Crown was in the first slate of books released by Denene Millner Books, an imprint of Agate Publishing. Millner, an author of 23 books herself, shared her vision for the imprint in a recent New York Times op-ed, “Black Kids Don’t Want to Read About Harriet Tubman All the Time.”

“The ‘diverse’ books making it to the shelves aren’t very diverse at all,” she wrote. “With few exceptions, the same stories are being told again and again, fed to children like some bowl of dry, lumpy oatmeal with just a sprinkle of brown sugar to make it go down a little easier.”

Over a hundred copies of Crown made their way to Cleveland-area barbershops in advance of the duo’s visit to Cleveland at the end of the month. Children in the barbers’ chairs, capes affixed, will get to see themselves in the pages and the same joy in the mirror.

John Woman,” the newest novel from prolific and philosophical Walter Mosley, arrives today telling the story of a fugitive genius.

It begins with Shakespeare’s Sonnet XVII – “Who will believe my verse in time to come” – and ends 36 chapters later with a mystery, its central character missing. Detectives find blood of more than one type on a New York City park bench.

In between is the story of a character born Cornelius Jones, the son of an Italian-American sensualist and an older, self-taught black intellectual. The novel opens as Lucia Napoli is describing her youthful wanton desires to her 12-year-old son, whom she calls CC. The boy mostly lives with his father Herman, a silent film projectionist in New York’s East Village. As Herman’s health fails, Cornelius takes over the job.

Five years later, father near death and mother in the wind, Cornelius becomes entangled in a murder and reinvents himself as John Woman. Brilliant in the classroom, he launches an intellectual movement – centered in Herman’s ideas — that grapples with the slipperiness of history. John Woman prospers, holding forth and breaking rules at a fictional southwestern American university.

Mosley, who studied political theory, is drawn to the difficulty of knowing history. “When I decided to write about this phenomenon I did so by constructing the novel of ideas – ‘John Woman’ (Grove Atlantic, 377 pp, $26),” he says. 

“Understanding that this was to be a novel and not a treatise I gave my character a history in which he committed a crime that had to be hidden. There is no mystery about who committed the murder. There is no detective that solves a crime. Indeed, the reader might feel that no crime has been committed. ‘John Woman’ is a study of a man who stalks a prey (history) that is at the same time tracking him.”

Mosley spent nearly 20 years thinking about this novel. He described his own father, Leroy, who was a supervisory custodian in the Los Angeles Public Schools, as a “Black Socrates.” His mother, Ella Slatkin Mosley, was a Jewish clerk whose ancestors emigrated from Russia. In 1951, the state of California refused to issue the couple a marriage certificate. Their only child was born the next year.

Young Walter grew up in Los Angeles and wrote dozens of critically acclaimed novels, translated into some 25 languages. He is celebrated for his Easy Rawlins stories, and won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 1998 for “Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned,” detective fiction also set in tough South Central Los Angeles.

“Though I am known as a mystery writer that genre has never been the only expression of my writing career,” Mosley says in the publicity materials for his new novel. “I have published over 55 books since 1990. Less than half of these have been mysteries.

“I write books to fit the story and the subject I’m interested in. And so when I wanted to tell a tale about the blues and the bluesman Robert Johnson I wrote the literary novel ‘RL’s Dream’ in which Mr. Johnson served as the negative space. When I felt pressed to write about the impact and the internal struggle of dementia I wrote ‘The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey.’”

Mosley, 66, has lived in New York City since 1981. “John Woman” begins and ends in that town, full of moral complexity even as its 377 propulsive pages fly along. Its author describes it as a political novel.