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.”