Anna Myers (my mom) receives the Arrell Gibson Lifetime Achievement Award from the Oklahoma Center for the Book


INTRODUCTION
           
            Near the beginning of her masterly novel, Fire in the Hills, Anna Myers gives us this exchange between young Hallie and her dying mother:
          “Ma,” said the girl, trying not to scream. “Ma, you can’t die.”
          “We all do, child. We all do. There is worst things. Sing to me, Hallie. 
            It  will rest us both.” (2)
This brief bit of dialogue sums up much that is great about my mother’s work. Her novels are rooted in the common human lot of suffering, in the ties that bind us together even in the hardest of times, and in the universal song that transcends the sorrow: “Sing to me, Hallie. It will rest us both.” Anna Myers comes from folks who know suffering and from folks who know how to tell a story, a long line of yarn-spinners and survivors. Thus, her books often begin with sadness, like the gut-wrenching first line of Red Dirt Jessie – “My sister Patsy is dead” – or the heart-rending execution scene with which she opens Spy, her account of the life and death of Nathan Hale. This story structure, this motion from pain to the pleasure of narrative, reminds us that the stories we tell are born from our sorrows and that our strength to face such sorrow is often born from the stories we tell.
          When these stories belong to all of us, we call them “history,” and much of my mother’s career has been dedicated to bringing history alive in narrative. Red Dirt Jessie, is set during the Great Depression, a stark backdrop to mirror the emotional depravation of its young protagonist and her father. In Assassin, the turmoil of the Civil War matches the inner turmoil of young adulthood as Bella wrestles with her identity, the possibilities of good and evil in her young soul a microcosm of the equally polar possibilities within her young country at a great moment of crisis. Anna Myers knows that the stories we call history are the stories of individual lives. In Rosie’s Tiger, Rosie herself says so:
                   I didn’t understand much of what the newsmen said. It took me the                      
                     longest time to get it straight that the United States was mad at   
                     North Korea and wanted to help South Korea.  But all along I 
                    understood that Ronny might not come home. When I set two  
                      plates out on the table for super, I’d look at his empty chair and                       
                      be so awful afraid it might stay empty, always.
My mother’s novels remind us that the stories we share as history are stories of empty chairs and of changed lives. Her work reminds us that the big events on the world stage matter most on the individual level: the 1878 Yellow Fever epidemic matters to a boy most in the form of his lost family; the great Galveston Flood of 1900 matters to a little girl most in the form of her lost friend; even World War II matters most to a girl from Oklahoma in the form of her missing father. This humane understanding of history reminds us why it is so crucial to know where we have been; it instructs us on how to think most deeply about where we may be going.
          Such an approach to story-telling is a contribution to the sympathetic imagination of the reader. When we read about richly imagined characters facing challenges that, no matter how fantastic or unusual, have some element of the struggles of reality in them, then we become better at imagining the thoughts and feelings of others, great literature’s contribution to the moral good coming not in the form of maxims and rules but in the form of refined empathy. Like Homer’s Odysseus, my mother’s characters are shaped by the suffering that is common to humanity, that is shared among us all. In Fire in the Hills, Hallie’s own capacity for sympathy is expanded when she learns of the sorrows that shaped Mary Jones:
                   Hallie trembled as she passed the jar. She was over-whelmed. Mary,                   
                   even Mary Jones, had churnings inside her, feelings she had laid out                    
                   there in the lamplight. The ache in the girl was magnified. It was  
                    an  ache for Mary and her lost Lucy, for little Dovie who muttered 
                   ‘Ma’ in her sleep, and most of all for herself, mortally wounded,   
                    but unable to say so. Tentatively she laid her hand on the woman’s 
                   shoulder, and Mary patted it as she swigged down the yellow elixir.
The sort of connection my mother describes in these beautifully restrained words is the sort of connection forged again and again between her readers and her characters. It is a feeling that makes us all better equipped to love our neighbors as ourselves.
          My mother’s finely drawn characters have lived out their stories in various corners of this country – Memphis to Massachusetts – but her work has again and again returned to speak of the particularly Oklahoman brand of character and of suffering. Auden said of Yeats that “Mad Ireland hurt him into poetry.” When I read, in Tulsa Burning, of the struggles of young Nobe Chase, I think a similar dynamic might explain my mother as an Oklahoman writer. But this place has done more than hurt my mother; it has also gifted her with a kind of emotional honesty that rejects sentimentality, a sense of optimism without a blindness to reality, and a belief in the existence of human goodness despite our history of violence. All of these characteristics are evident in Nobe’s words as he stands at the grave of his abusive father:
                   I started to think that maybe Pa was in heaven after all. It would 
                   sure take God to understand a man like him. I figured if Pa was up 
                   there, he’d   likely be able to look down and know the words that I 
                    wished I could say. (149)
If mad Oklahoma hurt my mother into poetry, it also touched her with its rugged beauty, gave her a prose as clear and strong as summer wind over the prairie. And lucky for us it did.
          Anna Myers’ accomplishments are too numerous to name here in their entirety. She is the author of 19 novels for young readers. She is a four time winner of the Oklahoma Book Award: for Spy in 2009, Assassin in 2006, Graveyard Girl in 1996, and Red Dirt Jessie in 1993. She is a finalist again this year, for her latest book, The Grave Robber’s Secret. She won the Parents' Choice Award in 1996, for Fire in the Hills andthe Gamma State Author's Award, 1997, for Graveyard Girl.  In 1998, she won the Children's Book of the Year Award from Bank Street College for The Keeping Room. Other honors include the Honor Book Award, Society of School Librarians International, 1999-2000, and Gamma State Author's Award, 2000, both for Ethan between Us; another Honor Book Award, Society of School Librarians International, 2001-02, for When the Bough Breaks; a Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People citation from the Children's Book Council/National Council for the Social Studies, 2003 for Tulsa Burning; and yet another Honor Book Award, along with the Pennsylvania Young Reader's Choice Award, 2004-05, for Tulsa Burning. Her books have been named to such prestigious lists as “New York Public Library’s Best Books for the Teenaged,” “New York Public Library’s Best 100 Books to Read and Share,” “Bank Street College’s Best Children’s Books,” “ALA Quick Pick List” and “Independent Book Sellers Pick of the List.” She has been included more than twenty times on the children’s choice lists for various states. And, perhaps most importantly, has received innumerable letters from young readers, both avid and reluctant, praising her compelling stories and relatable protagonists. It is no surprise to me that she now joins Rilla Askew, Joy Harjo, S.E. Hinton, Bill Wallace, N. Scott Momaday, and so many other great writers in winning this prestigious award.
          My mother often tells me how proud she is of me; she’s that kind of mother. But tonight I want to say how proud I am of my mother, not just for the list of accomplishments I just read to you but also for what these accomplishments and her work itself, say about who she is. Like Hallie Horton, she’s a fighter and a survivor. She doesn’t give up, ever. I saw that over the years I was growing up and she was honing her craft, writing each night, watching the mailbox for news, continually starting again and working on. I saw it as she struggled alongside my father against cancer. I’ve seen it again as she has stood alongside my sisters and me in our own personal challenges. I’ve seen that look in her eye, a look I saw also in her mother’s eye, that says I can be hurt, I can be wounded and scarred, but I can’t be overcome. For as long as I can remember my mother has been reciting to me, in bits and pieces as appropriate, this poem by Langston Hughues:
                    MOTHER TO SON
                   Well, son, I'll tell you:
                    Life for me ain't been no crystal stair.
                    It's had tacks in it,
                    And splinters,
                    And boards torn up,
                    And places with no carpet on the floor—
                    Bare.
                    But all the time
                    I'se been a-climbin' on,
                    And reachin' landin's,
                    And turnin' corners,
                    And sometimes goin' in the dark
                    Where there ain't been no light.
                    So, boy, don't you turn back.
                    Don't you set down on the steps.
                    'Cause you finds it's kinder hard.
                    Don't you fall now—
                    For I'se still goin', honey,
                    I'se still climbin',
                    And life for me ain't been no crystal stair.
In her eighth grade English class, my mother had me memorize that poem, but what I really committed to memory, what I really got from my mother is that through art, through its transcendent beauty and infectious compassion, we make our suffering into something more. In our stories, we climb, even when the way is hard. Even as we celebrate a lifetime’s worth of achievement tonight, my mother is climbing still.