O'Dell Speech 2007: Full and Unabridged Text
Remember how I reported on the Scott O'Dell Award ceremony? At the time, I may have mentioned the speech of Ellen Klages. I may even have said something along the lines of, "It was one of those speeches you wish Horn Book would consider reprinting in one format or another." Well, Horn Book be damned, me mateys, I'LL reprint it! How's that for initiative? And lest you think I've spent hours transcribing these words from the tiny tape recorder I keep in my pocket at all times, I have Ms. Klages herself to thank for sending me the speech in its entirety. Voila.
First of all, I want to thank Scott O’ Dell and his wife Elizabeth Hall, for founding this award and for recognizing the importance of historical fiction, especially for children. I want to thank Hazel Rochman and Ann Carlson and Roger Sutton, the members of the O’Dell committee, for selecting The Green Glass Sea out of the hundreds of amazing books that were published in 2006. I want to thank my editor, Sharyn November, and her boss, Regina Hayes, for taking a chance not only on a first novel, but one that seemed an unlikely topic for a children’s book. And all the people at Viking, all the sales reps who were so enthusiastic and hand-sold this book to booksellers and librarians. And thanks to my agent, Michael Bourret, who shepherded it from a manuscript to an object out in the world.
A lot of people think that history is boring. It’s just names and dates and facts that you have to memorize for a test. I suspect that I’m preaching to the choir here; I don’t think most of the people in the room feel that way. But too many people do.
Up until last October, I was primarily a science fiction writer. Which means I’m in a unique position to recognize that this -- [holds up GGS] -- is a time machine. ‘Cause that’s really what we want out of historical fiction. We want to go there. We don’t want to be on the outside, looking in. We want the backstage tour. We want to be there as the events of history are unfolding around us.
That’s what we want as readers. Most writers are also readers, but for a writer, it’s slightly different. If I’m going to spend a year or two of my life someplace in the past, there has to be a hook. We writers are observant magpies, taking shiny bits back to our nests to play with. And we’re easily distracted -- ooh, shiny!
For me, that shiny was the green glass. I read one sentence about it in an account of the Trinity Test, and I thought -- cool -- and I wanted to find out more. And there isn’t much more about it, because the glass was a footnote, a side effect. It wasn’t all that important to the scientists at the time. But it was what got me hooked.
So I read some more books, and in each of them I found another, one sentence, description of the glass, or of people going to go see the glass. And I took those single sentences home and collected them, lined my little magpie nest with them, until I had enough information that I could almost see it, in my mind’s eye.
And I wanted to go there.
I wanted to go there more than I’ve ever wanted anything in my life. But it’s gone. It was bulldozed before I was even born, and the only picture I’ve ever been able to find of it is in black-and-white.
If I was a painter, I would have made a big color picture, hung it on my wall and looked at it. But I can’t even draw. My tools are words. So I wrote myself a story in which I got to go to the green glass sea, in the company of two odd, quirky little girls named Dewey and Suze. And I saw it -- through their eyes.
Because that’s the other important thing about historical fiction. It reminds us that history isn’t just dates and facts and places. It’s people and their lives and their stories. Sometimes it’s extraordinary people in ordinary times, changing the world. And sometimes it’s ordinary people in extraordinary times, as the world changes around them.
By seeing the past through their eyes -- how they live, what they do, how they think -- we get a new perspective on the present.
[Picks up GGS] If you accept that this is a time machine, then there’s one thing you need to know, the one unbreakable law of time travel -- you cannot change the past.
But I hope that when you close the cover of The Green Glass Sea, and return to your own life, you may discover that the past has changed you.