A Short Autobiography of Edward Allen Spicer
By Don't Make Me Tell You!!!
I hate clichés. I hate it when someone says, “Books saved my life.” Or, “Reading saved my life.” Or, “Libraries saved my life.” What? They blocked the deadly bullet? They padded the fall from the cliff? I hate these clichés because they rob me of the start of my short autobiography for Texas Sweethearts and Scoundrels.
As a young, homeless child my hours on the floor of a Federated Department store in California madly reading every single Nancy Drew mystery taught me to love reading, which is another way of saying this time began to teach me a way to love thinking. Thinking makes life worth living. In my college library, I memorized several hundred poems by dead white guys because I was afraid that people would think I was too dumb to live, in part because I was worried about all that time spent with Nancy Drew. Fortunately, I now embrace my inner knucklehead!
Once upon a time, I cut off the ponytail of the first grade girl who sat in front of me. I broke a gas line too, which forced the evacuation of the entire school. I broke the windows in the third grade classroom even though I was not aiming for them. I did not know what recess was until I was in the fifth grade. Consequently, my life now is paying back a whole host of psychic debt. I teach first graders and I ask to have the wigglers and squigglers in my classroom. My hours in the library in elementary school showed me that there was a bigger world than the one I knew, which didn’t often seem very worthwhile.
I run a reading group for high school teens, some of whom are former first graders. I coordinate a teen writing contest. I read a book a day and I write book reviews for the Michigan Reading Journal. I am an unapologetic author groupie. Volunteer work for any and every book related committee possible is my quest. One semester of graduate students explored young adult literature with me for my class at Grand Valley State University (adjunct). I have served on the Michael L. Printz Committee (2005), Best Books for Young Adults (2006-2008), the Randolph C. Caldecott Committee (2009), Notable Children’s Books (2009-2010), and, now, the Morris Committee (2012). I try to be faithful to my website (www.spicyreads.org).
I hate clichés! I love books so much that I want to marry them. I also love paradox.
TXS&S: Can you tell us a little about what you do and how you got started?
My short autobiography will give readers a general idea of what it is that I do and how I got started, but I also need to credit my wife, Ann Perrigo. When I was working for my teachable major, I remember sitting in the library desperately trying to finish A Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson before class. I sat in the library just sobbing as I finished. That book inspired my new life goal: to be on the Newbery committee. When I got home, I told my library director beloved esposa that I wanted to be on the Newbery committee. “What do I have to do?” She told me that I needed to join ALA. So I joined in 1999 and waited two whole weeks and asked Ann why no one had called me yet. Ann informed that I also had to join the division that sponsored the award, ALSC. A few days later when I went to join the division, the 59 billion divisions and acronyms in the ALA world surprised me. I wasn’t quite sure what division I needed to join, so I joined both YALSA and ALSC. That is how I got started with ALA and reviewing and, eventually, with my committee work (but I still haven’t been on the Newbery committee yet).
TXS&S: What has been one of the biggest surprises since becoming an educator and reviewer?
The biggest surprise is that I have become very good friends with people who share very different ideas about what distinguishes excellent literature for children and young adults. The youth book world is mostly filled with exceptionally smart and wickedly funny folks who share a passion for raising another generation of readers. I am blessed to be a part of this community. Even after all these years, I am still very surprised by the abundance of kindness and concern within the library world, regardless of whether or not we agree on the merits of any specific book.
TXS&S: You've volunteered on many different committees--what have those experiences been like?
I have been on single book selection committees and book list committees. The single book selection committees like the Caldecott and Printz can be very heartbreaking. Every committee member sees favorite books left behind and we can never discuss just how close some books came to making our list. That is hard. On the Printz committee I read every single one of our contenders multiple times—some as many as seven times (including several that did not make our list). For the Caldecott, I swear that we looked at every pixel about a million times. For both of these committees, I know the strengths AND the weaknesses of our selections better than just about anyone on the planet. That said, however, the list committees like BBYA and Notables, are much more difficult. The reading load is huge because members must read every book from beginning to end. We are not attempting to pick a single winner; we are picking a list of books. We cannot stop reading something because we know it is NOT going to be the Printz winner or the Caldecott winner. For BBYA I read more than 300 books each year; for Notables I read and annotated more than 800 books (including picture books). These meetings are also open to authors and publishers. Initially this was very intimidating. However, these committees helped me discover MANY books that I would never have read on my own. All of the committees are a tremendous amount of fun. I have made lifelong friends from these committee experiences and I have donated thousands of books to schools, jails, libraries, students, preschools, and other organizations. All of my committee work has added richness to my life that is difficult to verbalize.
TXS&S: If you could make a wish for children and reading in the future, what would it be?
Every single morning before I begin teaching, I begin by getting a mental image of each and everyone of my students. I pledge or pray or meditate on how to do at least one good thing for each student, each and every day. This ritual often involves my wishes for the students. My first wish is that I do a great job of teaching my students how to be kind, because I would rather be around kind people than smart people. However, I always hope for both and there is a good lot of research that suggests that those kind and ethical students are often the very smartest students. Consequently, much of my wishing involves teaching students to fall in love with reading and thinking. This involves helping them to see reading as an essential part of a happy life. We are better at being kind when we can envision beyond our own immediate environment. We are better at being smart when we are exposed to multiple points of view. Reading has made me kinder and smarter, even if I still have a long way to go. I want this for my students too.
TXS&S: Would you consider yourself a Sweetheart or Scoundrel, and why?
This entirely depends on which personality comes out to play. I know beyond any doubt that I am both.
Thank you, Ed!