Margot likes to spotlight various award winning books in her posts here at Quirky Girls Read. I totally dig that. My sister-in-law has set a goal to make her way through all of the Pulitzer Prize winners – focusing for the time being on the female authors. I grew up on Newbery and Caldecott winners for children’s literature. My favorite author won the Nobel Prize and used his monetary award to found the PEN/Faulkner Award For Fiction. There are all kinds of literary awards out there. Just because something has won an award doesn’t mean I’ll like it. It just means the people that pick the winners liked it. No different than the Oscars as far as I am concerned. But I do feel that they represent a higher quality of work created by someone who has the talent for making an impact with words.
The Robert F. Kennedy Book Award has been given out since I graduated high school in the late 1980’s. It is given to the book which “most faithfully and forcefully reflects Robert Kennedy’s purposes – his concern for the poor and the powerless, his struggle for honest and even-handed justice, his conviction that a decent society must assure all young people a fair chance, and his faith that a free democracy can act to remedy disparities of power and opportunity.” It is selected by the RFK Center for Justice & Human Rights. That means that you will find some heartbreaking, but inspiring work on this award’s winner list. As much as I love Toni Morrison (who won for Beloved) and Tracy Kidder (who won for Among Schoolchildren), my favorite author on this list is Jonathan Kozol.
As a wide eyed, optimistic college freshman at Boston University I stumbled upon Kozol and thus began my love for non-fiction. Rachel & Her Children: Homeless Families In America was published in 1988 and won the RFK Book Award in 1989. This powerful book uncovers the world of the homeless. Living in a city for the first time and seeing masses of homeless people huddled over the warm heating grates outside the Boston Public Library’s steps and begging for change in the tunnels of the T (subway stations), the book’s impact on me was stronger than had a read it from the comfort of the suburbs.
I love Kozol because he holds a mirror up to the ugly parts of society. He doesn’t beat around the bush. He just hammers you over the head with facts and real examples. You get to know the subjects in his book and he also spells out what has occurred – of their own doing and by society – to put them at a disadvantage. Rachel & Her Children wouldn’t let me look at homelessness in the same way and made me realize just how easily any of us could end up on the street.
I gobbled up his next book, Savage Inequalities: Children In America’s Schools when it was published in 1991. I was about to embark upon my full term of student teaching in Chelsea, Mass. which was an urban school system on the brink of such disaster that it was taken over by Boston University for a decade. To read about the divisiveness the simple state of poverty caused in East St. Louis, among other communities, made me so angry I vowed to only teach in impoverished places if they would have me. Kozol’s first book, Death At An Early Age, covers his experience teaching in Boston’s public schools in the 60’s. He was fired a year in for teaching a poem. He has been railing for civil rights and equal education ever since.
As an assignment for a class placement at Brigham & Women’s Hospital I was instructed to go to the historic Old South Meeting House (where the Boston Tea Party was hatched) to attend a speech by Kozol and write it up for the department’s economic research file regarding infant mortality rates in Boston’s African American society. I was magnetized by Kozol’s speech. I was motivated. I was angry. I was sold. Like everything else in this country, it all comes down to money.
I graduated with a degree in Elementary Education and never could get a job. The teaching job market was flooded when I was interviewing. Not even the Chelsea Public Schools that gave me my training found me good enough to make the cut for their limited open positions. Out of desperation I actually interviewed for one of the richest school districts in Connecticut – against my self-made vow to only work in poor communities. The administrators were horrified by my inner city teaching experiences and rather than seeing the strength I had from handling those situations they chose to avoid me at all costs lest any of my cooties rub off on their good kids. The rich get richer and the poor can’t afford to hire anyone so their children never have a chance. I try to teach that lesson to this day to anyone who will discuss education with me. That is entirely due to Kozol’s message that I absorbed on my own accord in conjunction with my scholastic courses.
Good non-fiction gives you facts. Great non-fiction makes those facts move you. The RFK Book Award is not exclusive to non-fiction books, but it does a nice job of including some pretty stellar ones.
Learn more about this talented author and his work at this website.
Learn more about the RFK Book Award winners at their website.
Has a non-fiction book ever left you in awe? Consider looking for one off of award lists or ask your favorite book blogger or librarian to recommend something in your area of interest.