On Giving A Fuck, and Doing the Work

I gave this speech on June 24, 2019, during the 2019 Michael L. Printz Award Ceremony alongside Printz Award Winner Elizabeth Acevedo (The Poet X), and Printz Honor Book authors Elana K. Arnold (Damsel) and Deb Caletti (A Heart in a Body in the World).

I want to thank the members of the Printz committee for recognizing I, Claudia with this tremendous honor. Every year for the past decade, I've followed the ALA Youth Media Awards like they were my own librarian Oscars, and to hear my name called out this year was one of the most thrilling moments of my life. As this year’s Printz committee can attest, I was not dignified when I received the call. I like to think that eventually, I became gracious, once I’d finished ugly crying in my office at the Los Angeles Public Library.

I still can't quite believe it happened. I still can't believe I'm here in this room being honored with Elana K. Arnold, Deb Caletti, and Printz winner Elizabeth Acevedo, writers with wild talent, bold vision, and fascinating minds. The women in your books are powerful and complex, and the honor of the Printz is compounded by being in your company.

I, Claudia is a book about politics, and it is a book about power. It’s about a girl who leaves behind her quiet life as a historian, and becomes a political animal.

When I was writing this book, I learned a lot about power grabs and political corruption. For example, we all know about Watergate, but when Richard Nixon was running for president, his campaign routinely carried out smaller acts of sabotage which they called ratfucks. They'd have candidates flown to the wrong cities, they broke the air conditioning at their opponents' fundraisers. They circulated false campaign literature. 

But fifteen years before any of that happened, the same people who ratfucked the 1972 presidency were sabotaging student elections at the University of Southern California.

That's why it was important to me to write about corruption in student elections at an elite private school. Because I know that in real life, people don't just wake up one morning with the audacity to steal a presidential election.

They practice.

I was doing a Q&A recently, and someone asked me, “Would you vote for Claudia?” This question caught me off-guard more than I’d expected, because I wrote the first draft of I, Claudia in 2016, and the world has changed since then.

When I first wrote the book, I believed it was a tragedy that Claudia had to give up her happy, insular, introspective life for a career in politics. I wanted to tell her, “It’s so terrible out there! Let someone else fix it! I like you too much to send you out there to fix it!”

But I started revising this book in October 2016, and then the world changed, and I’m no longer certain that any of us gets to enjoy the luxury of a quiet, insular, introspective life.

I’m not sure how electable a character like Claudia is. If she were running for President, I’m sure people would talk about mistakes she’d made in the past, about whether she was someone they felt like they could have a beer with. I’m sure they’d ask whether she was likable enough.

People would probably say the same things about the protagonists of this year’s other Printz books as well. Would they vote for Ama, or Annabelle, or Xiomara? Would they say, I like the idea of a woman, just not these women.

In the end, I turned to the person who asked me if I would vote for Claudia, and I said “Yes.” Claudia is not perfect. She’s not tremendously likable. But what sucks her into politics and holds her there is not a lust for power, but the realization that she can make a difference. That she can use her political power to be a force for good in the universe.

Claudia’s campaign platform is this: change is not impossible; however, change requires that you give a fuck and that you do the work.

As people who work in libraries, I think you know something about that. I know you give a fuck. I know you give a lot of fucks. I know you fight for the communities you serve. That you strive for equity, accessibility, justice, and safety. I know that you show up every day for young people, that you advocate for them, and make sure they are seen and served in your library and community. 

I think you know something about being a force for good in the universe.

People who work in libraries aren’t rock stars. I know you’re not there for power or recognition or glory. You’re there because there’s work to be done, and because you care enough to do the work.

I’d vote for you every motherfucking time.

Before I go, I’d like to thank the army of people who shaped this book and helped bring it into the world, and the people who have supported me along the way. I'd like to thank my agent, Patricia Nelson, my editor Alix Reid, the team at Lerner, my family, Brady and Shelby, my library family at the Los Angeles Public Library, and especially here and now, the members of the Michael L. Printz committee.

You have given me one of the great honors of my life, and I'll never forget it.