Saturday, September 22, 2018

Wil Haygood, Young Adults, and Young Writers

Last night I was among the many inspired by the towering historian and journalist Wil Haygood, who was back not only in his hometown of Columbus, Ohio but in his first alma mater, East High. The 1968-’69 championship basketball and baseball teams of East, composed all of black players in years of civil rights upheavals locally and nationally, are the subject of his book, Tigerland, which he launched on this joyous occasion.
Wil Haygood at the University of Vermont
Haygood brought many members of those extraordinary teams back for the occasion, and the stories of their teenaged struggles and triumphs were the meat of his generous, uplifting presentation. He stood as tall and square-shouldered as a basketball hero, but spoke as a preacher, with arm lifted and finger pointed heavenward as, time and again, he addressed Students. If Students need inspiration; if they need models; if they wonder how to proceed in life; if Students seek goals, then they can look to these men who in their youths filled with hardships and scant of resources, made their ways through discipline and courage to excellence and high achievement in adulthood.

I praise Haygood not even for his humble focus on others—so becoming in a man whose list of honors for his many books (including The Butler) and his long career at the Boston Globe and Washington Post recommend him to every reader and citizen. He persisted in pounding home the centrality of supporting high school students. He praised the youths who begat the excellent men assembled in the front row, calling for their coaches, families, and teachers to rise from the crowd and be recognized.

Best of all for me, a publisher, he made a point of asking students to come forward with their questions after his talk, even though none had dared enter the long line of adults waiting for the microphone. Two young women stepped up and asked intelligent questions focused on how Haygood broke into publishing.

Tigerland is a deeply researched book about how teenagers made it; the endings are necessarily multiple, complex, and in different keys.

Haygood didn’t write Tigerland for a YA market, but for a fully human one, that includes teens who will become adults. As the topic of Haygood’s book and very presence suggested, his book can inspire teens who want to write as adults about human experience—who write not as teens, but as aspiring adults, like the young women who took the mic to engage with him.

By reading widely in all literature and nonfiction, young writers can learn their craft; from their teachers and by taking the opportunities to hear writers like Haygood in their communities, they can find inspiration and practical knowledge to help them to their goals. We publishers too have a role in the advancement of young writers, by not assuming we publish content for limited ideas of supposed “teen level” or “teen taste,” but by aspiring for youth when we choose and market books that inspire next year's writers.

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