2024 Yoto Carnegie Medal for Illustration Winner’s Acceptance Speech

Aaron Becker, June 2024

“Thank you. Congratulations to all of the shortlisted authors; knowing how these things go, it could easily be any of you up here today. I’m truly honored to be listed amongst such talented company. I’d like to thank my editor, Mary Lee Donovan and my designer Maryellen Hanley from Candlewick Press as well as the good folks at Walker Books who have been cheerleaders for my stories for more than ten years now. I’d especially like to thank my wife Darci, and our two daughters, who I left behind on a small island in British Columbia to come here today. We’re days away from a cross-country road trip back east after six months of living in Canada, and I’d like to thank the committee for getting me out of packing up the house and of course, to thank my wife for picking up the slack. I’d also like to thank my mother and father who filled our house with books and encouraged me to create. Lastly, I’d like to thank the award committee itself. I’m grateful for the honor and recognition but more importantly grateful for the faith you’ve placed in me; these awards recognize past work, but they also serve as a declaration that an author has something worth saying in the stories still to come. For an artist, there is no greater gift. 
I grew up in Baltimore, outside of Washington D.C. in a simple, stone house. My sister and I each had a bedroom along the hallway that led to my parents room. During the summer after fifth grade, I was asked if I wanted to move downstairs, into the basement. It was a large space, cool in the muggy east coast heat, serpentine, and semi-finished, a secret refuge accessible straight from the house’s main entry down a mysterious stone stairwell. 
I made quick work of transforming the expansive floor plan into nooks for my imagination to fill: a corner for Legos, a work desk for wooden constructions, a shelf of model planes. I covered the room’s ceiling with glow-in-the-dark stars, hung up lanterns and paper palm trees and filled the wood panelled walls with collages of castles, space shuttles, and sharks. Meanwhile, upstairs, my old bedroom had been rearranged into an office. My sociologist father and astronomer mother, as well as my studious older sister all carved out cubicles into the dusty room as I created imaginary worlds in the space beneath them. I was a happy-go-lucky kid amidst a family of intellects and all I wanted to do was play. 
I realise, of course, that I am in a room full of librarians, several of whom have just bestowed upon me a rather incredible literary award, but I am going to say it anyway: though I’d been born into a house filled with books, I was a child that did not like to read. 
Don’t get me wrong. I liked books well enough. But it was the pictures, not the words, that grabbed me. My eyes would dart around the page, searching for clues in every gesture of colour and line. I could linger as long as I liked, for I wasn’t there to turn a page. I was there to get lost in a picture. 
Images were a kind of sustenance for me. I couldn’t get enough of them. It didn’t take long for me to be ready to conjure pictures of my own. On the backs of the dot-matrix printer sheets my father brought home from work I discovered the wonder of drawing worlds. These were places of my own design: ordered, graspable, and safe. As children, we don’t get to decide much. We’re told to brush our teeth, march to school, stop fidgeting, behave. But in pictures, both as an observer and a creator, I found a way to thrive. To escape. To imagine. 
In The Tree and the River, we follow a mighty oak, an English Oak, to be exact, growing along the shores of a winding waterway as it bears witness to centuries of human history. Seasons pass. Civilizations rise and fall. All without a single word to tell the tale. I’ve come to understand I write wordless picture books not because I think they do a better job than words but instead because my brain is wired to create without them. In a strange sense, it’s the natural way I know to write. My aim is to foster conversations between the lines of my penwork and the eyes of the reader. I want to help them slow down. To stay awhile. And in doing so, provide a path for a personal decoding of the story; something unique for each reader to hold and feel and explore. Without words to dictate what they ought to be looking for they have to find their own way. Without words to pace them for their page turns, they’re welcome to dwell as long as they like. And somehow, through this odd exchange something mysterious is born. Sometimes it’s empathy as they project themselves onto the voiceless characters within. Sometimes it’s excitement or surprise as they find answers on their own. I’d like to think there’s wonder in there. Curiosity. But perhaps the most meaningful result would be an awareness of self that only comes when we’re quiet enough to feel it. 
When I was a child, my mother understood I was not going to be a voracious reader. Yet at our local library, she was enthusiastic about my choices: David Macaulay’s architectural histories like his Castle and Pyramid books, Ed Emberley’s how-to-draw series, and great big volumes showing how my favourite science fiction films were made. She encouraged a love of books. But she didn’t judge that I wasn’t reading them. 
I can imagine a life in which I might have felt some shame for having a hard time with text. In todays’ world, I would be that child coming into the library asking for a graphic novel over a chapter book of literary merit. As educators, it’s natural to believe that reading, real reading, is the only antidote to our dwindling attention spans in this era of screentime. But trust me. Pictures can do it too.  
Thank you for giving The Tree and the River the chance to reach the eyes of fidgety children everywhere. May they slow down. May they breathe for a moment. May they wonder. May they dream. 
Thank you.”