Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Losing Judith Krug

Friends of intellectual freedom have lost a dynamic leader. Judith Krug, director of the American Library Association's Office of Intellectual Freedom since 1967, and one of the founders of the Freedom to Read Foundation, was my hero. When I saw her in Chicago last September, she said, "Don't worry about me. I'm too mean to die." That was her fierce warrior persona. That was her let's laugh about this and talk about something else way of dealing with her illness. She had had surgery and chemo for stomach cancer but there she was, cheering us on -- a group of writers gathered to commemorate Banned Books Week, an event started by Judith in 1982. There she was, fighting for the rights of young readers as enthusiastically as ever. I teased her for wearing what I called a "Sarah Palin" jacket (actually, a jacket I coveted and even tried on in NY before realizing that all the jackets in my favorite sportswear section of my favorite department store were the very jackets Sarah was sporting on the campaign trail). Judy begged forgiveness explaining that she really wanted that jacket and we laughed together.

We met in Atlanta in 1982 at a Fred Friendly Seminar moderated by Benno Schmidt, then a colleague of George's at Columbia Law School. I was nervous. Out of my element. I felt as if I were back in 4th grade praying the teacher wouldn't call on me. Benno did call on me and I stumbled through a couple of answers then watched in awe as the articulate speaker on the opposite side of the table said exactly what I was thinking, only so much better. I remember thinking, Wow, she's brilliant! She can speak on my behalf anytime. That was my introduction to Judy Krug, and the beginning of a long friendship, both professional, and personal. It was hard to say "no" to Judy when she asked you to do something, even if you didn't want to fly to Chicago in September because you were trying to write a book. Because Judy would always be there for you if you needed her.

This is the woman who defended what we wrote, who defended the librarians who selected our books for their collections, and most importantly, who defended the rights of our young readers. For four decades she used her abundant energy and knowledge to protect the Constitutional rights of citizens granted under the First Amendment. She raced around the country speaking out wherever and whenever she was needed. Let's just call her amazing, because she was.

"We're the only country in the world where everybody has access to the library and everything in it," she told The Washington Post in 1994. "If you don't like something, okay, tell your kids you don't want them to read it. That works. It really works. Every once in a while, the kids are going to defy you. But so what?" That quote is so Judith! It's part of why I loved her. Like Madeline, my first literary heroine, Judy Krug showed no fear.

The loss to our community of writers, librarians, and readers everywhere is too great to contemplate. The loss to her husband, children, and grandchildren is even greater.

On Sunday, July 12, at the annual ALA convention in Chicago, Judy will be posthumously awarded the William J. Brennan Award during the 40th anniversary celebration of the Freedom to Read Foundation at the Chicago Museum of Art. Judy hoped she'd be there to accept her award in person. I hoped so, too, and not only because I'll be presenting that award to her. If you can, join us in this tribute to a true freedom fighter.

Goodbye, old friend. I'll miss you.