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Fort Worth senior wins Michelle Obama Award for Memoir and kudos from the former First Lady

Madison Corzine won the inaugural Michelle Obama Award for Memoir and a $10,000 scholarship for her essay “What I Wish I Knew: A Suburban Black Girl’s Guide.”
Courtesy photo
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2023 Penguin Random House Creative Writing Awards
Madison Corzine won the inaugural Michelle Obama Award for Memoir and a $10,000 scholarship for her essay “What I Wish I Knew: A Suburban Black Girl’s Guide.”

Madison Corzine and her mom were in the car when they learned former first lady Michelle Obama had posted a video of Corzine. The details about the trip — where they were going, what they were saying — are fuzzy, but the surprise shoutout was unforgettable.

Corzine won the Michelle Obama Award for Memoir in a national creative writing competition, hosted by the publishing giant Penguin Random House and the nonprofit We Need Diverse Books.

When she won she didn’t expect to see her own face show up on the former first lady’s Instagram.

“It was the most amazing thing,” the now 17-year-old said. “Honestly, I thought it just had her name on it. I had no idea that she would have anything to say about my essay, so it was really amazing to find that out.”

Having read Obama’s memoir “Becoming” and attended one of her book talks, the news was extra exciting.

In a post congratulating Corzine, Obama wrote, in part, “It’s not easy to be vulnerable about your life and be open about your experiences with the world. I was moved by Madison’s fearless writing and her willingness to share her light with us. I wish her, and all of this year’s Creative Writing Award winners, the best in college and beyond.”

Books as mirrors and windows

Penguin Random House has hosted the competition since 1993, but initially the program was only open to high school seniors in New York City.

In 2019, the publishing company partnered with We Need Diverse Books to help expand the competition’s reach.

The nonprofit was excited to join and help cultivate the next generation of writers. The group’s executive director, Caroline Richmond, said it was a natural fit for the organization which aims to “produce and promote literature that reflects and honors the lives of all young people.”

The mission of the organization is personal for her and many others on staff, she said.

Growing up, Richmond was a self-described bookworm. But as a Chinese American, she didn’t see herself in any books until she read Amy Tan’s “The Joy Luck Club” in high school.

“We don’t want any child to have to wait until they are a teenager or an adult to find themselves represented,” she said.

Richmond frequently quotes Rudine Sims Bishop, who is sometimes referred to as the “Mother of multicultural children’s literature,” and whose work describes books as mirrors, windows and sliding glass doors.

“A mirror book is where you see yourself reflected, so that was ‘The Joy Luck Club’ for me,” Richmond said. “But a window book is a book that sheds light into another person’s experiences, and that for me was ‘Black Boy.’ Those two books that kind of book-ended my high school experience have stayed with me as why we need both types of stories in our schools.”

Making literature accessible to all children is especially important at this moment, Richmond said. The team at Penguin Random House agreed.

“Our mission to uplift young people’s voices, especially from underrepresented communities, is more important than ever today in the face of rampant book bans, when stories by or about BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities are continuously being banned and silenced,” Penguin Random House’s Director of Brand Communications, Maya Livingstone, wrote in an email to the Report.

In a video call, Veronica Valerio, the company’s head of corporate giving, said that this year the competition hit the maximum of 1,000 entries three months early and students from all 50 states applied. Submissions went through a rigorous scoring process that spanned three different phases and multiple judges.

One first-place essay was selected from each of the contest’s five categories, and each of those students was awarded a $10,000 scholarship.

“I read Madison’s essay,” Valerio said. “It has a strong voice and an original, consistent concept of being a guidebook for other Black girls. I wanted to keep reading more even after I finished it.” This year marked the first time the Michelle Obama Award for Memoir has been presented. Of the other finalists in the memoir category, Corzine earned the highest score.

‘Other people’s opinions of you can’t encompass who you are’

Corzine has a wide variety of interests.

In 2020, when Corzine was 14, she and her best friend realized that some students couldn’t afford menstrual products and decided to take action. They collected and distributed period products, and in 2021 their work as the Pragmatic Prodigies gained nonprofit status.

“We work with young girls at Morningside Middle School. Because they’re facing period poverty, they have the inability to get menstrual products that are sufficient for their cycle, and so they can’t go to school during that duration of time,” she said. “So our mission is to mentor them, but to also make sure they have what they need.”

The group collected more than 20,000 products to donate to Fort Worth schools last summer, she said.

Corzine is also the reigning National Miss Juneteenth, after winning the crown in 2022.

Though she enjoys writing, she hadn’t entered other creative writing competitions before this one. She and her mom stumbled across the program while hunting for scholarships.

But with this win, she has added essayist to her ever-growing resume.

Corzine is headed to Spelman College in Atlanta where she will be an English major. She plans to attend law school afterward with the ultimate goal of becoming a civil rights attorney.

In the meantime, she hopes that the essay she wrote can be a source of encouragement for other young Black girls trying to figure out who they are.

“Other people’s opinions of you can’t encompass who you are at the end of the day,” she said. “Honestly, I just want young girls like me, like I was in middle school, to understand that they have power.”

Marcheta Fornoff covers the arts for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at marcheta.fornoff@fortworthreport.org or on Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.