Gold medal for a picture book Caldecott award: Frederick author's 'Golem' refuses to pander to elementary readers.

March 03, 1997

"GOLEM" IS a children's book whose lavish and haunting cut-paper illustrations just earned a Frederick author/artist the 1997 Randolph Caldecott Award, among the highest honors for a picture book.

It derives from a 400-year-old story about an Eastern European rabbi who summons a monster out of clay -- "golem" is Hebrew for shapeless mass -- to vanquish persecutors of the Jews in Prague. The rabbi ultimately must rein in his freakish creation. The folk tale's morals are as old as the injustice of religious bigotry, as modern as fears about robotics or genetic manipulation run amok. Perhaps the book's most important lesson is unspoken: To educate children, not talk down to them.

The author grasped this premise. "I think children are not given credit for deep thinking," David Wisniewski said after receiving the award. "I'm pleased that something that does have so much weight got the medal."

The dilemma for authors is to challenge youngsters intellectually without making their books unsuitable for kids; witness the "Froggy" fight in Baltimore County last year. Even though "Golem" is geared to third- and fourth-graders, it would captivate an older child or an adult. The legend even helped inspire Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein," according to an author's note.

Compare this to the drivel on commercial television for kids. All the teeth-gnashing over youth programming hasn't shamed the networks into improving their fare, as evidenced by the release of next fall's TV slate. The networks are dusting off old cartoons such as "Bobby's World" and "Captain Planet" to fulfill their mandated "educational commitment." If the network executives were running school cafeterias, ketchup would be a vegetable.

"You are what you eat," the axiom of physical fitness buffs, could be revised for childhood education: "You are what you're fed." Congratulations to an award-winning Maryland author striving to provide real grist for young minds.

Pub Date: 3/03/97

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