Caldecott, Newbery winners named

Books: The best in children's literature was honored at a presentation in Washington yesterday.

January 16, 2001|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

On a scale of 1 to 10, the American Library Association awards might register a 5 in terms of interest to the general public. But on a Richter scale skewed toward children's literature, it's an earth-shattering event. And like a quake, it can be entirely unpredictable. With no clues as to which books are even in the running for the group's prestigious trio of top awards - the John Newbery Medal, Randolph Caldecott Medal and Coretta Scott King Award - dozens of publishing representatives and hundreds of librarians packed a meeting room in downtown Washington yesterday to find out who won.

Usually shushing unruly kids in-between the stacks, librarians were the ones who needed policing during the ceremony. They released uncharacteristic exuberance with each result, sometimes making it hard to hear the names of the winners.

Among the names announced was that of Richard Peck, proving that if at first you don't succeed, try, try again. Two years ago his book "A Long Way from Chicago" was runner-up for a Newbery Medal to the best-selling "Holes" by Louis Sachar. This year Peck's sequel, "A Year Down Yonder," helped win him the coveted prize. His story of a Depression-era urban teen-ager adjusting to rural life with her oddball grandmother emerged at the top in a tight race that produced four runners-up. Peck's win continues a tradition of excellence begun in 1922, when this award, named after the 18th-century English publisher John Newbery, was established as the bellwether for quality children's novels.

Picture books receive their due with the Caldecott Medal. Named for a 19th-century illustrating icon, the award has been given annually since 1938 to "the artist who's created the most distinguished U.S.-published picture book of the year." That distinction goes to David Small this year for his comical send-up of our nation's commanders-in-chief, "So You Want to be President?" He gave young readers and their parents an amusing way to recount past White House glories (and fumbles) while our most recent election played out in the courts.

"Small's illustrations liberate the presidents from years of bulletin-board duty," said Connie Rockman, chair of the Caldecott Award selection committee. "He humanizes these oh-so familiar icons with art that captures the spirit of the individual and collectively provides a genuinely enlightening overview of this unique American institution."

Fictional narratives represent the majority of the award's past 62 winners, further distinguishing "So You Want to be President?" from the pack. "It doesn't happen very often that a nonfiction book wins that award," said Virginia Walter, president of the Association for Library Service to Children.

Perhaps the most poignant honor presented yesterday was the Coretta Scott King Award, considering the coincidence of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. The King award designates "authors and illustrators of African descent whose distinguished books promote an understanding and appreciation of the `American Dream,' " according to the association. The award commemorates the life and work of Dr. King, whose vision of equal access continues through the faith and dedication of his widow.

After coming close with two past honor books, author Jacqueline Woodson won the top award with "Miracle's Boys," her story of a family struggling through loss and poverty. The King illustrator award went to Bryan Collier for his vibrant ode to Harlem, "Uptown." Collier also picked up an Honor Book award for "Freedom River."

The Coretta Scott King Award was first presented 31 years ago to the late Lillie Patterson, a longtime Baltimore resident and school library supervisor of Baltimore City shools for the biography "Martin Luther King Jr.: Man of Peace."

To select the winners and runners-up for each of these awards, committee members correspond for more than a year. Final deliberations then take place during the American Library Association's annual midwinter meeting. In the hours before the official announcement, each committee went through the ritual of notifying winners via telephone.

"The committees look at every book eligible," said Walter. "It's a lot of reading."

Six months from now the glamorous part of the awards will kick in as the annual summer conference in San Francisco hosts the acceptance speeches of the winners.

Until then, expect increased exposure to these winners, including Jack Gantos, already recognized on the Horn Book Honor List and Publisher's Weekly Best Children's Book List. He picked up a Newbery Medal Honor Book award for "Joey Pigza Loses Control." Gantos and several other children's book authors and illustrators will converge on the nation's capital this week for the inaugural event, "Laura Bush Celebrates America's Authors."

Alhough none of this year's recipients were from Maryland, the state has been home to several previous award winners. In 1992, the Newbery went to Bethesda-based Phyllis Reynolds Naylor for her book "Shiloh."

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