It's a page in time for Newbery judge

Getting a read on '04's best kids book is arduous task, local librarian finds

December 24, 2004|By Abigail Tucker | Abigail Tucker,SUN STAFF

Ruth Anne Champion quit the hand bell choir this year because she couldn't spare the extra hour on Thursday nights. She turned down a New Year's Eve invitation from dear friends and swore off all television except Sunday afternoon football.

The search for timelessness, it turns out, takes an awful lot of time.

Champion is helping to pick this year's Newbery Medal winner, a book that will likely become a children's classic. Since the selection process started in January, the 49-year-old Enoch Pratt librarian has read some 400 kids' books.

"Books at work, at lunch, when I get home, always before bed, sometimes in the evening," said Champion, who selects new children's books for the Pratt collection. "Sometimes, I read before I get up."

New books continue to arrive even in these, the last days of the year. "I got a book yesterday," she said last week at her Pasadena home. Her blue eyes shone beneath graying bangs. "It is possible I will get more."

The Newbery committee met once last summer. Next month, its 15 members will reconvene in Boston for a weekend-long pow-wow before announcing their decision Jan. 17.

Cramming for finals

Although they can't discuss specifics, the judges are in the midst of compiling their short lists. It's crunch time for Champion, who finds herself cramming Newbery tasks into every spare moment, toiling at all hours in her living room beneath a lamp whose luminosity rivals the sun's. Even during the shortest breaks at work she hunkers down with picture books, rather than chat with colleagues or -- heaven forbid -- peruse a magazine or newspaper.

The only people who can really relate are the Pratt librarians who sat on the jury before her.

"I'm still trying to catch up from that year," said Debbie Taylor, the library's coordinator of school and student services, who judged in 2002. She recalls reading at the carwash, and while soaking in the bathtub.

"You brush your teeth and you read," said Selma Levi, the supervisor of the children's department and a former Newbery judge. "I still read books going down the stairs."

No Newbery newbie, it seems, quite grasps the enormity of the undertaking.

But Champion -- who once devised a form of Newbery Bingo to tout the winning titles -- welcomes the work and has taken to heart the responsibility of safeguarding a distinguished literary prize.

Medal of honor

First bestowed in 1922, the Newbery Medal recognizes excellence in children's literature, the first award of its kind.

The glint of the gold seal on a winning cover increases a book's readership by the tens of thousands, publishers say, and virtually guarantees that it will stay in print. But Champion doesn't care about spiking book sales. She just wants to get quality books in little hands. In a kid lit market beset by Olsen twin epics and other pop culture knockoffs, Champion believes medal books transcend time and audience, tying together generations of young readers. They are reminders of what great books are.

Although several honorable mentions are selected each year, only one book can share a place with past winners such as Johnny Tremain and Julie of the Wolves. Still, judges try to read every eligible book, generally meaning any original volume published that year by a U.S. resident or citizen and written for children 14 or younger.

There is no formal nomination process. Some publishing houses submit only their favorites; others fire off everything they've got. Increasingly, optimistic self-published writers self-nominate as well.

Entries arrive at judges' doorsteps by the shelf-load; at last count, Champion logged 420, compared with an average of 300 submissions for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Some Newbery hopefuls are fewer than 500 words long, but others are closer to 500 pages. And -- unlike the Pulitzer juries -- Newbery judges are faced with the daunting task of having to weigh different genres written for radically different reading levels. How to compare a 32-page picture book about a delusional kitten with a thick novel about the ethics of genetic engineering? Or a volume of poetry with an autobiography?

Champion's not sure, but believes the answer involves a lot of re-reading. She takes copious notes in an electronic database. And, for a benchmark, she dug out a copy of The Witch of Blackbird Pond, the first New- bery she remembers reading -- at her own school librarian's behest.

One bookcase or two?

It was a group of librarians, the Association for Library Service to Children, that elected Champion to the committee in August 2002. Imagining the task ahead, she charged off to Target to buy a new bookcase.

She bragged to a friend about her far-sighted purchase, but that friend had once judged the Newberies. Her advice to Champion: "Better buy two."

Champion did. Now they're overflowing.

Book by book, she's closing in. It took a 2,500-mile car trip to her son's Idaho Air Force base to get through a single tome supposedly intended for pre-teens. And Champion is packing at least five books for her holiday stay in Buffalo, N.Y.

Her eyes should be tired at this point, but they look bright, and young. Maybe it's that 4,300-lumen reading lamp.

Maybe it's what she's reading.

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