Newbery/Caldecott/Etc. 2009: My Own Personal Scorecard

The big children’s and teen literature awards from the American Library Association were announced on Monday morning, and just like last year, I bounded out of bed and ran to the computer first thing to see who won. And…

 

Well, first I should say that the awards committees’ processes are shrouded in secrecy, and (unlike the Cybils) no short-lists of finalists are published before the big announcement, so speculation among children’s-book aficionados heats up mightily in the weeks before the awards ceremony.

 

What this also means is that on the big day, putatively knowledgeable children’s librarians and other kidlit people often find themselves (ourselves) abashed to realize that they haven’t read the new Newbery (children’s literature) Caldecott (children’s book illustration) or Printz (young adult/teen literature) winners, and might not even have them in their collections.

 

Which is all a long-winded way of admitting that, once I’d managed to find a news release with the award books listed, I discovered that once again I have read none of the three big medalists, and slunk off to breakfast, humbled.

 

I’d at least heard of the Newbery medalist, The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman, and in fact have read so many rave reviews of the book that I featured it in a post a few weeks ago and even went so far as to put in a reserve for it at the library (there’s going to be a long line after me now). I’d also heard good things about the Printz Award winner, Jellicoe Road, by Melina Marchetta, but my library doesn’t have it yet, so I’m still waiting to read it.

 

This year’s Caldecott winner, The House in the Night, illustrated by Beth Krommes, was totally off my radar, though, and I don’t think I’m alone. Elizabeth Bird of Fuse #8 called it (sort of), but there wasn’t the kind of talk about it that there’s been around, say, Wabi Sabi or We Are the Ship, neither of which showed up on the Caldecott honor list (though We are the Ship won a Coretta Scott King award). From what I’ve seen of it—so far, just the cover, online—it looks lovely and cozy and retro in a way I very much like. So The House in the Night is on my reserve list now, too.

 

Here’s a complete list of the ALA Youth Award winners. I did get to read some of the honor books and one winner (what have I been reading, that there are so many I didn’t get to??) and can heartily recommend the Caldecott honor books A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever, by Marla Frazee, and How I Learned Geography, by Uri Shulevitz.

 

Among the Printz honor titles for young adults, I read and was blown away--in different ways--by both The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks by E. Lockhart and Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan.

 

And soon after it showed up in my library, I managed to grab the newest Elephant and Piggie book from Mo Willems, Are You Ready to Play Outside?, and so was pleased, though not surprised, to see that it won this year’s Geisel Award for Most Distinguished Book for Beginning Readers!

 

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A Love Letter to Readers: Inkheart and Its Creators

A few years ago, I was at a library conference, sharing a hotel room with another school librarian. She hit the vendor stalls the first day and came back with a beautiful, chunky, sumptuous-looking red-jacketed volume called Inkheart, and kindly offered to let me at it first, at least for the duration of the conference, since she was in the middle of another book. 

 

I couldn’t tell you a thing about that conference, but I still remember the delicious opening-a-box-of-candy feeling I got when I turned to the first page. Right away, from the opening epigraph to the first glimpse of Meggie, waking up with a book under her pillow, you could tell this book was a love letter to books and to those who love them. The fact that it was written and originally published in German only added to my sense that the author felt like part of a worldwide community of readers, especially reader’s (child-aged or not) of children’s books.

 

Today, the movie version of Inkheart opens. I’m actually not a big viewer of films based on kids’ books—my big-screen child-free moviegoing opportunities are so scarce that I like to spend them on grownup fare—but this one I very much want to see, and soon, while it still has that shiny new feeling that the book had when I first read it.

 

In the meantime, in honor of the film, I’m reprising part of a post I wrote in May, 2007, after hearing Cordelia Funke and her amazingly brilliant translator, Anthea Bell speak at the Serendipity children’s literature conference in Vancouver:

 

 

Anthea Bell spoke first. She is little and understated and elderly and wry and very British. She is also very brilliant, as demonstrated by her three-page list of translating credits in a dizzying array of languages, ranging from Sigmund Freud to all the Asterix books. She spoke about why she got into literary translation (it seemed like a "difficult challenge" and, she noted with some relish, she likes difficult challenges), her opinion of academic degree programs in literary translation (which runs along the lines of "I'm sure it's very fun to do, but it's not a degree that will make much difference to publishers; they just want to know if you can get the job done") and her academic background (in English Literature, not comparative lit, because at that time at Oxford you could only read one or the other and she wanted to take the philology course they had in Eng Lit).

Ms. Bell elaborated with passion about the importance of literature in translation, particularly for children, who are rarely bilingual, and who deserve the chance to read books from other cultures--books that are great, and books that are just fun and enjoyable. She quoted Samuel Johnson who, when asked what books a boy should be given to read, said basically that you should let a young boy [sic.--Samuel Johnson's sic., not Anthea Bell's] read whatever he enjoys so that he learns to like reading; he can pick up the "better" stuff (which at that time would have meant Greek and Latin works in the original) later.

Just before ceding the podium and picking her careful way back to her seat, she spoke a little about the Inkheart books ("tantalizing you," she said sweetly), the third of which Cornelia Funke has just emailed to her this week; it's sitting in her in-box, waiting for her to get back to England and get started reading it [gasps and murmurs from the crowd at this point]. "I've been asked to do a new translation of Kafka's The Castle," she said later in the presentation, "and I told them it will have to wait. [laughter and applause.] It's only fair; Kafka's been translated before."

Then Cornelia Funke got up. And she...she...well, she's about the most stunningly matter-of-factly self-confident human being I think I have sever seen in person, and that includes politicians and rock stars. She spoke without audio-visual aids and without notes. "I don't know how this will go," she smiled; "maybe you'll be really bored." But she didn't seem too worried.

Nor should she have been. She launched into the story of her literary journey (a theme all the presenters had been asked to address): growing up in a small town, books were her addiction, a "legal drug" that she couldn't get enough of. Her parents wanted her to pursue her talent for art, but she saw it as irrelevant and elitist and wanted to change the world. She became a social worker. But "you cannot live against your gifts...you will do what you were born to do, and your gifts will pull and push at you and pain you" until you use them. So she entered the illustrator's program at the university after all, graduated, and got a job illustrating books.

And soon found herself bored with the picture books she was given to illustrate: "Children in classrooms, children in their rooms...German children's literature at that time was very realistic." She wanted to draw fairies and ogres, so she whipped up a little picture book of her own, which was immediately published. Nope; never had a rejection slip [mutters and groans from the audience].

And the rest is more or less history. She wrote and wrote and wrote (which she professes to find painless and joyful--provoking more envious groans from the crowd). She wrote Inkheart as a love letter to books and to her fellow reading addicts, and has been surprised to find it read and loved by many kids who formerly never read books. She lives in Los Angeles now, loves it, and is currently working on a screenplay she was asked to do by one of the producers (I think) of the Harry Potter movies--not a book of her own, but a project based on (an unnamed, super-secret) someone else's book that "very much relates to the fairy tales of the Germans". It's her first time working directly in English, and she's enjoying it, but she thinks she's only a reasonably good writer in English; not as good as she is in German.

When she sold the film rights to Inkheart she asked to be made a producer, and so she's had a say on the director and the cast (Helen Mirren is going to play Elinor), gets to see the rushes, and all that fun stuff. She feels it has "the darkness I wanted" for a film version of the book, and seems genuinely pleased with it, and with everything else in her life.

Finally, the author and translator sat down together, conversed briefly on mike, and then took questions. This was when I got to appreciate the full resplendence of Cornelia Funke's dark brown velvet skirt, and also the genuinely warm working relationship between the two writers, strikingly different as they are (short, tall; English, German; diffident, flamboyant). They obviously admire each other's talents, and feel that each is a better writer because of the other. Cornelia Funke even completely rewrote one of her early novels to make it more worthy for Anthea Bell to translate into English. "I felt so blessed that she put this beautiful glove about the hand of my language," she said.

 

 

If you want more of an Inkheart fix, here’s a link to a bunch of related articles on the Scholastic website, including a video interview with the redoubtable Ms. Funke herself.

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Sunshine State Stories

Greetings from Florida, an enchanted land where the sun shines all day, snow is nonexistent, and my daughter and her little cousin convene peacefully over Playmobils for hours at a time!

When we fled our Northwest home for this vacation (a process that involved dragging our suitcases down our icy and unplowed hill, and a hair-raising and yet agonizingly slow cab ride through snow-blocked streets with a driver who cheerfully explained that he makes most of his money trading stocks on the Internet, and then proceeded to do just that, while driving, until we made him stop) I admit that, aside from the chance to spend time with family, the warmth and the mouse-ears were foremost in my mind.

But there's much more to Florida. When I browsed through the local library catalog today in search of children's books set in the Sunshine State, I realized that my image of the state, and some of my understanding of its complex nature, has been formed by a bunch of children's books. It's such a vivid setting, it's no surprise that it's been the inspiration for some of the most notable kids' novels of recent times--and a few older ones, too, like...

Strawberry Girl, by Lois Lenski. I came upon this 1945 Newbery winner as a kid, and even then it seemed old-fashioned and unthinkably far away (I grew up in New Jersey). Flipping through my sister-in-law's copy the other day, I got a strong, visceral rush of memory, brought on by the illustrations as much as the text: Birdie and her sister walking through the forest to school in their bare feet and sunbonnets; the mean, probably abusive neighbor who lets his pigs forage wild instead of fencing and and feeding them; and of course the cover illustration, the cheerful but slightly stylized Birdie, gathering her the strawberries that her family is optimistically farming under hardscrabble conditions. For anyone who thinks Florida is mainly about beaches, retirees, and Disney, Strawberry Girl offers a humanizing window into the state's real-life history.

Hoot and Flush, both by Carl Hiaasen. It was a good day for children's literature when Florida mystery writer Hiaasen started writing kids' novels. Both of these are about kids who solve mysteries, get in trouble, go on secret missions, cope with irascable school bus enemies and quirky little sisters-- all that fun stuff. But they're also about the constant bitter struggle between Florida's land and ecosystem and the people (in Hiaasen's books, comically mean and nasty people) who want to pave it over and make money off it, by building restaurants in owl's habitats or by dumping sewage into the ocean. The kids save the day, and very entertainingly, but in the meantime you get a strong sense of the powerful forces that are constantly struggling for Florida's soul.

Tangerine, by Edward Bloor. You know that devastation of the environment thing that Florida's got going, that Carl Hiaasen writes about so engagingly? Edward Bloor's got his eye on that, too, only he turns it up to Eleven. On the surface, it's a thriller: Paul is a sort of geeky, legally blind kid who slowly uncovers the truth about his creepy, bullying football-hero older brother, Erik.  But Paul and his family have just moved into a brand-new fancy development in Tangerine, Florida, and all through the book, there's a strong sense of nature fighting back against the humans who are trying blithely to ignore its existence: there are flash floods, sinkholes. weird burning smells...Tangerine is much, much more than a "message" book (I find it weird that it didn't win an award), but the message is there, loud and clear: if you mess with the Earth, the Earth will mess with you.

Because of Winn-Dixie
and The Tiger Rising, both by Kate DiCamillo. The day after we got here, we were out shopping at a strip-mall when I looked across the street and saw a literary landmark: " A Winn-Dixie! Look, look!" I didn't really expect to go in there and find a stray dog that would change my life, as Opal does in DiCamillo's quiet masterpiece, but it did remind me that Winn-Dixie (the book) is actually set in Florida, as is a lesser-known book by the same author, The Tiger Rising, in which a quiet, shy boy discovers a tiger being kept in a cage in the woods behind the hotel where he lives. Come to think of it, both these books have a sort of juxtaposition-of-lush-nature-and-human-commerce element to them, as well. It seems to be a Florida kind of theme.

The View from Saturday and The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World, both by E. L. Konigsburg. Konigsburg is best known for her very New-York-centric From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, but she lives in Florida and is very much a Florida writer. The most memorable sections of The View from Saturday, in which the lives and talents of four smart sixth-graders and their teacher coalesce in an Academic Bowl competition, take place in Florida, where one character has a moment of triumph as best man at his grandfather's wedding, and another, feeling alienated and lonely during a visit to her divorced father, experiences an epiphany while helping sea turtles on the beach (that was my favorite part of the whole book).

Konigsburg's newest novel, The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World, unfolds in the small (and invented) Florida town of St. Malo, in which the flamboyant, cranky, elderly Mrs. Zender is reluctantly preparing the contents of her house for auction, largely assisted by eleven-year-olds William Wilcox, whose mom runs estate sales, and Amadeo Kaplan, who is new in town and mightily peeved about it. Like the others listed here, this book strikes me as a Florida novel not just because it happens to be set there, but in how you get the sense that people's lives, and their treasures, and the complex and untold stories behind both themselves and their possessions, have washed up and come to rest on these seemingly tranquil, sandy shores, and that sunshine and apparent simplicity can hide truths as well as revealing them.

It will come as no surprise to anyone who reads this blog that one of the highlights of this vacation has been a visit to the local library, where my 4-year-old niece proudly showed us all how to use the self-checkout machine. The library building is gorgeous, and the entrance to the children's room is especially striking and brilliant: it's a transparent Lucite arch which is also a huge aquarium filled with vibrant tropical fish. Kids (and visiting adults, too) find it endlessly fascinating, it pays homage to the local ecology, and it appeals to budding scientists and fantasy-lovers alike, because it's both naturalistic and magical. Sort of like Florida itself, and the literature it has inspired.

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Cybils Finalists!

It's here! It's here! Oh Frabjuous day! Calloo, Callay! I chortle in my joy.

No, I have not just slain the Jabberwock, nor has my beamish girl (who is not very beamish right now—she's flomped across the couch, whining that she is TOO TIRED to clean the fish tank, or even to finish her pizza. She had a sleepover last night). Rather, it is Cybils Finalist Time!

Yes, the 2008 Children's and Young Adult Bloggers' Literary Awards have announced their finalists in nine different genres (eleven, really, since graphic novels and fantasy/science fiction are each split into younger kid/older kid sub-categories). And a fine bunch they are, too.

I'm in awe of the panelists, who had to track down and read a truly astounding number of nominees (over 100, for some categories) to winnow them down to these short lists of five to seven titles for each category. And I'm excited about the featured titles. There are some that I've read and have loved, like, Ten Cents a Dance, a knockout historical novel that's a finalist in the Young Adult Fiction category, and Chester's Back, a Fiction Picture Book finalist that continues the adventures of Chester, a charmingly insousciant and independent cat who just won't listen to his author and tries to take over the book.

And there are some that I haven't read and now want even more to get my hands on: like We Are the Ship: The Story of the Negro League Baseball, a middle-grade nonfiction title that sounds so good it might make me overcome my antipathy to reading about sports. Then there's The Graveyard Book, which is also in a genre I don't usually go near—horror, in this case—but its description in the fantasy/science fiction finalist list is so intriguing—who would expect the story of a boy being raised by ghosts to be "full of humor [and] loveable characters"?—that I'm going to have to give it a try.

But the list I've been studying most carefully is the Easy Reader Finalists. This year, I'm a judge in this category, and since I'll be on vacation from work next week I'm looking forward to having lots of time to read the finalists, and to test-drive them on various young readers. Will I get quiet time, like Houndsley and Catina? Go to tea, like Maybelle?  Think like a pig, like Mercy? Or will I love my new toy and surprise my friend? Stay tuned!

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