Friday, January 29, 2010

Reflections on the Newbery Medal

A week ago Monday (January 18, 2010), at the American Library Association conference in Boston, Mass., the 2010 Newbery and Caldecott Awards were announced.

Last week, we explored a few of the guidelines for the Caldecott Medal. This week, I thought it would be interesting to reflect a bit on the guidelines given to the Newbery committee. Like the books that have received the Caldecott Medal and honors, the Newbery Medal and Honor books also reflect a wide range of topics and genres. Here is the charge of the Newbery committee: “The Medal shall be awarded annually to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children published by an American publisher in the United States in English during the preceding year. There are no limitations as to the character of the book considered except that it be original work. Honor books may be named. These shall be books that are also truly distinguished.”

“There are no limitations as to the character of the book considered...” gives the committee a great deal of leeway. In Leonard Marcus’s book Funny Business: Conversations with Writers of Comedy, three of the writers he interviewed have won the Newbery Medal, and his questions get to the heart of their approach to writing and their affinity for humor as a means of communication. Other books that were considered “distinguished” by past Newbery Committees have run the gamut from poetry to biography to fiction.

Looking at this year’s Newbery winner and honor books alone, we see a diversity of topics and approaches. Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me, which won the 2010 Newbery Medal last week, is set in 1970s Manhattan on the Upper West Side, with a time travel puzzle at its core, and a heroine named Miranda trying to make sense of a world whose parameters are expanding in so many ways. (Another fun fact: Miranda’s favorite well-worn book, A Wrinkle in Time, also won a Newbery Medal.) The Newbery Honor book The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly explores the changes going on in a small town in Texas in 1899, and 11-year-old Callie, who’s more interested in science than cooking and sewing; the book explores the impact of Darwin’s ideas on Callie and how scientific breakthroughs are affecting the society in which she lives. Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin, also an Honor book, is a timeless quest story set in China that seamlessly weaves Chinese folklore into the narrative with occasional glorious full-color, silkscreen-like illustrations. Then there’s The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg by Rodman Philbrick, in which 12-year-old narrator Homer adopts a tall-tale tone but also gets across the horrors of the Civil War, and the nonfiction title Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Phillip Hoose, which draws from interviews with Ms. Colvin and archival photographs to tell the story of 15-year-old Claudette Colvin’s brave decision to defy segregation in 1955 Alabama. Whew! Can you imagine a greater range of tone and topic, from history to time travel to folklore and tall tale?

Many teachers and librarians conduct “mock Newbery” discussions, to contemplate what makes a book “distinguished” and to choose the best of the year’s offerings. From the diversity of titles in this year’s mix, you can see how much depends upon the makeup of the committee and the discussion around each individual book. Does your school or local library host a discussion? If not, and if your son or daughter is interested, why not approach a teacher or librarian about starting one?

Friday, January 22, 2010

Reflections on the Caldecott Medal

On Monday (January 18, 2010), at the American Library Association conference in Boston, Mass., the 2010 Newbery and Caldecott Awards were announced. That ceremony has often been called the equivalent of “the Oscars” for all of us in the children’s book field.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Caldecott Medal, primarily because of the wildly diverse range of winners and honor books the category has included. Here is the charge of the Caldecott Committee: “The[ Caldecott Medal] shall be awarded to the artist of the most distinguished American Picture Book for Children published in the United States during the preceding year. The award shall go to the artist, who must be a citizen or resident of the United States, whether or not he be the author of the text.”

The guidelines for the committee appear in their entirety on the ALSC (the Association for Library Services to Children) Web site, but the line of greatest interest to me is this one: “A ‘picture book for children’ as distinguished from other books with illustrations, is one that essentially provides the child with a visual experience. A picture book has a collective unity of story--line, theme, or concept, developed through the series of pictures of which the book is comprised.”

Consider this year’s Caldecott Medal-winner, Jerry Pinkney’s The Lion and the Mouse. Aside from a few animal sounds, there is no text at all. The entire story unfolds through the “visual experience.” What greater “unity of story,... developed through the series of pictures” could a book have? Notice how he varies the pacing: full-bleed spreads of the lion staring at the mouse that’s disturbed him, for instance, and much later in the story, a series of small panel illustrations when the mouse works to free the lion from his trap made of rope. (Full-bleed refers to the illustrations “bleeding” off the edges of the paper, using the full expanse of the spread.)

Then look at this year’s Caldecott Honor book illustrated by Marla Frazee, All the World. Nowhere in Liz Garton Scanlon’s text does it say anything about a family. That whole story line is developed through the illustrations alone, and yet it provides the through line for all of the other activities in the community. Thus Frazee creates a “unity of story” within the lines suggested in Scanlon’s lilting poem. The poem's overriding theme explores the idea that all the small moments connect to a larger shared experience—and it plays out in Frazee’s intimate scenes, or vignettes, that lead up to majestic full-bleed spreads.

Contrast those with the 2008 Caldecott Medal–winning The Invention of Hugo Cabret, in which Brian Selznick creates stretches of wordless sequences that move the story forward, within a larger prose narrative. The story is about a filmmaker, so the idea that the book “essentially provides the child with a visual experience” contributes a great deal to the reader’s experience.

These are fun conversations to have with young people. Their observations are so keen, and when they feel passionately about a book (whether for OR against it), they come up with some very persuasive arguments. Give it a try!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Watching for Clues

When we are in a country where we don’t know the language, we look for clues—visual clues. We watch the expressions on people’s faces to gauge whether or not we're communicating effectively, we observe the direction people are moving in to see where to go, and we take note of how others are using any unusual utensils for a meal we’ve never eaten.

A good picture book gives children hints as to what’s going on. The illustrations help youngest children become oriented to the setting and the characters. And if a book is funny, as with Doreen Cronin and Betsy Lewin’s Click, Clack, ABC, the pictures may work in tandem with the text, expand on the text, or create a contrast with the text to create humor.

For babies and toddlers, a good book makes them feel comfortable in surroundings that seem familiar, and then nudges them to discover new things. When humor is involved, they feel like they’re in on the joke. Toddlers look at the cover of Click, Clack, ABC and know they’re in a barnyard. They see the red barn, and the animals. They also see that the animals seem to be headed together in the same direction, and a cow is licking its lips. What could this mean? On further readings, they might realize that “a” corresponds with “animals,” “b” with “barn,” and “c” stands for the "cat" that’s playing with the ball of yarn.

Inside the book, there’s a great deal of silliness and humor. They find, for "g" and "h": “Goats grooming, hens helping.” Do goats “groom”? We’ve all seen animals in our own homes and neighborhoods, in zoos or on TV grooming each other. Dogs lick their puppies, cats clean their kittens, monkeys pick things out of their siblings’ fur. But here a yellow goat is combing the beard of a white goat—literally, with a comb! That’s funny! And two hens are “helping” by tying a kerchief around the neck of the yellow goat.

Cronin and Lewin take a child’s interest in letters, in being able to express themselves and communicate with others, and also their natural fascination with animals, and the information that they've likely already absorbed about the farmyard, and give children a chance to play. Afterwards, like the animals, children can take a well-deserved siesta (“Zzzzzz”).

Friday, January 8, 2010

What Makes a Hero?

Is it who someone is? Or what they do? The story of Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Phillip Hoose, suggests that a hero is a combination of both.

Even at the age of 15, Claudette Colvin’s conviction that what was happening around her was inhumane led her to do something about it. She believed, as an African American teenager, that it was her constitutional right to remain seated on a segregated bus in 1955 Alabama (nine months before Rosa Parks took the same action), even if a white passenger was demanding her seat. Her act of courage began a chain of events that set off the Montgomery bus boycott.

Hoose begins the book with this quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Claudette Colvin had seen adults complain about the injustices of segregation at home, but say and do nothing about them in public. She had watched her schoolmate condemned to death for a crime he did not commit. She called it, “the turning point of my life.” She could not stand by and watch unjust laws terrorize her friends and community. Her brave act of defiance against the segregation laws of the deep South came with a cost. She was not fully supported at the time of her bravery, and she lived “in voluntary exile” much of her life, according to Phillip Hoose when I had a chance to interview him. But she had to live with her conscience.

Struggling with one’s conscience is often challenging, but it can be especially difficult for teens. As a teenager, you do not yet have the rights an adult has; the opinion of one’s peers seems crucially important. And often it seems as if nothing you could do would make a difference anyway. But Claudette Colvin’s example suggests that there’s a great deal we can do as individuals, no matter whether we are adults or teenagers.

This book sets the record straight. It completes the history of the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott. It lets young people know that the history books do not always tell the full story. But more importantly, it makes clear that history is made up of individuals and singular events, that sweeping social changes begin with one person taking a stand. And, as Claudette Colvin’s story proves, young people are often at the heart of these sweeping social changes. If she can do what’s right in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, her story seems to say, we can, too.