Tuesday, March 24, 2015

March Madness for Book Lovers

While college basketball fans huddle over their brackets, book lovers have their own brand of March Madness. Libraries and bookstores across the country hold tournaments that pit one book against another; some of these literary tournaments are aimed at adults, others at teens or kids. All are designed to offer a literary twist on what has become the annual American event called March Madness.

My favorite of all of these literary book tournaments is The Battle of the Kids' Books,  a contest sponsored by School Library Journal. Now in its seventh year, The Battle of the Kids' Books pits some of the best books of the past year against each other. The judges are well-known children's & teen authors, each of whom must compare two books that are essentially apples and oranges and then pick a winner. A recent example: author Cat Winters had to choose between El Deafo and The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza. 

Talk about a great bracket!

Reading these literary justifications is a daily treat during The Battle of the Kids' Books season, as each of the essays is well-reasoned, beautifully-written and incredibly thought-provoking. The daily responses by the "kid commentators" also are just amazing in their clarity and the scope of the literary knowledge demonstrated by these young people. And don't overlook the witty illustrations of the anthropomorphized books duking it out with each other.

Will this be a Round Two winner?
Or will El Deafo triumph?

Even if you haven't followed it at all yet this year, The Battle of the Kids' Books still offers some great reading. I haven't been able to keep on top of the brackets each day but get great pleasure out of catching up by reading several essays in one day (of course, I work hard to keep myself from learning the winners of each bracket until I read the essays). Meanwhile, there still are some extra thrills and chills yet to come. Round Three begins on Thursday, March 26. So far, there's only one of two brackets filled out: Brown Girl Dream is pitted against El Deafo. The second bracket won't be filled until after I post this; so far it's The Port Chicago 50 battling against either This One Summer or West of the Moon. We'll know for sure tomorrow.

There's still more excitement, due to the unveiling of the "Undead" winner next Monday, March 30. Before the beginning of The Battle of the Kids' Books, anyone interested can vote for the book that they hope will "come back from the dead," if it has been eliminated by the end of Round Three. It's a fun concept, which throws a nice-sized monkey wrench into the works by creating a three-way bracket-- instead of the traditional two-way bracket -- in the final round. Wish good luck to the final round judge, Newbery Medalist Clare Vanderpool -- she'll need it!

So come catch the literary March Madness at The Battle of the Kids' Books. You'll discover some great books, memorable writing and a whole community of fellow lovers of kids' and teen books.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

A Harmonica Echoes for Pam Muñoz Ryan

It was one of those moments of pure serendipity. Six years ago, author Pam Muñoz Ryan was in Lemon Grove, Calif., researching what she thought would be her next book, a novel based on what is now considered the first successful school desegregation case, Robert Alvarez vs. the Board of Trustees of the Lemon Grove School District.

As she flipped through school yearbooks of the time period, Pam was transfixed by a photo of a band of children who were all playing one instrument -- the harmonica.When Pam asked about it, she was nonchalantly told: "Oh yes, that was our elementary school harmonica band. It was during the big harmonica band movement."

"That phrase -- 'the big harmonica band movement' -- was like someone dangling a carrot in front of me," Pam told a group of kids and adults gathered recently in my library (thanks to our partnership with Politics & Prose Bookstore). Pam readily admitted that she decided to go for the carrot, and began there and then to research the harmonica band movement, learning that, at one time, "there were 2,500 harmonica bands in the United States!"

That moment of serendipity convinced Pam to totally scrap the original idea for her next novel and instead focus on the way the harmonica might have changed people's lives. The result is Echo (Scholastic, $19.99, ages 9-14), a 587-page novel in which Pam writes of three very different characters who find themselves transformed by a magical harmonica. Each of the characters lives in a slightly different time period: Friedrich in 1933 Germany just as Hitler was gathering power; Mike in Pennsylvania in 1935 during the Great Depression; and Ivy in California in 1942, just after the United States entered World War II.

"When I heard about the harmonica bands, I was very intrigued that the same type of harmonica was used in little country school bands and also big harmonica bands," Pam said. "And so I began to wonder,  'What if one harmonica was passed from character to character?'"

As part of her research for the book, Pam visited the Hohner harmonica factory in Trossingen, Germany. It's a place that is fairly close to the Black Forest, the setting of many fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm. In another case of serendipity, Pam realized that using a fairy tale framework was the perfect way of tying together her characters' disparate stories in Echo.

"I didn't want their stories to be just episodic," Pam said. "So I started imagining the harmonica's back story, how it became to be infused with magic."

There was one problem: Pam had never written a fairy tale, and found that the genre challenged her authorial skills.

"Writing a  fairy tale is the opposite of writing a narrative.... In a narrative, you are taught to show, and not to tell. In a fairy tale, you tell, instead of show. There is no back story in a fairy tale. And, in a narrative, you don't want to make all of your characters all good or all bad. But in a fairy tale, you can do that because readers are supposed to suspend their disbelief and allow the magic to work."

Pam signs books for excited young fans.

Pam also was concerned about giving some kind of inspiration to her three characters, and the power of music was the perfect answer. Music helps each of the characters survive a very dark period in their lives. For Friedrich, it is the rise of Hitler and the fact that his birth mark makes him stand out -- not in a good way -- in a society focused on a perfect race. Mike, meanwhile, is an orphan who believes he must try to make his way in the difficult economic situation of the Great Depression. And Ivy is stunned by the segregation she suddenly faces in her new school district after her family moves from one part of California to another. For each of them, the same magic harmonica provides both inspiration and a connection through time.

In Echo, Pam conveys the harmonica's magic in a few lines of lyrical poetry:

"Your fate is not yet sealed.
Even in the darkest night, a star will shine,
A bell will chime, a path will be revealed."

Just published a couple of weeks ago, Echo has won rave reviews from critics. Writing in The New York Times, author John Stephens said simply: "Start to finish, the book is a joy to read." Publishers Weekly noted: "Each individual story is engaging, but together they harmonize to create a thrilling hole." And Kirkus Reviews called Echo "a grand narrative that examines the power of music to inspire beauty in a world overrun with fear and intolerance," adding that "it's worth every moment of readers' time." Pam also talked about the book with Roger Sutton, editor of The Horn Book.

Pam, meanwhile, is still basking in the glow of having finished a book that took six years -- the longest of any of her books, which include the best-selling Esperanza Rising, which is celebrating its 15th birthday and was recently named one of the best 100 children's books by TIME magazine. Asked what she's planning to do next, Pam noted that she's just finished another book in her popular Tony Baloney series of beginning readers: Tony Baloney: Pen Pal, which will be published in June. Pam also has enjoyed doing a book tour for Echo; as part of her presentation at my library, she wowed the crowd by playing America the Beautiful on the harmonica.

While Pam revels in being a full-time writer, she was a late bloomer who turned to writing only after a career as a teacher and raising a family. But Pam has always been a reader, and actually read some of the encyclopedias in her grandmother's house. As she says in the autobiography posted on her website: "My favorite volume was G, because it contained an illustrated section of Greek myths."

Politics & Prose display of Pam's books at our library event.

Books and reading became a real lifeline for Pam when her family moved from one side of Bakerfield, Calif. to the other when she was in the fifth grade. Suddenly she was the new kid, and to ease the transition, Pam spent the summer at the local library. She also found solace in music. As she told the crowd at my library: "During a somewhat awkward time in my life, books and writing and music saved me."

Pam added: "I write about the things I wanted to read about when I was a kid. And I write for the age when books made a difference in my life." In her website autobiography, Pam says that "today, I cannot imagine not writing. But I have a very practical approach to it. It is my job. One that I love. I want to deliver, for my publisher, for my reader, and for myself."

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Kirby Larson's Gem of a Scott O'Dell Winner

Generally, I agree with author Gordon Korman when he says that "a book with an award sticker and a dog on the cover means that dog is a goner." (See the previous blog post for how Korman has cleverly responded to this challenge). But there are exceptions to every rule, and Dash, a novel by Newbery Honor author Kirby Larson, is one great exception. Yes, there's a tug-at-your-heartstrings cute dog on the cover of Dash, and the book won the 2015 Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction. Yet, while I won't give away the ending, suffice to say that it's a -- relatively -- happy one.

I use the word "relatively" because Larson's story is focused on a shameful chapter of American history: the internment of 120,000 Japanese immigrants and Japanese-Americans, called the Nikkei, during World War 2 after Pearl Harbor was bombed. In Dash, Larson tells the story of a Seattle girl named Mitsi Kashino, whose life is turned upside down when she and her family are among thousands of Japanese-American forced into barren, make-shift internment camps far from their homes. Mitsi and her family must leave behind most of their belongings, which is bad enough, but things turn tragic for Mitsi when she is prohibited from bringing her beloved dog Dash. Her only consolation is that she is able to find Dash a home with a friendly neighbor.

While Mitsi and her family try to make the best of life in first one, and then another internment camp, Mitsi's keen longing for Dash is a constant ache. She does find some solace in the form of the letters she receives from Dash -- obviously written by his temporary new owner. The letters themselves cheer Mitsi, who finds pleasure in replying with letters of her own in which she describes her challenging new life, including her worries that her older brother is being led astray by some of questionable camp friends.

As she details Mitsi's experiences, Larson helps young readers explore the emotional ramifications of the Japanese internment camps, especially for children. Larson doesn't sugarcoat the deprivations endured by the Japanese in the internment camps: the terrible (and often monotonous) food; the few toilets for so many people; the one-room "houses" for each family; the constant dirt;  the barbed wire fence that prevents anyone from leaving, etc. But, as she highlights Mitsi's resilience, Larson also pays homage to the courage of the Japanese internees, who worked hard to make as normal a life for themselves as possible under extremely trying conditions. As Larson writes of Mitsi: "Because of the camps, life was never going to be the same. But that didn't mean that life couldn't be okay."

Dash isn't a perfect book; the ending, in particular, feels rushed. Nevertheless Larson has written a memorable, important book that offers a thought-provoking look at a still too-little-known event in American history. Dash also is a very readable book, and kids will find themselves engrossed in Mitsi's story and cheering for a happy ending. 

Author Kirby Larson

In an author's note at the end, Larson writes that she got the idea for Dash after reading about a woman named Mitsue "Mitsi" Shiraishi. When the evacuations of Japanese-Americans began in 1942, this real-life, adult Mitsi wrote to Gen. John L. DeWitt, the man in charge of the relocation program, asking if she could bring her much-loved dog, Chubby, with her to the camp. DeWitt's office replied no, and so Chubby was left to the care of a neighbor who kept a diary of his first week, and made it seem as if Chubby himself had written the diary.  A year later, the rules at the camps were changed to allow pets, and the real-life Mitsi was reunited with Chubby.

"Like Mitsi, and maybe like many of you, I also have a dog," Larson writes in the author's note. "I can barely stand to be apart from Winston (her dog) for one day. I can't imagine how hard it was for Mitsi to be separated from Chubby when she had no idea how long the separation would last.  After I heard their story, I began to think about all of the Nikkei -- especially the children -- who were forced to leave their pets behind when they were sent to the war relocation camps. Every story needs a heart hook, and that was mine."

Sunday, February 15, 2015

A Visit from "Masterminds" Author Gordon Korman

Gordon Korman -- a.k.a "the G-Man" or "Special K" -- says he's been writing for more than three-quarters of his life. It's not that he's that old, it's just that he wrote his first book when he was 12 years old and in the 7th grade. It was published when he was 14 and a freshman in high school; by the time he graduated from high school, he had written and published five books.

Photo by Owen Kassimir

Now 51 years old, Gordon has published an astounding 85 books. More than 25 million copies of those books have been sold, and the books have been translated into nearly 30 languages. Gordon's trademarks as an author include writing fast-paced plots and creating believable characters with whom any young reader can identify. His books include: "Ungifted;" the "Swindle" series; the "Dive," "Everest," "Island" and "Titanic" trilogies, and books in the best-selling "39 Clues" series. (One of Gordon's early books also has my vote for one of the catchiest kid's book titles ever:  Nose Pickers From Outer Space.)

Gordon recently visited my library as part of our partnership with Politics & Prose, the premier Washington, D.C. independent bookstore. He was in town promoting his newest novel, Masterminds (Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins, $16.99, ages 8-12).  It's a page-turner of the first order in which five kids discover that their seemingly perfect town hides some disturbing secrets, some of which shake them to their emotional core. Gordon lets each character take a turn telling parts of the story, a device that adds both interest and suspense. I got an advance review copy of the book, and once I started reading it, I couldn't put the book down, and ended up reading it straight through -- something I rarely do. It's clear that this will be one of our most popular new books at the library, perfect for both kids who enjoy complex thrillers and for reluctant readers who will find themselves pulled into the story from the first page.

Booklist agrees, giving Masterminds a starred review and noting : "The compelling, twisty mystery has a truly gratifying payoff, and the emotional depth of the characters, not to mention the steadily building pace, will keep readers engaged to the final page, which happily lays the groundwork for a sequel." Kirkus, meanwhile, said of Masterminds: “A fresh premise, good pacing, surprising twists and engaging characters all combine to make this a series worth following."

 Gordon himself is an engaging speaker, and his presentation at the library drew a good number of both new and longtime fans. One adult fan brought her copy of one of the first books Gordon ever published, saying it still was one of her all-time favorites and asking him to sign it for her. Audience members were fascinated by the fact the Gordon published his first book at such a young age. He explained that owed it to the fact that his English teacher in the 7th grade was the school's track coach. The coach had never taught English before and, for a creative writing assignment, told his students: "Just work on whatever you want for the rest of the year."

The result was Gordon's first novel, This Can't Be Happening at Macdonald Hall!. Gordon just happened to be the class representative for the Scholastic Arrow Book Club "and so I thought I was practically an employee." Once he finished his manuscript (typed by his mother), Gordon mailed it to the same address where he sent the book order forms. Somehow, his manuscript found its way to the right person at Scholastic and "a few days after my 13th birthday, I signed a contract for my first book." The book was published a year later, and Gordon's career path was set, although he did take time to earn a degree in dramatic visual writing from New York University.

At the library presentation, Gordon spent time answering questions from the audience. As always, someone wanted to know where he gets his ideas. Gordon responded that one way he gets ideas is by "observing things." For example, Gordon said he observed that "a book with an award sticker and a dog on the cover means that dog is a goner." So he decided to write No More Dead Dogs, in which a student whose school essay pans a classic book in which a dog dies is punished by being forced to be part of the school play -- based on that classic book. In Gordon's usual style, however, the student has the final word and all turns out well, even for the dog.

Research also is important in developing ideas for his books, Gordon added. For example, he had the idea of writing a series about kids who were vying to be the youngest-ever climber on Mount Everest. Gordon was able to add even more drama when he learned through research that there's not enough oxygen at the highest reaches of Everest to allow a rescue helicopter if a climber gets into trouble. As he put it: "Writing adventure stories is the art of coming up with cool stuff that goes wrong."

 Finally, the question "What if?" provides many great book ideas, Gordon said, adding that's how he got the idea of Masterminds. Gordon started thinking about "whether people are good or evil as part of their nature or whether it's by experience." So he though, "what if there was an experiment that cloned exact copies of some of the worst people ever?" The clones would then be raised in a "perfect place," where they would be raised as regular kids by people they would think were their natural parents. For the experiment to work, however the cloned kids couldn't ever know about it. Of course, that's exactly what does happen in Masterminds, as the five main characters come to the realization that their town -- and the only life they've known -- is a sham.

"It was a challenge to write about these kids who are exact copies of some of the worst bank robbers and gangsters, but who are also real kids," Gordon said. But he wouldn't answer the question of exactly who the kids are cloned from, saying that revelation "comes late  in the series."

Soon enough it was time for the evening's last question, so Gordon would have enough time to sign everyone's books. "What author would you most like to meet?" asked a young audience member. Gordon was quick with his answer: Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling. Why? Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (the first book in the series) is a book that Gordon re-reads almost every year. "It is like an instruction manual for writing a great kid's book. It's got everything in it. So she is the one author I absolutely would love to meet."

END NOTES: Thanks to Kerri Poore of Politics & Prose for setting up the event with us, and to Caroline Sun of HarperCollins for sending me an advance copy of Masterminds, and all of the jpgs and info I needed to publicize the event and make it a success.

And thanks to Gordon himself for such a great presentation, and especially for signing my 24-year-old daughter's copies of the Everest trilogy -- a series that inspired her to become a rock climber.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Surprise & Delight at the Youth Media Awards

Today's Youth Media Awards were filled with high emotion, with the crowd of several hundred alternately gasping in surprise and/or roaring with delight. The awards also were history-making as, for the first time ever, graphic novels won a Newbery Honor (El Deafo, written and illustrated by Cece Bell) and a Caldecott Honor (This One Summer, illustrated by Jillian Tamaki and written by Mariko Tamaki). And the Caldecott Medal winner, The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend), was written and illustrated by Dan Santat who also is well known for his popular graphic novels.

Winner of the 2015 Caldecott Medal

This One Summer also won a Printz Honor (the Printz Award is given for books for readers ages 12-18 and is sometimes called the Newbery Medal for teens). But a graphic novel, American Born Chinese, written and illustrated by Gene Luen Yang, won the top Printz Award way back in 2007, so today wasn't a history-making moment for the Printz. Meanwhile, the 2008 Caldecott Medal winner, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, is considered a hybrid book, not a graphic novel, but it did feature a heavily-woven combination of illustrations and text.

Winner of the 2015 Newbery Medal

The current push for more diversity in children's and teen books, sparked by the We Need Diverse Books movement, also was reflected in today's winners. The Crossover, a novel in verse by Kwame Alexander, is the 2015 Newbery Medal winner. Alexander is the fourth African-American author to win the award, established in 1922. The three previous African-American winners were: Virginia Hamilton, for the 1975 Newbery Medal winning M.C. Higgins, the Great; Mildred Taylor, for the 1977 Newbery Medal book, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry; and Christopher Paul Curtis for the 2000 Newbery Medal winner, Bud, Not Buddy.

Brown Girl Dreaming, author Jacqueline Woodson's memoir in verse about growing up in the midst of the civil rights movement, won a 2015 Newbery Honor, as well as this year's  Coretta Scott King Author Award and a 2015 Robert Sibert Honor (the Sibert Medal and Honor books are focused on the best non-fiction books for kids). Brown Girl Dreaming also won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature back in November.

As Nina Lindsay points out in her Heavy Medablog today, poetry also was a big winner in today's awards. Both The Crossover and Brown Girl Dreaming are written in verse, while author Marilyn Nelson uses 50 unrhymed sonnets to tell her story in How I Discovered Poetry. Two other books of poetry won awards: Josphine, a biography of entertainer Josephine Baker written by Patricia Hruby Powell and illustrated by Christian Robinson won both a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor and a Sibert Honor, while books by two poets were honored by the Pura Belpre Award committee. I Lived on Butterfly Hill, written by Marjorie Agosin won the Pura Belpre Author Award, while Portraits of Hispanic American Heroes by Juan Felipe Herrara was the lone Pura Belpre Author Honor book.

Woodson's book captured three awards today.

Several committees selected a large number of Honor books (each committee decides how many Honor books, if any, will be named). There were five Sibert Honor books: in addition to Brown Girl Dreaming and Josephine, Sibert Honor books included The Family Romanov by Candace Fleming; Neighborhood Sharks, written and illustrated by Katherine Roy, and Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez & Her Family's Fight for Desegregation, written and illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh.

But it was the six Caldecott Honor books that really produced a gasp, then a roar of approval, from the audience. Apparently there may have been other years where six Honor books were named (I'm still checking!), but it certainly isn't usual. Yet, 2014 was a banner year for picture books, and the crowd was clearly delighted that the committee's decision reflected this fact.

The first graphic novel to win a Caldecott Honor.

In addition to This One Summer, Caldecott Honor books included: Nana in the City, written and illustrated by Lauren Castillo; The Noisy Paint Box, illustrated by Mary GrandPre and written by Barb Rosenstock; Sam & Dave Dig a Hole, illustrated by 2013 Caldecott Medalist Jon Klassen and written by Mac Barnett; Viva Frida, written and illustrated by Yuyi Morales; and The Right Word: Roget and his Thesaurus, illustrated by Melissa Sweet and written by Jen Bryant. The Right Word also won the 2015 Sibert Medal, the second for Sweet, who won the 2012 Sibert Medal for Balloons Over Broadway, which she both wrote and illustrated. (Personal note: I served on the 2012 Sibert Committee).

The 2015 Caldecott Medal winner, The Adventures of Beekle, had been popular with some mocks, but wasn't widely considered a front runner. When it was announced as the winner, however, the audience cheered in approval as the Caldecott Committee members donned crowns, symbolic of the crown sported by Beekle.

As for how my library's Caldecott Club and Mock Caldecott picks measured up? Well, we got a few things right. Our own Mock Caldecott Honor Books included two of the actual 2015 Caldecott Honor Books, The Noisy Paint Box and The Right Word. But our top pick, The Farmer and the Clown, written and illustrated by Marla Frazee, surprisingly didn't win anything. It was a similar situation for our Caldecott Club. Our winner, Quest, written and illustrated by Aaron Becker, didn't win anything. But one of the Club's two Honor books, Sam & Dave Dig a Hole, won a 2015 Caldecott Honor.

The first graphic novel to win a Newbery Honor.

Meanwhile, the 2015 Newbery Committee, like the 2015 Caldecott Committee, also decided to include a graphic novel, El Deafo, as one of their Honor books. (Author/illustrator Cece Bell came to our library in November along with her husband, author/illustrator Tom Angleberger, and authors Jon Scieszka, Mac Barnett and Jory John). The Newbery Committee, sporting t-shirts that read "Trust the Process," named only two Honor books, to the evident disappointment of the audience, who clearly would have liked to have seen more Newbery Honor books.  Brown Girl Dreaming was the other Newbery Honor book.

And let me close this blog post with a shout-out to a long-time mentor of mine, Deb Taylor, who is the coordinator of School and Student Services at the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore. Deb was my young adult literature professor when I was working towards my master's in library science at the University of Maryland, and she and I also served on the 2012 Sibert Committee together. (She was chair of the 2015 Sibert Committee). Deb has mentored and inspired countless librarians, kids and parents, and I'm thrilled that she was chosen as this year's winner of the Coretta Scott King-Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement. Way to go, Deb!

Deb Taylor and I after she was honored today

PS If you, like me, can't get enough of these awards, check out this wonderful behind the scenes video of today's winners getting "The Call." Thanks to John Schumacher for spotlighting it on his blog, Watch. Connect Read. 

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Books & a Blizzard

Even a Chicago blizzard can't dim the excitement as librarians eagerly await the big "Youth Media Awards" announcements -- always the highlight of the American Library Association's Midwinter conference.

At 8 a.m. CST tomorrow, several hundred librarians will pack into a room at the McCormick Convention to learn which books will win the "Oscars" of the children's literature world: the Caldecott Medal, given for illustrations, and the Newbery Medal, given for text. Those winners will be the last two announced at the hour-long program, during which a number of other awards also will be bestowed; among them, the Coretta Scott King Award (focused on books by African-American authors and illustrators), the Sibert Medal (given to the best non-fiction book for kids), the Pura Belpre Award (spotlighting books by Latino authors and illustrators), and a number of others.

The program will be broadcast live. There's also a couple of fun pre-announcement and post-announcement shows, hosted by librarians Betsy Bird and Lori Prince. Betsy also has compiled a list of all the Mock Caldecott and Mock Newbery winners she could find; it makes interesting reading.

Last week, we held our first-ever Mock Caldecott at my library, and we made our own choices for the 2015 Caldecott. There were a dozen of us, and our nearly unanimous winner was The Farmer and the Clown, written and illustrated by Marla Frazee. The Farmer and the Clown also has won a number of other Mock Caldecotts around the country, and it was the winner on the Calling Caldecott blog, so we're in good company.

Our Mock Caldecott group also chose four Honor books (listed here in order of title): Bad Bye, Good Bye, written by Deborah Underwood and illustrated by Jonathan Bean; The Iridescence of Birds, written by Newbery Medalist Patricia MacLachlan and illustrated by Hadley Hooper; The Noisy Paint Box, written by Barb Rosenstock and illustrated by Mary GrandPre; and The Right Word, written by Jen Bryant and illustrated by Melissa Sweet.

Just a few more hours to see how close we came!

Friday, January 16, 2015

Our 2015 Caldecott Club Winners!

We have a winner! My library's Caldecott Club voted earlier this week for their 2015 Caldecott Medal pick. And -- drumroll, please! -- the 2015 Caldecott Club winner is Quest, written and illustrated by Aaron Becker.

We also chose two Caldecott Club Honor Books: Sam & Dave Dig a Hole, written by Mac Barnett and illustrated by 2013 Caldecott Medalist Jon Klassen (This Is Not My Hat) , and Blizzard, written and illustrated by John Rocco, who won a 2012 Caldecott Honor for Blackout.

These winners were chosen from our six finalists, which also included: The Iridescence of Birds, written by Newbery Medalist Patricia MacLachlan and illustrated by Hadley Hooper; Froodle, written and illustrated by Antoinette Portis; and Bad Bye, Good Bye, written by Deborah Underwood and illustrated by Jonathan Bean.

Now, the thing to remember about our monthly Caldecott Club is that it attracts a mix of kids and adults. In fact, we've taken to calling it our "family book club." The kids range in age from 3 through 12, and the adults are generally their parents. Every once in a while we get an adult who isn't a parent but just enjoys children's literature.

Because we have such a mix of ages and stages, our Caldecott Club doesn't operate formally like a Mock Caldecott. Instead, it's a rather free-form program where we read together four or five picture books -- using our ELMO overhead projector and screen so everyone can see them -- and then discuss their merits. We use a set of "kid-friendly" Caldecott criteria developed by my colleague Dave Burbank, who also is a master of running the ELMO while reading aloud the books. It's not an easy thing to master -- it's a bit like walking and chewing gum at the same time -- but Dave makes it look easy.

While I try to remind everyone that we really are focusing on illustrations, not the text, it's often hard for Caldecott Club participants -- both kids and adults -- to keep that in mind. That's especially true when Dave, an acting major in college, does such a great job of narrating a wordless book like Quest, or hamming it up with a comic text such as the one in Froodle. Because the Caldecott Club is just meant to be fun and an opportunity to share great new illustrated books, however, we don't strictly enforce the idea of sticking with the criteria. We frequently mention the criteria and point out ways that a book's illustrations do, or don't, meet the criteria, but then let the discussion go where it will.

What really interesting is how kids really LOOK at the illustrations, while many adults focus much more on the text. So it's an opportunity for kids to learn more about how illustrations work to create a story, and for adults to sharpen their visual learning skills. And frankly, it's just a blast to have a roomful of folks of all ages talking together about some of the best new kids' books!

I'll admit that, while I acknowledge and admire Becker's artistic talent, Quest wouldn't have been my first choice; I was pulling for The Iridescence of Birds, or maybe Bad Bye, Good Bye. But Quest was the club's clear favorite, while Sam & Dave Dig a Hole and Blizzard ran neck and neck as second choices.

We'll soon see how the club's selection match up to the actual 2015 Caldecott Medal winner, which will be announced on the morning of Feb. 2 at the American Library Association's Midwinter meeting in Chicago. In the two years of our Caldecott Club's existence, we've never voted for the actual winner, but the actual winner has always been on our list of finalists. So, we'll see...

Before the Feb. 2 announcement, however, my library is holding an adults-only Mock Caldecott, at which we will formally follow the Caldecott criteria as we choose a winner. If you're in the DC area, please join us for this Mock Caldecott, which will take place on Jan. 24 from 1-4 p.m. at the Takoma Park Maryland Library. Our list of 15 finalists can be found on my previous blog post, and it's also posted on the library's Children's Room blog.

Meanwhile, even after the 2015 Caldecott Medal winner is announced, our Caldecott Club will continue to meet each month. Next month, on Feb. 9 at 7 p.m., we'll gather to read and discuss the actual winner and any 2015 Caldecott Honor books. On March 9, we'll look at some of the great 2014 books that couldn't be considered for the Caldecott Medal because the illustrator isn't American or doesn't live here -- folks like Frenchman Herve Tullet of Press Here fame. Then in April, we'll start delving into the crop of 2015 books that are contenders for the 2016 Caldecott Medal. As always, it promises to be a lot of fun!