Friday, January 15, 2010

Awards Time

"Life is what happens when you're busy making other plans."
-"Beautiful Boy" by John Lennon

By which I mean, I know it's been a while. And there are many half-written/never posted blog entries swirling around my noggin and even a few on the computer itself.

But, the Caldecott and Newbery awards will be announced on Monday - just a few miles from where I sit, actually. And this year I may even have read some of the award or honor books! So let's talk award-quality books.

As a children's librarian, I don't find that tend to read to keep up with the buzz. I'm actually much more likely to read something because a publisher sends me a box of review books and it catches my eye. And so it went with the two Newbery contenders I've read this year.

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate
by Jacqueline Kelly

My first thought when I saw this book, was that it must be a charming little fantasy novel or fairy tale to have such intricately done silhouette art on the cover. That's precisely what caused me to pick it up. And, of course, I couldn't have been more wrong. In fact, it is a well-researched, character-driven historical fiction novel. And boy am I glad I picked it up!

Callie is trying to survive the sweltering summer of 1899 in Texas as a girl who is far more interested in naturalistic science than homemaking. Her grandfather is an eccentric (and cranky) naturalist himself, and once he notices her interest and curiosity, they manage to forge a bond as he teaches Callie how to observe and understand the world around her.

One of the things that I love about Callie, is that she is drawn as spunky and curious, but she doesn't overstep the bounds of what is realistic for a girl in her era (though she certainly pushes on them). The research seems quite solid on the period without losing the human element. Some of my favorite scenes are the ones where Callie's brothers start fighting to win the affections of her best friend, or when she freaks out when her oldest brother brings a young lady home to dinner. At the same time, her questions about the natural world and attempts at scientific investigation are just fun to follow.

When I read this book, it did not have Newbery buzz about it, and I wasn't thinking in that direction. But in the past few months it has certainly been subject to much speculation. So...

Could it win? Maybe. Far more likely that it would be an honor book.

Should it win? I would be okay with it as an honor book. It is not a book that will have wide appeal, and I would like a Newbery book to have a decently wide appeal. This is a long, complex, and involved story. And the type of kid that likes books like that will adore this one. But is for more of a niche audience.

Heart of A Shepherd
by Roseanne Parry

When the publisher's box came, I set this one aside to read. It called to me in some way. But I kept putting off reading it. It is not my thing at all - ranchers, military families? Not my type of reading. But still I didn't take it off my pile. Once I finally picked it up, I couldn't believe how gripping the story and the character of Brother was. And I thought to myself, "This could be a Newbery winner."

Brother is the youngest of 5 boys in a ranching family. He has all the skills, but he's too sensitive to the deaths of the animals to really make it as a rancher long term. This is fine until his 11th and 12th year when his father gets shipped to Iraq with many of the other parents in the area and all of his older brothers are away at school. Brother must keep the ranch running with his grandparents, and wants to do it right so that everything will be perfect when his father finally comes home. But life is rarely that simple...

This book grabbed me from the beginning, and I just had to keep reading to find out what would happen to everyone - the parent-soldiers overseas, the lambs on the ranch, Brother himself. This is a hard life, made harder by circumstances, and you view it all through the lens of an 11/12-yr-old boy. However, I found that in the beginning, I was a little put off by the explicit Christianity and prayers in the story. It is unusual in a children's book, and it surprised me. But, it stopped mattering very quickly, as it is well integrated into the story and important to the characters.

Could it win? Doubtful. First, there is the religion aspect. While that shouldn't keep a book of this caliber from being a contender, I think it could bother the committee. Which is a darn shame. Second, I am not sure how well known this book is, which means the committee may not have heard of it. Another shame.

Should it win? Absolutely! This is by far the best children's book I've read in a long time. And I read plenty of them. It's got everything a Newbery winner should have: good writing, good story, strong characters, kid appeal, it could easily be taught in a classroom, and a timely story that is not tied specifically enough to the war in Iraq to make it date badly in the future.

Now we move to picture books.

The Lion and the Mouse
By Jerry Pinkney

By the time I picked this one up, I had already heard all the buzz. I was just waiting for our room copies to get in. I was already a fan of Pinkney's art, (as were many Caldecott committees, since they have named 5 of his books Honor Award winners), but I had heard this was something special.

As you can see from the cover above, this book is a little daring. There is not even a title or an author on the cover, just the Lion. And if you open the whole cover, the Mouse is the entire back. The story is wordless, and all of the illustrations are as lush and full-bore as the cover. This is a beautiful book, and a nice way to tell the story.

And yet...

For all its gorgeousness and storytelling, I find I must agree with Pat Keogh's assessment. There is an author's note in the back discussing the story and the process of making the book. Why not just put a very simple telling or summary of the story back there for those not familiar with the tale? I know one of the beautiful things about a wordless book is to let the child tell her own story, but I'll bet there are some frustrated parents out there for this beauty.

Could it win? Yes. It's a beautiful, special book, and Jerry Pinkney deserves to win the actual Caldecott for once. This would be an excellent choice for that distinction.

Should it win? See above.

14 Cows For America
by Carmen Agra Deedy

This picture book is the touching true story of the response of a Maasai man living in America on September 11th. Our losses and devastation on that day prompted him and many tribal elders in Kenya to give the most precious thing they had as a symbol of support and comfort to America - cows.

The story is simply and powerfully told, and the illustrations are lush. The one that grabbed me the most had to be the two page spread at the end with a close-up of Kimeli's eye which has the twin towers reflected in it with the accompanying text: "Because there is no nation so powerful it cannot be wounded,/nor a people so small they cannot offer mighty comfort."

An note in the back offers more of the story from Kimeli Naiyomah, and includes the fact that the original herd has calved and now numbers more than 35.

Could it win?I don't put this one up as a possible Caldecott winner. I suppose it could take that distinction as the art is quite good. No, I think this will win another prize. I'm just not sure which one - maybe the Siebert?

This concludes my round-up of possible prize winners I've actually read this year. I could certainly speculate on other winners, and I wouldn't be surprised if I've read/seen other Caldecott possibilities. But, these are the four that come readily to mind.

The next few entries will probably be my Best Lists for 2009. I will hopefully get a chance to compile them after the craziness of two conferences here in Boston this weekend.

This entry is cross-posted here at Dreamwidth.