The American Library Association (ALA) announced its top kids’ book picks on January 27 at the Youth Media Awards, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The ALA awards the nation’s top prizes for children’s and young adult literature, including the John Newbery and Randolph Caldecott Medals. Committees made up of librarians and other experts select the winning books.
Winning one of the ALA awards—there are about 20 total, plus additional honor medals—is a big deal for authors and illustrators. Books with these well-known medals stand out on a bookstore or library shelf. “They enable authors to be discovered,” ALA president Barbara Stripling told TFK. “The books have a medal on them. Kids pick the books out and have conversations about them.” Scroll down to check out TFK’s interviews with three of the award-winning authors: Kate DiCamillo, Brian Floca, and Rita Williams-Garcia.
The John Newbery Medal, which is given to the author of “the most outstanding contribution to children’s literature" for a book published in 2013, went to Kate DiCamillo for Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures, a tale of a cynical girl and a magical squirrel that can fly and type poetry. Betsy Orsburn is the chair of the Newbery committee. She said the book’s fantasy setting, humor, and use of cartoon pages and poetry helped it stand out. “This is at the longitude of cartoon and super heroes, and so the style is so perfect,” Orsburn told TFK. “The characters just pop off the page.”
While promoting the book around the country last fall, DiCamillo spoke with TFK Kid Reporter Kristen Rigsby. Read her interview here.
Illustrator Brian Floca won the 2014 Randolph Caldecott Medal for “the most distinguished American picture book for children." His book, Locomotive, tells the information-packed story of a family riding America’s first intercontinental railroad. The Caldecott Medal committee was impressed by the books’ detail and narrative. “It has an appeal on numerous levels,” chair Marian Hanes Rutsch told TFK. “The detail in the illustrations is astonishing. It was a really well-designed and well-composed picture book.” TFK spoke with Floca the day after the awards were announced.
Congratulations! How did it feel to get the call yesterday?
It felt great and a little jarring. I was deep asleep [before the early-morning call]. But it's a great way to be woken up.
This is the 76th year for the Caldecott. Have you been inspired by any of the past winners in your work?
As a college student, I got to take classes with David Macaulay [who won in 1991 for his book Black and White], and his work has always inspired me. And I'm very fortunate to get to share a studio in Brooklyn with four other authors and illustrators. Each of them [is] great and that is a constant inspiration, too.
I read that this book took four years to come together, including research, and you drove a real steam locomotive as part of that. Can you talk about some of the highlights of your research process?
Sure. There is a place in Essex, Connecticut, where you can drive a steam locomotive. I also visited the Golden Spike National Site, in Promontory Summit, Utah, and they have replica engines there that were built as the engines were built 150 years ago. I got to get on board and look around and watch the crew [work]. I got a sense of what the temperature was like when you are up near the fire box, and how the coal smells when it burns, and how much smoke they put out—all this great stuff. That's one of the great things about making nonfiction books. You get to get in touch with people who know a lot about what you are interested in.
In sharing your book with kids, what do they seem to respond to most?
There's a drawing of how the toilets used to work on the old train, and the toilets were very simple—just a hole on the floor. And there is a drawing of a locomotive exploding, which could happen if the water in the boiler wasn't kept at the right level. I think the toilet and the exploding locomotive were probably the favorite drawings in the book. We almost didn't think we had room in the book for that [explosion] drawing, and I thought it had to go in there somewhere.
What do you hope kids take away from Locomotive?
One of the most rewarding things about making the book for me was getting past how still and quiet all those old black-and-white pictures looked and having the era begin to feel real for me. I think what I would really like for kids is if those places felt alive and relevant and if the past became a little more real for them. It was a time when real people did interesting things that are just as colorful and vibrant as our lives are today.
In 2011, Rita Williams-Garcia won the ALA’s Coretta Scott King (CSK) Author Award for One Crazy Summer. The award recognizes "an African American author and illustrator of outstanding books for children and young adults." This year, she won again for the historical-fiction book’s sequel, P.S. Be Eleven. (The 2014 CSK Illustrator Award went to Bryan Collier for the picture book Knock Knock: My Dad’s Dream for Me.)
Set in the 1960s, P.S. Be Eleven continues the story of Delphine Gaither and her sisters. In Brooklyn, New York, Delphine is preparing to start middle school among major changes in her life and the world around her. CSK committee chair Kim Patton says Williams-Garcia’s story stood out for its different take on blended families and the Civil Rights era—the sisters are the children of an activist mom living away from them in California. “The mother is still very much in contact with them and very much a part of their life,” Patton told TFK. “It still has that good message that we want it to have, and it’s something that kids will enjoy.” (Click here to read a review by TFK Kid Reporter Amelia Compton.)
TFK caught up with Williams-Garcia after the author got the call that she won. “I screamed so loud, I know I punctured someone’s eardrum in Philadelphia,” she said.
P.S. Be Eleven is set in the 1960s, but it deals with a lot of problems kids can relate to today, from school dances and boy bands to blended families. How did you tap into that?
I have the help of my diary. I had my diary from 1967 through my high school years, and so I got to see all of the things that made me crazy and excited back then. It made me think, “Hmm, I think my daughters went through some of the same craziness, so why not?”
What kind of research went into this series so that you could set it during the Civil Rights era and Black Panther movement?
I did a lot of reading. First, I did a lot of reading of my own 40 years ago. I was interested as a child in the movement. For research, I read a lot of Black Panther newsletters. I read a lot of interviews. I went back and read some of the books that I read when I was a child, just so I could really feel the sentiment of the time. But I also had to take care of the everyday details. How much is a head of cabbage back then, or stamps? So trying to convey the differences in value, ideas, all of that, had to go into the story.
What do you hope kids take away from P.S. Be Eleven?
That while they are changing, things around them are changing. Their families are changing. Even their neighborhoods are changing. Sometimes, you don't know that you are involved in the change at the time.
If I could encourage young readers, it would be to take note of the times that they are living in and write a little bit each day, but also take part in the times that they are living in. One of the things that really struck a cord with me about the 1960s was that every day seemed like a day of social change. I think that in a way, it is still the same [today], but young people are doing things on their own. Whereas we had groups to align ourselves with—the Black Panthers, the hippies—young people are finding the thing that they are passionate about and going into their own piggy banks and finding ways of creating change. I think that's what I like about this generation.
Will readers hear more from the Gaither sisters?
One more time, yes. The last and final book is called Gone Crazy in Alabama. I figured since the girls went to the west coast [in One Crazy Summer] and then they went back to Brooklyn, we might as well see them in the place of Big Ma's birth, where their grandmother is from, which is Alabama.
Why is it important that awards like this are given, that specifically spotlight works about the experiences of African Americans?
Awards like these let children of diversity see themselves in books. In the year 2014, we still need stories that reflect the familiar for children of color and diversity as much as we need stories that take them far beyond.