Children's Book Award Winners Break The Mold

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Highly unconventional books by Laura Amy Schlitz and Brian Selznick won the most prestigious awards for American children's literature yesterday.

Schlitz, a librarian at the Park School of Baltimore, won the Newbery Medal for "Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices From a Medieval Village." A collection of theatrical monologues, it was originally written as a performance piece for fifth-grade students studying the Middle Ages. The Newbery usually goes to works of narrative fiction, though other genres are not excluded.

"It was written to be performed," Schlitz said yesterday of "Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!" But teachers and parents at the school persuaded her to send the manuscript to publishers, and Candlewick Press "pulled it out of the slush pile" and helped her turn it into a book.

Selznick won the Caldecott Medal for "The Invention of Hugo Cabret," a 500-plus-page category-buster that the author has called "not exactly a novel, not quite a picture book, not really a graphic novel, or a flip book or a movie, but a combination of all these things." The judges decided that Selznick's tale of an orphan who lives in a Paris train station was driven primarily by its elegant black-and-white drawings, which qualified it for the picture-book award.

Selznick said yesterday that the questions about his book's genre were "part of what makes this [award] such a surprise." His young protagonist ends up getting involved with one of the pioneers of the cinema, and Selznick said he chose a picture-heavy form "because I saw that it connected with how a director tells a story through a camera."

Prolific British writer Geraldine McCaughrean won the Printz Award for young adult literature for "The White Darkness." Unlike the Newbery and the Caldecott Medals, this relatively new but increasingly influential award is not restricted to American authors.

"The White Darkness" is the story of a teenage girl, not yet ready to deal with boys in the real world, who makes a "secret friend" of the long-dead Antarctic explorer Titus Oates -- only to find herself pulled into an Antarctic expedition herself. "If you're a girl, it's about sex," McCaughrean said yesterday. "If you're a boy, it's about caterpillar-track vehicles falling into crevasses."

The Coretta Scott King Book Awards, which recognize African American authors and illustrators, went to writer Christopher Paul Curtis for "Elijah of Buxton" and writer-illustrator Ashley Bryan for "Let It Shine." Curtis is the author of "The Watsons Go to Birmingham -- 1963" and "Bud, Not Buddy," which won the 2000 King award.

The awards were announced in Philadelphia at the American Library Association's midwinter meeting.

When Schlitz began working on "Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!," she wanted something that could be performed, but she didn't want to write a play. Fifth-grade classes at Park had 17 children in them, and she remembered that as a child herself, "it broke my heart" when she got only a tiny part in a dramatic production.

So she wrote monologues of relatively equal length. She wrote them in a variety of forms: some prose, but most poetry. She invented Hugo, the lord's nephew ("The Feast of All Souls, I ran from my tutor -- Latin and grammar -- no wonder!"). She invented Petronella, the merchant's daughter, and Lowdy, the varlet's child ("I love the dogs, but God's bones! The house is full of fleas!"). She based Thomas, the doctor's son, on a character from Chaucer.

"I just was exploring and playing," she says.

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