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In Fine Spirits
Newbery Judges Take Shine to Friendly Ghosts Of Gaiman's 'Graveyard'

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Neil Gaiman won the most prestigious writing award in American children's literature yesterday for a book that begins with a sinister triple knifing. But what his novel is really about, Gaiman said, is "community and the nature of family."

"The Graveyard Book," which won the American Library Association's Newbery Medal, is the story of a toddler orphaned by the murders who ends up being raised in a graveyard by caring ghosts.

News of the award made the versatile novelist, graphic novelist and screenwriter -- who said he thinks of himself as a literary "outsider" -- want to show up at the next ALA convention "bringing flowers for every librarian."

The Caldecott Medal for children's book illustration went to Beth Krommes for "The House in the Night," a picture book aimed at the same audience as "Goodnight Moon." The Printz Award for young adult literature went to Melina Marchetta for her boarding-school novel "Jellicoe Road."

Kadir Nelson won the Coretta Scott King writing award for "We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball." Nelson, a much-honored illustrator, said it was the first book he had ever written as well as illustrated.

The 2009 children's literature awards were announced in Denver at the American Library Association's midwinter meeting.

Gaiman is one of those writers who seems able to do anything. He has published well-received adult fiction such as "American Gods," children's chapter books such as "Coraline" and picture books such as "The Wolves in the Walls." He co-wrote the screenplay for "Beowulf." In comics circles, he is celebrated for the "Sandman" series of graphic novels.

"Batman" fans, meanwhile, should stay tuned: Gaiman said the Newbery hoopla interrupted work on a comic that may involve the demise (at least temporarily) of the beloved superhero.

Why so many literary forms?

"At the end of the day, I'm a storyteller," Gaiman said. He knows a lot of people who define themselves as novelists, short story writers or film writers, but "I love being able to move from medium to medium."

Right now, on top of everything else, he's working on a nonfiction book about China.

The English-born Gaiman got the idea for "The Graveyard Book" more than two decades ago when his son, Mike, needed a place to ride his tricycle. They ended up in a Sussex churchyard, where Gaiman watched the boy pedal happily among centuries-old gravestones and thought, "You know, he looks really at home here."

There were some false starts. Gaiman put the idea away a number of times, thinking he wasn't a good enough writer yet to pull it off. Four years ago, he found himself "sitting on a deck chair on a beach" with his latest two-page attempt when his daughter Maddy, then 10, came by.

She asked him to read her what he had. Then she sealed the deal by asking, "What happens next?"

Many children's books dispense with parents, violently or otherwise, because kids like stories in which adults aren't calling the shots. Gaiman's raised-by-ghosts notion, in fact, comes straight out of the raised-by-wolves tale that one of his favorite childhood authors, Rudyard Kipling, created more than a century ago in "The Jungle Book."

"I loved Kipling, and still do," Gaiman said. Writing "The Graveyard Book" was "almost like having a conversation with Kipling."

In the United Kingdom, Gaiman pointed out, there are separate editions of "The Graveyard Book" aimed at adults and children, and he likes to think of it as an "all ages" book. That said -- in part because of that "amazingly scary opening" -- he said he would not recommend it to most children younger than 9.

Speaking of the U.K., what's Gaiman doing winning an award intended for Americans anyway? Why him and not J.K. Rowling? It turns out that Gaiman has maintained a home in Minnesota, where his ex-wife's family was from, for the past 16 years, and residence counts under Newbery rules.

Printz Award winners, by contrast, need not be American at all. Marchetta is from Sydney, Australia, and before "Jellicoe Road" won yesterday, she was not well known in the United States.

Neither, for that matter, was Caldecott winner Krommes, who lives and works in Peterborough, N.H.

"Boy, I'll tell you, it's a competitive field," Krommes said happily when reached by phone yesterday. Caldecott winners, like Newbery winners, tend to stay in print forever and can dramatically alter an illustrator's bottom line.

"The House in the Night" is an unusual picture book because it is mostly black and white, though Krommes, who used a technique known as scratchboard, did add yellow for dramatic effect. She cited classic children's illustrator Wanda Gag ("Millions of Cats"), who also worked in black and white, as a major influence.

King Award winner Nelson said he worked on the paintings in "We Are the Ship" for more than seven years. In the beginning, he wasn't even thinking of the project as a book, much less one for which he would win a writing award. (He got two awards for it, actually, because it was named a King Illustrator Honor Book -- essentially, a finalist -- as well.)

"I just fell in love with the subject," Nelson said. By the time he decided to use his paintings to tell the story of Negro League baseball, he knew too much about how he wanted it done to let someone else write it.

Among the other award recipients were:

Newbery Honor Books: "The Underneath," by Kathi Appelt; "The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba's Struggle for Freedom," by Margarita Engle; "Savvy," by Ingrid Law; and "After Tupac and D Foster," by Jacqueline Woodson.

Caldecott Honor Books: "A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever," illustrated and written by Marla Frazee; "How I Learned Geography," illustrated and written by Uri Shulevitz; and "A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams," illustrated by Melissa Sweet and written by Jen Bryant.

Printz Honor Books: "The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume II: The Kingdom of the Waves," by M.T. Anderson; "The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks," by E. Lockhart; "Nation," by Terry Pratchett; and "Tender Morsels," by Margo Lanagan.

The Pura Belpre Award, honoring Latino writers and illustrators: "The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba's Struggle for Freedom," written by Margarita Engle and "Just in Case," illustrated by Yuyi Morales.

King Author Honor Books: "The Blacker the Berry," by Joyce Carol Thomas; "Keeping the Night Watch," by Hope Anita Smith; and "Becoming Billie Holiday," by Carole Boston Weatherford.

King Illustrator Honor Books: "Before John Was a Jazz Giant," illustrated by Sean Qualls; and "The Moon Over Star," illustrated by Jerry Pinkney.

The Margaret A. Edwards Award for lifetime achievement in writing for young adults went to Laurie Halse Anderson for "Catalyst," "Fever 1793" and "Speak."

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