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FOR YOUNG READERS

A Fond Farewell

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By Elizabeth Ward
Sunday, June 22, 2008; Page BW12

Book World's For Young Readers column kicked off almost seven years ago, in the shadow of 9/11. Since then, I've churned out 170-plus columns covering hundreds of titles, from board books to YA heavy hitters, science to science fiction. It's been a joy, and as I get ready to hand off the baton, I know I'll miss it -- well, everything except tripping over the tottering piles of kids' books in my bedroom. A rummage through the files reminds me why. Despite the derivative dross in those book piles (please, no more dragons), nearly every week brought some delightful surprise. In the face of huge pressures on their field, children's authors remain a remarkably fertile and original bunch.

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Absolutely the best part of reviewing is discovery. For me, especially early on, that often meant blithely discovering writers who were already giants. Many writers acclaimed in this space I'd admired for years: Ursula K. Le Guin, Daniel Pinkwater, Susan Cooper, J.K. Rowling. But I was as tickled as a kid on her birthday when I "found" terrific new books by the likes of Polly Horvath, Richard Peck and Christopher Paul Curtis -- laurelled heads all, as it turned out. Last year, I was bowled over by Gary D. Schmidt's The Wednesday Wars, only to learn that he'd won a Newbery Honor for a 2004 book that had sailed right by me.

It was the same with such picture-book luminaries as Kevin Henkes, Ian Falconer (creator of Olivia the pig), three-time Caldecott medalist David Wiesner, Peggy Rathmann and Ed Young, all dazzlingly new to me when I started this gig. Every one of them helped me define, and refine, what I considered the gold standard in their genres, but it wasn't as if they needed me to actually introduce them to anybody.

No, the real fun was in discovering first-time or overlooked authors, sometimes foreign, sometimes from small publishers or even university presses. Lots of names jump out from the files. Britain's Geraldine McCaughrean, never as big a seller in the United States as she should be, won regular plaudits in this space, particularly for her sparkling authorized sequel to Peter Pan and her Antarctic thriller, The White Darkness. So did such under-the-radar titles as Mister Boots, a sci fi novel by Carol Emshwiller featuring a man who is really a horse; Birdwing, Rafe Martin's lovely retelling of a Grimm tale; and Shyam Selvadurai's Swimming in the Monsoon Sea, about a gay boy coming of age in Sri Lanka.

One day in 2006, I stumbled across the galley of The Unresolved, a first novel for older teens by an author I'd never heard of, T.K. Welsh. Welsh turned out to be a pseudonym for J.G. Sandom, an established adult author, and The Unresolved a subtle gem based on the true story of a steamship that sank in New York's East River in 1904. In February 2004, a package yielded a copy of The Legend of Buddy Bush, a wrenching tale of segregation-era North Carolina by new author Shelia P. Moses; subsequent titles by Moses proved it was no fluke. Australia's Sonya Hartnett and the Dominican Republic's Julia Alvarez also got early salutes here.

In June 2005, the column was devoted for the first time to a single stunning book: The Diary of Ma Yan, extracts from the journal of a 13-year-old schoolgirl in a poor, drought-stricken corner of northwestern China.

There were picture-book discoveries, too. I treasure my copies of Barbara Joosse's Hot City, with its sizzling paintings by R. Gregory Christie, Elisha Cooper's meditative A Good Night Walk, and David Slonim's infectiously silly He Came with the Couch. ("Seriously," this column opined, "kindergarteners have all the fun.") Many reviewers praised Jon J Muth's books Zen Shorts and Zen Ties, starring a philosophical giant panda. But I take pride in having drawn attention to two outstanding books from Asia: On My Way to Buy Eggs, by Chih-Yuan Chen of Taiwan, whose next book, Guji Guji, went on to win broad acclaim in this country; and The Zoo, by Korea's Suzy Lee.

This has been a mostly cheerful space, focused on celebrating the best. But sometimes, it has been the column's sad duty to point out the bad, usually when an established author appeared to have slipped, as in the case of Blue Balliett's The Wright 3; fallen short, as with Brian Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret (which despite our strictures went on to win this year's Caldecott Medal); or gone off the rails entirely, as happened with Kate DiCamillo's bafflingly cruel The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. After all, readers' book budgets are limited.

And the one title that stands out? This may come as a surprise: Runny Babbit, a "billy sook" of inspired verse by the late, great Shel Silverstein, posthumously published in 2005. You could give this utterly joyous book to anyone, child or adult, and be certain it will make their day. For me, it more than made up for seven years worth of dragons.

Elizabeth Ward can be reached at warde@washpost.com.


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