Children's books are written for children: right?

Wrong -- at least sometimes. The books that won this year's top prizes in children's literature were written first of all for the emphatically adult people who wrote them.

"I don't get to see all that many children out there in the Black Hills of South Dakota," said Paul Goble, a lanky, rather diffident transplanted Englishman who won the Caldecott Medal for "The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses," which was judged the most distinguished children's picture book of 1978. "My next book will probably be based on an Indian creation myth; I am fascinated with Indians, which is why you have an Englishman living in South Dakota."

Ellen Raskin (a Milwaukeean transplanted to New York) confessed that she wrote "The Westing Game," a mystery novel that took the coveted Newbery Medal, "for myself as a child.

"I supposed I might have written children's books for my daughter," said Raskin, who was a distinguished illustrator of children's books for many years before she began writing them. "But she's grown up and moved away, so I try to write the kind of book I would have wanted to read when I was girl, I don't show my books to any children before they're published. Children are so spontaneously creative that if you show them an unfinished book they will try to help you finish it."

Apparently both formulas work, as do thoe of the three Honor Book authors and illustrators: Donald Crews, who approaches a children's picture book as "just another problem in design"; Peter Parnall, who finds that his reputation as an illustrator of children's books helps him to get a good price for his paintings; and Katherine Paterson, mother of four, who seems to have the most extensive day-to-day contact with members of the age groups she writes for.

Crowds of schoolchildren were present, with their teacher, at the announcement of winners yesterday in the Sheraton Park, and thei uninhibited applause seemed to indicate general agreement with the judges who selected the winners. Afterward, they clustered around their favorite authors clamoring for autographs. "They all seem to have read my book," said Raskin later, with the happy smile of an author whose fans have managed to say the right thing during an autograph session.

Later, at a wine-and-cheese reception for the winners, conversation wavered between books (the room was almost entirely filled with writers and librarians) and the internal politics of the American Library Association, whose midwinter meeting each year sets the scene for the Newbery and Caldecott awards.

The ALA, with a membership more than 80 percent female, had originally planned to hold this week's meeting in Cicago where its national head quarters are, but had voted at its last meeting to shift to another city because Illinois has rejected the Equal Rights Amendment. This week's meeting voted to shift next year's midwinter meeting, which had also been planned for Chicago, and the gesture of righteous indignation may cost the organization heavily.

"We could face lawsuits for about $1 million for broken contracts -- with the Palmer House Hotel, for example -- and our tax-exempt status may be challenged on the grounds that we are lobbying," said on association member at the party. "We may go broke, but principle is principle."

A mail referendum will be held among the members to decide whether the association as a whole is willing to take such a risk.

Katherine Paterson, who lives in suburban Maryland and is a perennial award-winner (National Book Award in 1977 and Newberry last year), was surrounded by a particularly large crowd of admirers.

"Congratualtions again," said one, hugging her tightly.

"Yes," she answered, "isn't it getting silly? I think I'll retire now."

A schoolteacher told her that teachers were passing the book around to read to their classes, but "we all tried to bring someone else in to read when we go to the sad part." The American Library Association describes the heroine of the book, an 11-year-old foster child, as "wily, tough, proud, brash, prejudiced an very vulnerable." Paterson admits that she is not a model child and was glad that the librarians were willing to honor a book with a problematic heroine.

"When I called my mother to tell her I won the Honor Award," Paterson confided, "her reaction was: 'An award for that naughty child!'"

Peter Parnall said he was happy to get an Honor Award (his third in four years) because "it keeps librarians watching for your books and librarians give us about 85 percent of our business. Who else is going to pay seven or eight bucks for a skinny little book like that?"

Parnall moved to Maine, where he paints, grows potatoes, raises sheep and does some logging, a few years ago after he noticed that he was spending 2 1/2 hours each day traveling to and from work in New York. He says he only averages about two children's books per year now, "but I used to do six or seven, which is what you have to produce to make a living at it." Now, most of his artistic activity is in nature painting and prints. "I can get more for one drawing, selling the prints, than for five books," he said.

"There are many artists around who are very good but are not making it -- you have to have confidence, treat it like a business, go out and meet people. I can count on the fingers of two hands those who have been in it for 10 years."

Because of the economics involved he said, "I have to do a book in two or three weeks, and they never come up to my expectations. I had a book take the Honors Award a couple of years ago that I thought didn't even belong on the list."

His own favorite in this year's competition was Goble's book which won it, he said. "I got it last fall and started telling everyone how great I thought it was. Every year, there are lots of good-looking, well-done books, but you don't often see one like this, with really new ideas and beautifully done. I told myself that if this book didn't win it, or at least get on the list, "I'm in the wrong business."

"Business" is clearly an operative word for Pernall, and this may help explain his generous attitude toward a competitor's book.The top award in these competitions is a medal and a lot of prestige, but there is no cash attached to it, so that an Honor Book award is nearly as good for the author or illustrator as winning the medal itself.

"Once a book wins one of these awards," said a librarian at the reception, "it never goes out of print, and a whole new audience comes along for a children's book every few years."