Two riffs on resourcefulness--"Bud, Not Buddy," written by Christopher Paul Curtis, and "Joseph Had a Little Overcoat," illustrated and written by Simms Taback--won the 2000 Newbery and Caldecott medals yesterday.
The John Newbery Medal is presented to the author of what is deemed the best children's book published in America the previous year. The Caldecott Medal honors the most distinguished American picture book for children. The prizes--viewed as seals of substance and approval by countless parents and librarians and a virtual guarantee of a book's commercial success--were announced yesterday, along with other awards, at the midwinter meeting of the American Library Association in San Antonio.
Notably absent from the prize roster was J.K. Rowling, author of the astonishingly successful Harry Potter books--widely credited with attracting scads of young people to reading. Because Rowling's books were first published in England, explained ALA President Sarah Long, they are ineligible for any of the ALA awards.
"The thing that was so stunning," said Long, "was that on Martin Luther King [Day]--and for the first time in 22 years--an African American writer won the award."
"Bud, Not Buddy" is the story of a 10-year-old motherless boy in Flint, Mich., who believes that his father is a legendary jazz band leader.
"This heartfelt novel resonates with both zest and tenderness as it entertains questions about racism, belonging, love and hope," Carolyn S. Brodie, chairwoman of the Newbery selection committee, said in a statement. The novel's "fast-paced, first-person account moves with the rhythms of jazz and celebrates life, family and a child's indomitable spirit."
Curtis, who uses the children's section of a Windsor, Ontario, public library as his office, said he planned to celebrate by meeting a few of his buddies at a gym for a game of basketball. At 6 feet 2 and 250 pounds, Curtis, 46, likes to set a mean pick. "As I've gotten older I've gotten slower," he said. "I compensate by being awkward."
He writes slowly, too, by hand. "Until the character comes to me," he explained. "Then the story really explodes."
Taking home a rare double-double in kid lit awards, Curtis also won this year's Coretta Scott King Award, which honors an African American author for outstanding work. Sarah Long said everyone was amazed that two separate and distinct juries of librarians independently selected the same book. "That just shows that 'Bud, Not Buddy' is a tremendous book," she said. "That was kind of a real upper."
Curtis wrote the story after attending a family reunion and hearing mythic tales of his grandfather's 1930s combo: Herman E. Curtis and the Dusky Devastators of the Depression. "Grampa was a real hustler," Curtis said. "He couldn't make money just as a jazz man." So the group also performed polka tunes and country chestnuts.
The band leader played the bass fiddle, violin and piano, Curtis said. "Oh yes, and the accordion. But I don't think that's anything to be proud of."
The author doesn't play an instrument, but he does write honored books. His first novel, "The Watsons Go to Birmingham--1963" was a Newbery Honor Book, or runner-up, in 1996.
For the past six years or so, Curtis has written full time at his library table. Before that he was unloading trucks at a check-processing warehouse and before that, he was standing on the assembly line at the Fisher Body Flint Plant No. 1, putting automobiles together. He gave much credit for his success to his wife of more than two decades, Kaysandra, a registered nurse who several years ago encouraged him to quit his day job and try his slow hand at writing.
They have two kids: Son Steven is in the Navy, daughter Cydney is in the third grade. Curtis said he spent yesterday morning "trying to will the phone to ring from Texas." The committee called around 9:15 with the tidings. Soon after, Wendy Lamb, Curtis's editor at Delacorte Press--a division of Random House--called to congratulate him.
In New York, Craig Virden, president and publisher of Random House children's books, said 65,000 copies of Curtis's book are already in print. He said the book will be reprinted based on demand.
In Windsor, Curtis had other things on his mind. He excused himself from a phone interview. He wanted to hustle over to the basketball court, his wife explained, so he'd have next.
Simms Taback, meanwhile, was fretting about what he was going to wear on the "Today" show this morning. When Taback received the call at his winter place in Sebastian, Fla., yesterday, he realized he had left all his warm clothes at his Woodstock, N.Y., home. Midday temperatures in Manhattan were in the teens. "I'm completely overwhelmed," said Taback, 67, who has been illustrating books for 35 years. He's done some 40 adult and children's books.
"Joseph" is a craftily concocted Yiddish folk tale of a clever man who retools his old overcoat into a jacket, then a vest, then a scarf, then a tie. You get the ever-dwindling picture.
For his pictures, Taback has won awards before. "But this is the Caldecott!" he said yesterday. "For kind of a struggling illustrator, it just could be a big payoff."
Viking Children's Books spokesman Timothy Moses agreed. Winning the Caldecott Medal, Moses said, means that "Joseph"--with an original printing of about 20,000 copies--should sell between 100,000 and 150,000 copies over the next year and would remain strong on Viking's back list for many years to come. Taback, Moses added, "will be able to pay his great-grandchildren's college tuition."
Of "Joseph," Barbara Z. Kiefer, chair of the Caldecott Medal selection committee, said in a statement: "Vibrant rich colors, playful details and skillfully-placed die cuts contribute to this book's raucous merriment."
Other awards were made yesterday. Three Newbery Honor Books were named: "Getting Near to Baby" by Audrey Couloumbis; "26 Fairmount Avenue," written and illustrated by Tomie dePaola; and "Our Only May Amelia" by Jennifer L. Holm. The four Caldecott Honor Books are "Sector 7," illustrated and written by David Wiesner; "The Ugly Duckling," adapted and illustrated by Jerry Pinkney; "When Sophie Gets Angry--Really, Really Angry . . ." illustrated and written by Molly Bang; and "A Child's Calendar" illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman and written by some guy named John Updike.
Brian Pinkney won the Coretta Scott King illustration award for Kim Siegelson's "In the Time of the Drums." Walter Dean Myers, author of "Monster," won the new Michael L. Printz Award for excellence in literature for young adults. The ALA hopes this award will eventually achieve the same exalted status as its Newbery and Caldecott medals.
Through the years, Taback has made ends meet by doing advertising work. In fact, he illustrated the first McDonald's Happy Meal in 1977. "I wrote the jokes, I put the puzzles on it," Taback said.
He planned to celebrate last night in New York with a happy meal of his own. But first he had to find an overcoat.
CAPTION: Simms Taback's colorfully illustrated adaptation of a Yiddish folk tale won this year's Caldecott Medal.
CAPTION: "Bud, Not Buddy" is about a motherless boy who believes his father is a legendary jazz band leader.