Ah, I remember those days of hauling home armloads of picture books from the library. We bonded totally with the people who work at our local library. Even now when I go into the library, two of the the check-out women will ask me about Lizzie and Mona.
I've just returned this evening from the American Library Association convention, where the Newbery and Caldecott Medal winners gave speeches tonight. Two good books, two interesting and very different people:
When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead won the Newbery for best children's literature.
The Lion and the Mouse by Jerry Pinkney is a wordless book which won the Caldecott for best illustration.
Pinkney spoke first. He's 70 years old, has won Caldecott Honors five times, and was genuinely pleased to get the top prize at last (so overdue, in my opinion!). He was so clearly sure of himself and of his art, and spoke of the support he got from his family to be an artist when a young man. He said he didn't originally think of The Lion and the Mouse as a wordless book: he planned to do the illustrations, then write the text to the pictures. But he realized the pictures made words unnecessary. Then he told an anecdote a friend had told him: "She had given The Lion and the Mouse to a nephew and she described with great excitement how he had read it by creating his own narrative. Then, when he read it a second time, he had a completely different interpretation of what he saw in the pictures. This is exactly what I had hoped for: a child claiming ownership of this much beloved fable." What a good way to think of wordless books! Not only a vehicle for a child to tell a story, but a way for the story to belong to the child.
Rebecca Stead was such a contrast. When You Reach Me is a wonderful, carefully-constructed book with mystery and lots of good characters with real feelings and a surprise ending that ties things up perfectly and took my breath away. She's 42, says she always wanted to write but became a lawyer instead. Has two children, lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and describes many of her self-doubts in very articulate ways. She talked about realizing, when she was six "that I was completely alone in my own consciousness." She would ask herself, "How am I me?" over and over. "I think that like someone alone in a dark room, I was feeling around for a door because I really really did not want to be alone in there. And I did find a door, eventually. The door was books. When I read books I wasn't alone in the rooms of my own mind. I was running up and down other people's stairs and finding secret places behind their closets. The people on the other side of the door had things I couldn't have, like sisters or dragons, and they shared those things with me. And they also had things I did have, like feelings of self-doubt and longing and they named those things for me." The story she told of becoming a writer was the story of overcoming the obstacles her own self-doubts created.
I had a lovely serendipitous moment at the dinner, too. I ended up sitting next to a woman named Libby Koponen, who in 2006 published a wonderful novel for kids called Blow Out the MoonBlow Out the Moon. It's autobiographical, set in the late '50s, about a girl from the New York suburbs who moves to England with her family for a year and ends up going to a British girls' boarding school. It's a lovely gentle book about being in new places and learning to grow up on your own. It's one of those books that a second grader or a sixth grader can connect with. I was very fond of it, then it went unceremoniously out of print. Well, it's not available for sale at most independent bookstores, but it's possible to get a print-on-demand copy, and Libby pointed out it's also for sale as a download. And I confirmed with Libby what her book didn't quite say: that the suburb she lived in was Pleasantville, NY, where your mother and I grew up. She was a year behind me in elementary school, then moved away after fifth grade.