The 2009 Newbery/Caldecott/Wilder banquet was fantastic. Wonderful. Sparkling. Funny. Exciting. And it was also something extremely odd (for me, at least): Visible.
Why was this so strange? The vast majority of the tables at the banquet are reserved by publishers for their invited guests. If you buy a ticket through the regular conference registration, the only place to sit is at the unreserved tables near the back and along the sides (and you've got to fight for a decent spot). Here's a picture of David Wiesner's Caldecott speech from the first year I attended. (Keep in mind that I stood up to take this picture).
After doing this for two years, I wanted to find out what was going on in the good seats. Since I knew I'd never be invited by a publisher, I decided to buy a table myself. (Little known fact: any group of 10 attending the banquet can do this, if they purchase the table in advance and by the deadline). I recruited 9 lovely librarians, and this year my table looked like this:
Wondering what is sitting on all the plates? It's the program for the banquet, which always features artwork from the Caldecott medal book plus a CD recording of the acceptance speeches. The first year it struck me as pretty odd to have the speech in my hands even before it had even been presented!
What was more amazing about the table (other than the fact that it had my name on it) was that it was in the center of the ballroom and only two rows from the front. Not only could I finally see the podium, but I was also able to get a good look at all the other people in the good seats.
Jon Sciezcka was sitting directly in front of me. (This picture gives new meaning to the Heavy Medal dinner I mentioned in my last post.)
Okay, I admit it, I used the zoom feature on my camera. (But the David Wiesner picture was zoomed all the way in too.) And, um, the flash didn't work and you'll have to take my word for it that it's a picture of Neil Gaiman during his Newbery speech. But still!
The other neat thing about being so close was that I could see who was sitting in the front row. I was able to talk to Beth Krommes' teenage daughter and ask her the only question I could think of: "Is this the best night of your life?" Her face glowed as she answered yes.
And I also was able to see, that during dinner and for the briefest of moments, Neil Gaiman had stepped off the dais. I grabbed my camera and a very nice friend and managed to get this picture:
But I didn't realize he was famous. I knew his children's books and was excited to meet him because he was this year's Newbery Medal winner, and because I loved The Graveyard Book. I posted the picture above on Facebook, and was shocked at the number of people who recognized him. My friends have since informed me (in a very nice way) how incredibly ignorant I am and that I'm the only person in the entire world who doesn't know that he's a literary rock star. That's what I get for reading far more children's books than adult ones.
Despite his fame, I think I deserve more credit for my outfit than he does. I feel I had a much harder time finding a formal maternity dress than he did finding a black suit. Huge thanks go to my sister-in-law for loaning me her beautiful dress.
If you look closely at his suit, you'll see a dagger in his lapel. A member of the Newbery committee had them made for all the committee members and Neil.
But, I think that it's probably a good thing that I didn't realize there was an aura surrounding him or I probably wouldn't have kept talking to him for so long. And if I hadn't, I wouldn't have gotten these questions answered, which have been nagging me since I finished reading his book.
Question: How do the ghouls in The Graveyard Book get their names?
Answer: There's been a lot of debate about this, and with good reason: it's confusing. According to Neil, only one line was changed between the British and American editions of the book and it was this one:
British edition: "They told Bod how they had got their names and how he, in his turn, once he had become a nameless ghoul, would be named, as they had been, after the main course of his first dinner."
American edition: "They told Bod how they had got their names and how he, in his turn, once he had become a nameless ghoul, would be named as they had been."
Neil said that his American editor thought the reason for the ghouls names was very obvious and that the rest of the sentence was redundant. The full line will most likely be added back into the paperback edition. But the important thing to understand is that the ghouls are not actually Victor Hugo or the Emperor of China... those are just the names of the first people the ghouls ate.
Question: Why is one of the ghouls named after Harry Truman, the 33rd President of the United States?
Answer: Everyone I've asked about this has given me the same answer: It is an allusion to the fact that Truman was the one who made the decision to drop the bombs during World War II.
The only person who refuted this brilliant explanation was Neil himself. Here's the actual reason: he wanted to use a president from that era and FDR was just too cool to turn into a ghoul. He thought about Eisenhower, but in the end, he thought the number 33 sounded better than the number 34. There's nothing more to it than that. Moral: sometimes things are really that simple.
Question: Will there be a sequel to The Graveyard Book?
Answer: Possibly, but it's not an immediate priority since he's working on tons of other projects. If there is one, Neil says it'll be the what the Lord of the Rings is to The Hobbit. The Graveyard Book was the initial look at the world, but he said he'd want to develop it much further and explore Silas' universe more fully.
Question: Was Neil nervous before his Newbery speech?
Answer: He said he was absolutely terrified. By the time I talked to him (about ten minutes before the speeches started) he said he felt as if he had already jumped off the diving board and had begun the long descent down.
Here's a shot of him talking to Caldecott medalist Beth Krommes before the big moment. Beth was also terrified (according to her daughter). Who wouldn't be?
After all that wonderful schmoozing, it was time for the main event: the acceptance speeches. Beth Krommes gave a lovely speech about the importance of books in her own family and talked about her inspiration for the book. One of the most poignant moments was when she told the audience about a nine day period in the winter where her town was without power. When she stepped outside in the dark, she finally saw her House in the Night.
Neil Gaiman's speech was funny. And moving. And powerful. And funny again. He hit all the right notes, told us that the Newbery Medal had actually made him cool to his kids and talked about the incredible power of books. One of my favorite moments was when he asked the crowd what the first sentence of A Wrinkle in Time is, and the whole audience immediately gave the correct answer in unison. He hit it out of the park with his speech and I thought it was the highlight of the evening.
As far as Ashley Bryan's acceptance speech for the Wilder Award, all I can say is this: you had to be there. The speeches are written several months before they're given, in order to be printed in The Horn Book. I got a copy of the July/August issue of The Horn Book the morning after the speech. It's hard to see in this picture, but if you look very, very, very closely at the front cover of this issue (between the bird's wing and the tree, under the letter H), you'll see that Beth Krommes has added a graveyard to her lovely illustration. It's much easier to see on the actual magazine cover.
I immediately turned to see what Ashley Bryan had written in The Horn Book. It was a few short pages, talking about what the award meant to him and how his career developed. He did, in fact, say all those words. But that was only the beginning of his speech.
He also devoured poems and let the juicy words run from his lips. He led several sing alongs. He drew the crowd in as if he was a gospel preacher. It was an incredibly uplifting, emotional experience. Later in the evening I told him I'd never heard anyone read poetry the way he did: lyrically savoring every mouthful. He said that's the way poetry should be read, and I agree completely.
I also got to talk to Beth Krommes after the banquet. I repeated what her daughter had said earlier... that it was the best night of her life. Beth gasped and said "Better than the prom?!" and then told me how much hearing that meant to her.
In the end, the banquet was exactly what I predicted last week. It was just me, Neil, Beth and Ashley. Oh, and a thousand or so other people.
To quote Kevin Henkes, "What a night!"