Sit back. I'm going to tell you one of my favorite children's book publishing stories.
Picture Paris, in June of 1940. All around you is complete chaos as millions of people desperately try to leave the city before the Nazis arrive. Let's focus in on one particular couple amidst the sea of refugees.
It's a husband and wife, both Jewish and both born in Germany. Long before the war started they had moved to Brazil and become Brazilian citizens. They fell in love with Paris on their honeymoon and decided to move there. They were both artists and enjoyed living in the heart of Montmartre. As the German army loomed ever closer, they realized they were no longer safe in Paris. But leaving wasn't easy. They waited in endless lines for updated passports, visas and train tickets.
At last they were ready to go, but they had no way to get to the train station in Orleans in the midst of the rising panic. In desperation for any mode of transportation, the husband went to a bicycle shop where he found that there were no bikes left. But they did have spare parts. He bought these and with no training, he built a bicycle for himself and one for his wife. They put a few of their belongings into baskets attached to their bikes, including the manuscripts and illustrations of several children's books they were working on.
And off they went with all the other people fleeing Hitler's army. They biked through small towns and villages and rode overcrowded trains to reach the south of France. They slept wherever they could including on the floor of a public high school, an empty restaurant, and in a barn with cows.
With their money running low, they finally got permission to cross into Spain. On the train journey, an official checking passports and visas became suspicious of the large amount of paper the couple carried. He demanded to see it and then shoved it back when he found it was just drawings for kids.
They went from Spain into Portugal, and in Lisbon they boarded a boat for Brazil. After a two month wait in Rio de Janeiro, they finally got on a boat bound for America and arrived in New York City in October, 1940. About a year later, one of the manuscripts they had trundled through Europe and South America was published.
I want to tell you another children's publishing story. This one happened just a few years ago. An editor flew to London to pick up a manuscript. She was stopped by airport security on her flight home. Just like the train conductor so many years before, the security officer was suspicious of the enormous amount of paper in the editor's carry-on bag. She looked through it and then eventually allowed the editor to continue on her way.
You may have heard of that book too. It was the unpublished manuscript of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and at that moment in 2007, it was the most valuable pile of paper in the world. The editor's name is Cheryl Klein, senior editor at Arthur A. Levine Books (an imprint of Scholastic.) She told me that she was so nervous that at any moment the security officer was going to look down and see the words Harry, Ron and Hermione. Cheryl had a good story ready, though. If that happened, she was going to claim it was her own (rather extensive) fan fiction.
Cheryl wasn't the only one that happened to. In August 2006, J.K. Rowling was flying back from New York after a charity reading with Stephen King and John Irving. She was stopped by security for the large pile of paper she had with her, which turned out to be the handwritten and unfinished manuscript for Harry Potter Book 7. Fortunately, she was allowed to take it with her.
Moral of these stories: don't travel with large piles of paper.
For more about the Rey's incredible adventure, read The Journey That Saved Curious George.
Through exhaustive research, author Louise Borden was able to bring this classic publishing story to life with the help of the extensive archive of the Rey's papers at the de Grummond Children's Literature Collection at the University of Southern Mississippi. The book is fully documented with letters, maps, archival pictures and notes from H.A. Rey's diary.
Sometimes the story behind a book can be as exciting and interesting as the book itself.
In 1980, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund held a national competition to solicit entries for the design of the Vietnam Memorial. Any U.S. citizen 18 years of age or older was eligible to enter and 1,421 entries were recieved. The names were taken off the entries and replaced with numbers. A 21 year old college student by the name of Maya Lin won the contest with her design, beating out many famed and more experienced architects.
Every time I hear that story, I'm inspired by the fairness of the contest and the level playing field it offered to every participant. I realize this is a Utopian and completely impractical fantasy, but picture for a moment if the Newbery and Caldecott awards were judged that way. What if the committees didn't know the names of the publishers, authors or illustrators of the books under consideration?
Keep in mind that committees can only focus on the eligible books for the current year. If David Wiesner or Marcia Brown have an eligible book, it's irrelevant to the discussion that these illustrators have already three Caldecott medals. And it's irrelevant what the illustrator's race, age or gender is, because the only thing that matters is the book itself.
But is it really possible for anyone (no matter how hard they try) to be completely unbiased? What would the results look like if the awards were truly "blind" like the Vietnam Memorial competition? Such a thing is probably not physically possible, but wouldn't it be interesting if it were?
Usually, I answer my own questions. But, as Roger Sutton mentioned in his recent Horn Book editorial, I think a topic like this merits a good discussion. What are your thoughts about how these two major awards are chosen?
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!"
I can't wait for dinner on Sunday. It'll just be me, Neil, Beth and Ashley. Oh, and a thousand or so other people.
Where am I having dinner? At the Newbery/Caldecott banquet which recognizes the honorees of two of the most illustrious awards in the children's book world. The banquet is held every year at the American Library Association's (
The winners and the honor books get announced at a press conference at the ALA Midwinter conference in January. I was there this year, and the atmosphere was absolutely electric. It was so exciting to hear the applause, cheers, and exclamations of surprise.
Click here for the complete list of all the 2009 winners and honor books.
The winners of the Caldecott and Newbery Medals get honor, glory, increased book sales, and gold stickers on their books. And an actual medal. But they also have to give an acceptance speech. A speech that will be heard in front of a ballroom full of librarians, authors, illustrators, editors and publishers. A speech that will be published and studied for years to come. A huge, important, career-defining speech. But other than that, there's no pressure.
An interesting note about the Caldecott Medal: the award actually goes to the illustrator of the book. Although The House in the Night was written by Susan Marie Swanson, it's Beth Krommes who gets the medal and has to give the speech.
There's also a third speech this year. The Laura Ingalls Wilder Award is given every other year. It honors an author or illustrator whose books, published in the United States, have made, over a period of years, a substantial and lasting contribution to literature for children. This year's recipient is Ashley Bryan and I'm looking forward to his acceptance speech.
Last year, Jen and I went to the banquet together. And we even got interviewed on the red carpet. See this post for more details and an embarrassing YouTube video.
It was an unforgettable night. First, Caldecott winner Brian Selznick wowed the crowd with his intelligent and heartfelt acceptance speech for The Invention of Hugo Cabret, complete with a movie! It was an impossible act to follow, but Newbery winner Laura Amy Schlitz was equal to the task. A storyteller through and through, she mesmerized the crowd and told beautiful stories as she accepted the Newbery for Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!
Her speech looked effortless, but it was much harder than it appeared. I recently had the opportunity to hear Laura Amy Schlitz speak about what that night was like for her. She had memorized her entire fifteen minute speech. It had already been submitted for publication in The Horn Book, so she couldn't change even one word as she delivered it.
She said she would love to get those magic, unforgettable fifteen minutes of her speech back. It sounded like a roller coaster ride she never wanted to get off.
This year it will be Beth Krommes', Neil Gaiman's and Ashley Bryan's turn to ride the roller coaster. I wish them joy and exhilaration and hope they enjoy every moment. I'll be cheering them on from the sidelines and will tell you all about it next week.