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Posts by Susan


The ups and downs of reading aloud

Posted by Susan on September 9, 2009 at 12:00 AM in Recommendations
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What's my favorite part of the day? That's easy.

It's at night, when I get to read books with my son. I love when he snuggles in close to listen. I love when he asks questions. I love when he discovers a book for the first time. I love spending time with him in such a special way.

But, it wasn't always that way. And that's okay too.

When he was younger, he wouldn't hold still for anything, let alone a book. He wiggled. He squirmed. He was totally uninterested. It was tough on a parent like me who had been waiting for years until she had kids of her own to read to. It was hard not to feel like I was doing something wrong.

All kids develop differently, even when it comes to reading aloud.

I frequently hear from parents of kids under three years old who are trying to read to their children but find it extremely frustrating. Children at that age are wiggly, active and have trouble sitting still for anything.

Instead of reading regular picture books, try ones with only a few words per page. Read only one or two short books a night. Songs, nursery rhymes and short poems work very well with that age. So does singing a book. Also, give touch-and-feel and lift-the-flap books a try. Those kinds of books engage children directly and help teach them about books and what they're used for.

As much as you may have dreamed of reading The Cat in the Hat to your children, it's okay to wait a few years until they're ready to hear it.

Photo credit: taliesin from

The main thing to remember is to do what works for your kids. Some three year olds can sit still for a lengthy picture book, while others can't make it through anything much longer than a board book. If you have a seven year old who loves to hear picture books, go right ahead. If your four year old is enjoying chapter books, then by all means, give them a try. If your twelve year old wants to listen to you read a chapter a night, take advantage of that. There aren't any rules or rights and wrongs to reading aloud.

And recognize that it won't always go perfectly. Sometimes your child will be in the mood to be read to and it will be a magical moment for you both. Others times they might feel tired, sick or bored (or you might) and it just doesn't work out as well. And if you're a working parent like me, there are nights where you're just not going to be able to have that time together. That's okay too. Last night, I worked late at the library, and came home to find my son sound asleep. His dad read to him, and I'm glad they got to share that.

Go easy on yourself and your children when it comes to reading aloud. And enjoy the wonderful moments when they happen.

What have your reading aloud experiences been like? I'd love to hear about them.


One card fits all

Posted by Susan on September 2, 2009 at 12:00 AM in Libraries
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As your kids head off to school, make sure they have one very important school supply: a library card.

A library card is more than a piece of plastic. It's usually the first tangible thing a child has in their own name. It gives them a sense of ownership and independence and it opens doors for children in so many wonderful ways.

One of my favorite parts of being a children's librarian is giving out those very first library cards. I love watching their faces light up with pride as they receive something that's all their own. Here's what I say:

"Take a good look at the children's reference desk. You're never interrupting a librarian at the desk... we're sitting here waiting for you to ask us a question. Come to us if you need help with homework, or the computer, or finding a book. We'd love to recommend a good book or series for you. No question is ever silly or unimportant."

Library Card.jpgSeptember is National Library Card sign-up month. It started in 1987 to meet a challenge proposed by then Secretary of Education William Bennett who said: "Let's have a national campaign... every child should obtain a library card- and use it."

Does everyone in your family have a library card? Do you remember getting your first library card? How old were you? How about your children? When did they get theirs?

What would you say to a child getting their first library card?


Reading by Number

Posted by Susan on August 26, 2009 at 12:00 AM in
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A few weeks ago I wrote that I was a little jealous of a young patron who was reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Truth be told, it wasn't just that he was reading it for the first time... it was that he was able to read it at all. He had started the series only a month earlier and had already worked his way through nearly all seven books. It was such a contrast from all the years I waited for the entire series to be published.

Lord of the Rings.jpgWould the series have been so successful if the books had been published closer together or farther apart? I don't think it would have mattered. Series books are episodic by their very nature. At one point in time, nearly every series ever published is unfinished... but we tend to forget that when we have the whole series in front of us. For example, I remember mentioning the torturous wait for Harry Potter 6 to my boss at the time. She responded by telling me how difficult it had been for her to wait for the whole Lord of the Rings series to be published.

I think that the long agonizing wait actually made me appreciate the Harry Potter series more. I analyzed, thought about and puzzled over each book for years while waiting for the next one. Each book was a treat to savor, because I knew it would be years before I would get the next installment. (All of this is in retrospect, of course. At the time, the waiting made me crazy.)

On the other hand, there's also the sheer joy of being able to pick up the next book in a series (any series) right away. It lets you continue living in the author's magical world for just a bit longer and it helps with continuity. My mom read the first few Harry Potter books as they came out, but they didn't do much for her at the time. She kept forgetting the characters and plot lines... and reached the fourth book without being quite sure she knew who You-Know-Who was. After all the books were published, she read the whole series together and found it a far more enjoyable experience. The intricacies of the story were much easier for her to follow.

Dark Whispers.jpgSometimes, we may not even realize we're reading a series. A teenage patron recently showed me her summer reading log, and I noticed she had given a very low rating to Dark Whispers by Bruce Coville. I asked if she had enjoyed the other two books in the Unicorn Chronicles. She replied by saying she had no idea Dark Whispers was the third in a series... but that it would explain an awful lot.

I've also talked to people who claim not to mind reading out of sequence. There are kids who will read whichever book happens to be on the shelf at the library. For some series, it really doesn't matter which order you read them in. Usually, I just recommend reading the first book published before reading the rest. But I always wonder about kids who read, for example, Harry Potter #6, then #2, then #7. Are they getting anything out of the books? Does it make any sense?

On the other end of the spectrum, I frequently see kids who love to read in order. No matter the series, whether it's the Magic Tree House or Geronimo Stilton, they want to read every book according to its number. For these kids, there's nothing more valuable than a good series database.

Big Woods.jpgSometimes, the numbers themselves aren't entirely straight forward. Let's take the Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder as an example. When I was reading the books, they were numbered in this order: #1 Little House in the Big Woods, #2 Little House on the Prairie, #3 Farmer Boy... etc. That has since changed, and the current numbers on the sides of the books are: #1 Little House in the Big Woods, #2 Farmer Boy, #3 Little House on the Prairie.

I had a young patron tell me recently how much she had enjoyed Little House in the Big Woods, but #2 (Farmer Boy) made her stop reading the series. Sometimes, I think in the quest to be chronological, publishers can sometimes leave a good story by the wayside. As for how to number the series, I think this list is the best.

How do you like to read a series? Slowly and methodically over time, or in one big gulp? In order or out of order? Has chronological numbering versus publication date ever been an issue for you in a series you've read? Have you ever waited for a series to be fully published before you started it?


The First Time Again

Posted by Susan on August 19, 2009 at 12:00 AM in Classics
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Last week I asked this question: "What children's book would you love to be able to read again for the first time?"

The question struck more of a chord than I ever could have imagined. Between responses on Booklights, Facebook and Twitter, my question was answered over 600 times! Being a curious person, I had to find out which books were mentioned the most. The numbers listed next to the titles refer to how many times that book or series was mentioned.

The top ten children's books readers would most like to read again for the first time are:

Anne of Green Gables.jpg10. The Anne of Green Gables series by L.M. Montgomery, Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell, Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls and the Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder (7 times each). I'm a huge L.M. Montgomery fan, I'd love to read some of her books again for the first time. In the Anne of Green Gables series, the one I'd pick is Anne of the Island.

9. The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery (8 times) At least half the respondents on this book said they prefered the French version.

8. The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman (10 times) The trilogy His Dark Materials was mentioned only once. Interestingly, the majority of the votes were specifically for The Golden Compass.

7. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll (11 times). I just found my old dog-eared copies of these terrific books. What wonderful memories!

Secret Garden.jpg6. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (12 times). I actually just read this for the first time last year. I wish I had discovered it when I was a child.

We've reached the halfway point, and are starting to climb into the big numbers.

5. The Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe and the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis (19 times). Oh, the magic of discovering what's in that wardrobe! Who can forget that?

4. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (22 times). A perfectly written book. It's amazing what an effect Harper Lee has had on so many generations. I read this book in high school, although I recently had a mom (who hadn't read the book) try to convince me that it was appropriate for her third grader.

Wrinkle in Time.jpg3. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L'Engle (25 times). This book ranks high on every children's book poll I see such as: "What's your favorite book from childhood?" or "What's your favorite Newbery book?" The answer is always A Wrinkle in Time. Interesting side note: did you know that this book was rejected by over two dozen publishers before it was finally accepted?

The numbers jumped way up for the last two, both of which are series.

2. The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien (38 times) Great, great books. I remember my first time reading these very vividly. Frodo was climbing up Mount Doom and my mom came in and asked me to clean up my room. I recall telling her in a passionate voice that I had read hundreds and hundreds of pages just to get to that point and I couldn't stop. I had to know what happened next. Fortunately, she took pity on me.

And the books that were mentioned the most... (drum roll, please):

All Harry Potter books.jpg1. The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling (41 times) As a die-hard Harry Potter fan, I couldn't agree more, but I was surprised that Harry beat out Frodo.

I was on the edge of my seat for every single Harry Potter book. Whenever I thought I had figured it all out, Rowling took her story in another direction and surprised me every time. She made me gasp, cry and laugh in a way I never have while reading a book. It was an unforgettable ride.

But as much as I loved that thrilling, spine tingling first time, it was in the re-reading where I discovered the true magic. Rowling planned out all seven books before the first one was even accepted for publication. All the books are full of subtle, deftly hidden clues and wonderful misdirection that are a delight to discover. For more about the joy of reading a favorite book over and over, check out Jen's excellent post on the subject.

Now, on to the runner-ups. Although they didn't make the top ten list, here are the children's and young adult books that were mentioned multiple times. They're in alphabetical order by author.

-Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander
-I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
-The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
-Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown
-Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card
-Artemis Fowl series by Eoin Colfer
-The Dark is Rising series by Susan Cooper
-Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl
-James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl
-The Neverending Story by Michael Ende
-Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh
-Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
-Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry
-The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
-From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg
-Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren
-The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald
-Twilight by Stephanie Meyer
-The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
-The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
-Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
-A Light in the Attic by Shel Silverstein
-A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
-Heidi by Johanna Spyri
-Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
-The Polar Express by Chris vanAllsburg
-The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner
-Charlotte's Web by E.B. White
-The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams

Several adult books were also mentioned, but they were far outdistanced by the votes for the children's books. If you're curious, here's the results:

-The hands-down winner was Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.
-Animal Farm, The Grapes of Wrath, Watership Down, The Princess Bride and Mists of Avalon tied for second place.
-1984, The Foundation Trilogy, Gone with The Wind, Interview with a Vampire and Of Mice and Men came in third place.

All in all, the answers to this question were absolutely fascinating. Here's a few of my favorite comments:

Charlotte's Web.jpg"My third grade teacher read it to us aloud, and every time I read it, I can still hear her sweet voice. I wonder if she has any idea how she affected us." (Charlotte's Web)

"I would love to read Goodnight Moon with my mom and dad again for the first time."

"I can actually vividly remember hiding under the covers when Lord Voldemort made his appearance." (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone)

"I've read A Wrinkle in Time and A Christmas Carol more times than I can count, but nothing compares to the moment I discovered those worlds. They were more real than reality to me."

"I remember one hot summer when I was about ten reading about life in the Alps. I was hooked." (Heidi)

Princess and the Goblin.jpg"To be a child again and reading on my father's lap." (The Princess and the Goblin)

"The first book that got me really excited about reading was at about ten years old: The Silver Crown by Robert O'Brien. Nothing compares to that first book you can't put down."

"I can't leave out the first book I remember checking out from the library: The Fuzzy Duckling.

"I'd like to return to fourth grade so I could hear my teacher Mr. Orr read The Thief of Always out loud again. That was an incredible experience for me."

"So if for one more time, I could be a riveted six-year old, I would like to go sit in my father's lap, and read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone just once more."

Thanks so much for sharing all your wonderful comments and experiences.

The best part is yet to come. That will happen when you find a book on this list you've never read before and try it for the very first time. Or better yet, when you read it to a child and watch them experience it for the first time.


The First Time

Posted by Susan on August 12, 2009 at 12:00 AM in Classics
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A kid asked me a question at the children's reference desk a few days ago. While I was answering it, I saw that he was holding a copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I noticed that his bookmark was fairly close to the end of the book. I asked if he had read it before. He said no. Had anyone told him what happened? Nope. Harry Potter 7.jpg

At that moment I was struck by how lucky he was. And, I have to admit, I was a little jealous. He didn't know the ending. Millions of people all of the world (including nearly everyone reading this post, I bet) know exactly what happens in those last few chapters. But he didn't and he had the joy of reading it for the very first time and finding it all out for himself. The magic was still his to discover.

To be as spoiler-free as possible, I'll just say that he was at the beginning of Chapter 34 and Harry was starting to walk into the forest. I vividly remember the suspense I felt when I was at that point and didn't know what was going to happen next. He started reading again the second I answered his question.

It's one of the things I love the most about children's literature. Nothing ever really gets old because there is always a new generation to discover it for the first time.

Golden Compass.jpgAnd it's not just the kids who get to explore new worlds. A few years ago, at the first Kidlitosphere conference, there was a dinner table discussion about the upcoming movie version of Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass. I had been very vocal up until that point but got quiet as soon as that particular conversation started. When I got asked for my opinion about the book, I said I was embarrassed to admit that I had never read it. Someone at the table (Pam, was it you? Or maybe you, Kelly?) told me not to feel embarrassed, but to feel lucky instead. After all, I still had it to look forward to.

Charlotte's Web.jpgThink about all the children who haven't met Ramona yet. Or Paddington. Or Mr. Popper and his penguins. How about those who haven't gone down the rabbit hole? Or through the tollbooth? Or found out where Platform 9 and 3/4 is? Or what Charlotte writes in her web?

They have so many magical people and places they get to discover.... for the very first time. And to them, the books will be just as new as they were to you the first time you read. How lucky they are.

What book would you love to be able to read again for the first time? What book or series are you still looking forward to?

Update: Thank you all for your wonderful and insightful comments! I was absolutely overwhelmed at the hundreds of responses this post generated here and on Facebook. Curious to find out which books were mentioned the most? See this post for a top ten list.


Out of this world

Posted by Susan on August 5, 2009 at 12:00 AM in Middle Grade BooksNonfiction BooksRecommendations
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I recently read a book that was so good it made me want to shout about it from the rooftops. But my roof is incredibly slanted, my voice doesn't reach that far and my neighbors would think I was extremely odd. So, all in all, blogging about it seemed like a better idea.

What's the book about? Something really original, right? Something unique, that nobody else has written about? Nope. It's about man landing on the moon, a subject that has been fully explored this year because of the 40th anniversary of the iconic Apollo 11 mission.

Mission Control.jpg

How is this book different from all other moon books? Three reasons:

The research
Andrew Chaikin is an expert on the manned Apollo missions. He's the author of A Man on the Moon, a comprehensive 700 page book for adults that explains every minute detail of the Apollo space program. It was also the basis for the HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon. Chaikin has done exhaustive research on the missions, read thousands of transcripts, and reports. He's interviewed a multitude of NASA employees including every Apollo astronaut except for Jack Swigert who passed away in 1982. He knows what he's talking about.

The illustrations
Astronaut Alan Bean journeyed to the moon as part of the Apollo 12 mission and was the fourth moonwalker in history. After retiring from NASA, he became a full time artist. The fantastic paintings in the book encompass several decades of his work.

Bean imbues his pictures with details that only the 12 men who have walked on the moon could know. He shows us what it was like to land on the moon, walk in space and conduct science experiments. His captions capture a true sense of the experience and makes the reader feel (almost) if they had traveled into space, too. His pictures of both astronauts and equipment are incredibly detailed right down to the accessories on each astronaut's space suit.

The writing
NASA's universe is very technical, complicated and filled with acronyms. Chaikin and his co-author and wife Victoria Kohl, manage to bring this world to kids with clear and thorough explanations that never become condescending, dull, repetitive or confusing. Also included are extremely informative sidebars that answer common questions and point out intriguing aspects of Apollo. For those looking for more information, check the back for a good overview of additional material.

Take a look at the title of the book again. Mission Control, This is Apollo: The Story of the First Voyages to the Moon. As of right now, the Apollo missions have been the only moon missions. Nobody has been back since December, 1972. I love the optimism and vision in the subtitle that suggests that the Apollo missions are the first of many.

All in all, a great book. As an added bonus, Alan Bean's paintings are currently on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC through January 13, 2010. Can't make the trip? Check out Alan Bean's online gallery and enjoy your trip from the earth to the moon.

Team Moon.jpg For another excellent book on the subject, I highly recommend Catherine Thimmesh's Team Moon: How 400,000 People Landed Apollo 11 on the Moon. It shows what a team effort the moon missions really were and provides a terrific behind the scenes perspective. This well researched book won the 2007 Siebert Informational Book Medal.

Got a favorite space book of your own? I'd love to hear what it is.


The Journey

Posted by Susan on July 29, 2009 at 12:00 AM in Authors and IllustratorsPublishing
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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.

Perhaps you've heard of the book. It's called Curious George. The couple that took the perilous journey described above are Margret and H.A. Rey.

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.

Harry Potter 7.jpg 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.


How do we pick the winners?

Posted by Susan on July 22, 2009 at 12:00 AM in Awards
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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?

If you're unfamiliar with the process, you can find the Caldecott Medal criteria here, and the Newbery Medal criteria here.


What a Night!

Posted by Susan on July 15, 2009 at 12:00 AM in Authors and IllustratorsAwards
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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.)

Brian Selznick was a foot away at the next table.

And I was able to take this picture from my seat, sitting down.

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:

I did know who I was getting my picture taken with. To prove it, here's the actual transcript of the moment when I first met him:
Neil: "Hi, I'm Neil. "
Susan: "I know."

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.

Horn Book cover.jpg

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!"


Heavy Medal Dinner

Posted by Susan on July 8, 2009 at 12:00 AM in Awards
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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 (ALA) Annual Conference.

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.

Graveyard Book.jpgWhat won this year? The House in the Night by Susan Marie Swanson, illustrated by Beth Krommes won the Randolph Caldecott Medal and The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman won the John Newbery Medal.

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.

House in the Night.jpgAn 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.

Hugo Cabret.jpgIt 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. Good Masters Sweet Ladies.jpgI 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.

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