Congressman John Lewis made history at the 2017 American Library Association (ALA) Youth Media Awards (YMA) on Monday, January 23, when March: Book Three (Top Shelf), the third installment of his graphic autobiography, written with Andrew Aydin and illustrated by Nate Powell, took four YMA wins, including the Michael L. Printz Award. Previously, March: Book Three earned the 2016 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature as well as the 2017 Walter Award.
Kelly Barnhills’s The Girl Who Drank the Moon (Algonquin) received the 2017 Newbery Medal, awarded to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children; while Javaka Steptoe’s Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat (Little, Brown), earned the Caldecott Medal, as well as a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award.
“I’m delighted and honored that America’s librarians are supporting March with these awards,” said Lewis, who represents Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District, including downtown Atlanta. The ALA Midwinter Meeting took place at the Georgia World Congress Center from January 21-24, and Lewis (below) was on site Sunday and Monday.
“I love books and I love librarians. When I was growing up, I tried to read every single thing I could,” Lewis said. “I hope these awards will help inspire all of our young people—and some of us not so young — to read, to learn, and to act. March is a guidebook reminding us that we all must speak up and stand up for what is right, what is fair, and what is just.”
While the crowning honor for March: Book Three was the Printz, the title also swept the Robert F. Sibert Medal, the Coretta Scott King Author Award, and the YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults Award.
Each award announcement for March: Book Three was met with whoops and thunderous applause. The audience responded with chants of “March!” at the Printz reveal, with attendees wiping away tears.
Inspiration “bubbling up”
Upon the announcement of Barnhill’s Newbery win for The Girl Who Drank the Moon, a coming-of-age fantasy about a girl who is saved from death by a kind witch who raises her with a swamp monster, the assembly erupted into cheers—and, in one case, a happy dance in the aisle.
Barnhill said she had “zero clue” that she was in the running. “I was awakened from a deep sleep at 5:15 this morning. It was the last thing I expected,” she said. “What was funny was that my kid just changed the ringtone on my phone to the Wonder Woman theme song from the ‘70s. It was surreal to pick up that ring and then hear a room of super cheerful librarians saying I’d won the Newbery.” After grabbing some writer friends to talk about her surprise big win over tacos, the reality still hadn’t sunk in for Barnhill. “Weeks ago, some people did say they thought I had a chance. I said ‘You’re nuts. I have no chance.'”
The inspiration for the story came to her, as many ideas do, she said, while she was out running. “I sometimes see these sudden and dramatic images, and I pay attention to them when they happen. So on this particular run, I saw a swamp monster holding a baby. He had four arms and big old tail, and—here’s a detail that didn’t make it into the book—eyes that work independently of each other. He was reciting a poem.” When Barnhill arrived home, she jotted down the idea and dropped it into a basket where she keeps such snippets, sketches, and random thoughts. The other details of the book started “bubbling up” shortly thereafter.
“Stories give kids the tools to write their own stories, and to write, and rewrite, the universe,” she added. “I take stories seriously. It’s a privilege and an honor to be doing this work.” The win was also a coup for Algonquin Books, a division of Workman Publishers that was only established in 2013. This is their first Newbery win.
“I saw myself in Basquiat”
Much of the art in Steptoe‘s Radiant Child, addressing events in the artist’s life from his young boyhood in Brooklyn, NY, to his experience as a street artist in Manhattan and worldwide recognition, is portrayed with acrylic paints, also a favorite medium of Basquiat’s, Steptoe explained. “I guess I saw myself in Basquiat,” Steptoe added, noting that Basquiat was at the height of his fame while Steptoe was an art student at The Cooper Union School of Art in Greenwich Village.
Steptoe received an early morning call from Coretta Scott King Award Book Awards Jury chair Rudine Sims Bishop, whom he has known for 20 years, telling him that he had received the illustrator honor. After that, he got into the shower. “I figured, ‘OK, maybe nothing happened with the Caldecott,’” he said. The phone rang again, and he spoke to the Caldecott committee while he was dripping wet.
“My reaction was [that] I just felt something in my heart, and it kind of took its time, and it spread throughout my body,” he said.
While researching the book, Steptoe looked at and read “anything that was remotely connected to Basquiat,” including listening to the same music in his studio that Basquiat listened to while working. “It gives you an understanding, a perspective. If he was listening to Bolero while he was creating these things, you know [I get a sense of where his] wavelike movement [comes from]. Whereas if you don’t do that, you aren’t going to get it.”
The book’s vibrant collages and paintings on wood reveal how the young Basquiat found joy and release in art, despite challenges, including his mother’s debilitating mental illness. “That’s how life is. It’s complicated,” Steptoe said, adding that he hopes the book will help lift the “stigma” of mental illness. While life can be ugly, it can also be “weird but beautiful. You can be all of those things; it doesn’t have to be perfect. You just have to find what you love and figure out a way to do it.”
Radiant Child was the third consecutive Caldecott win for Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. The previous two were Lindsay Mattick’s Finding Winnie and Dan Santat’s The Adventures of Beekle: the Unimaginary Friend.
More honors and awards
Rudine Sims Bishop received the Coretta Scott King–Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement, prompting an instant standing ovation and cries of “Whoa!” and “Yessss!” from attendees. The award is given to outstanding African American authors and illustrators of books that embody an appreciation of African American culture as well as universal human values. Sims Bishop, professor emerita of education at Ohio State University, is the author of articles including “Windows, Mirrors, and Sliding Glass Doors,” “Shadow and Substance: Afro-American Experience in Contemporary Children’s Fiction,” among many other influential books and research papers. Pauletta Brown Bracy, chair of the Coretta Scott King Award Book Awards, who presented the honor, asked Bishop to stand up a second time after the honor was announced so attendees could glimpse her. “I couldn’t see you the first time, with everyone else in my way!”
The Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal, honoring an author or illustrator whose books, published in the United States, have made a substantial, lasting contribution to children’s literature over many years went to Nikki Grimes. Her books include Talkin’ About Bessie: The Story of Aviator Elizabeth Colman (Orchard, 2002) and Danitra Brown, Class Clown (HarperCollins, 2005).
The 2017 Margaret A. Edwards Award, sponsored by SLJ, paid tribute to Sarah Dessen, author of Dreamland: A Novel (Viking, 2000) and many others, for significant and lasting contribution to young adult literature. The award recognizes an author’s work in helping adolescents become aware of themselves and addressing questions about their role and importance in relationships, society, and in the world. Sarah Hill, YALSA president, noted that that Dessen’s work illustrates that “family takes many forms, and self-acceptance is the first step to love.”
The Pura Belpré Awards honor a Latinx writer and illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth. These awards, announced in both Spanish and English, went to illustrator Raúl Gonzalez for Lowriders to the Center of the Earth (Chronicle) and author Juana Medina for Juana and Lucas (Candlewick).
Lewis Marches; AWARDS Speculation
This year’s midwinter meeting sent attendees home with other unique memories, including downpours (“the streets are like rivers!” said one shuttle bus driver), and the spirited Atlanta March for Social Justice and Women on Saturday, which Lewis and many attendees participated in, and where some marchers chanted “District Five!”, referring to Lewis’s Georgia constituency. In addition, tens of thousands of spirited football fans inundated the Congress Center area to cheer the Atlanta Falcons on to besting the Packers on Sunday.
Neither torrential rain nor the early hour of the YMA ceremony—8:00 a.m.—could diminish the enthusiasm of kid lit lovers, who were lining up in the gray 7 a.m. light for the YMA ceremony, clutching coffee cups. During the “Academy Award announcements for kid lit,” as the event is often called, some were dressed for the red carpet, with velvet, sequins, and considerable bling.
As the main program got underway, Bracy welcomed the crowd, calling the ceremony “the premier event” in the kid lit world, and expressing particular delight that children were watching from all over the world on the livestream broadcast.
Taking the podium, ALA president Julie Todaro joked that she had only received the list of winners and honorees, emblazoned “CONFIDENTIAL, at 10 p.m. the previous night, and that participating in the event was among her favorite parts of her job. “We know our value [as librarians] comes from what we do for and with people,” Todaro told the audience. “This event offers us an especially timely opportunity to work together for a successful future based on our vision and values, with a renewed commitment to social justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion.”
On the way over to the YMAs on the shuttle bus, Tish Wilson, assistant director of youth services at the Dayton (OH) Metro Library, and her colleague, Teresa Huntley, were chatting about the awards and ALA Midwinter Meeting. “We think it’s been fantastic,” said Wilson. “The best yet. Atlanta is a great host city.” Asked if they had a favorite for the YMAs, the duo demurred. “They’re all too good to choose. Besides, what I like usually doesn’t win,” said Huntley.
Waiting for the ceremony to start at the packed Sidney Marcus Auditorium, Mary Fellows, manager of youth and family services at the Upper Hudson (NY) Library System, was rooting for Adam Gidwitz’s The Inquisitor’s Tale (Dutton), which took a Newbery Honor.
Amber Hargett Neuse, head of children’s services at the Kinston (NC) Regional Library, was thrilled to be at the ceremony for the first time. “I can’t wait to see the Caldecott winner. My colleague back home is planning a Caldecott story time. I’ll be ordering books on my phone from my seat.”
Sue McCleaf Nespeca, a children’s literacy expert who runs Kid Lit Plus Consulting in Cashtown, PA, extolled the judges for handling a tough job. “Their picks may not be my favorites, but they evaluate in a different way than we normally do,” she said. “They may notice things we wouldn’t. I respect their decisions no matter what they choose.”
“Remember,” added Fellows, “popular appeal is not a criteria. Not every book is for every child. But every book is for some child.”
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