Year after year, the Children’s Book Committee at Bank Street College in New York City selects, from thousands of titles, the best books of the year for kids and young adults. The incalculable rewards of this daunting task were wonderfully on display at the presentation of the 2017 Flora Stieglitz Straus Award for nonfiction, the Claudia Lewis Award for poetry, and the Josette Frank Award for fiction, on Thursday morning, April 6, at Bank Street College.
The winners of the 2017 Flora Stieglitz Straus Award for nonfiction were Ada’s Violin: The Story of the Recycled Orchestra of Paraguay by Susan Hood, illustrated by Sally Wern Comport (S. & S., May 2016); March: Book Three by Congressman John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, illustrated by Nate Powell (Top Shelf, Aug. 2016); and Sachiko: A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor’s Story by Caren Stelson (Lerner/Carolrhoda, Oct. 2016).
Susan Hood kicked off the acceptance speeches with a bit of timely humor: “I would love to tell you that I discovered the orchestra, but that would be an alternative fact.” In truth, the book was inspired by, and then created with the help of, CBS’s 60 Minutes, which put her in touch with the Recycled Orchestra’s conductor Favio Chávez and Ada Ríos herself. Hood urged the audience to never underestimate “the lifesaving power of art” because, as in this case, “buried in the landfill was music.”
Leigh Walton, editor of March: Book Three, accepted the honor on behalf of Lewis, Aydin, and Powell. Walton spoke of the unique challenges facing young people today, especially in regards to fake news and alternative facts. “[Having] all the information in the world can’t help us with curation, with pulling out a narrative.” Walton ended by reminding the audience that though the trilogy is in a graphic novel format, the subjects are “not superheroes but heroes, not statues but people—ordinary people.”
Caren Stelson began her acceptance speech with a quote from philosopher Martin Buber (“All real living is meeting.”) and explained how meeting with and interviewing Sachiko Yasui changed her life. Sharing that her father was an American soldier in World War II, Stelson wondered how people and children survive war, and stressed the need for peace.
The winner of the 2017 Claudia Lewis Award for poetry was When Green Becomes Tomatoes: Poems for all Seasons by Julie Fogliano, illustrated by Julie Morstad (Roaring Brook/Neal Porter Books, Mar. 2016). Fogliano accepted the award and discussed the serendipitous chain of events that led to the celebrated book’s creation. Fogliano was at first resistant to poetry, convinced that she was in no way a poet: “I was a mom who stared out the window and wrote about daffodils—I was a reporter.” Ultimately, Fogliano wondered if her school teachers had emphasized the beauty of poetry, rather than rush to deconstruct and analyze it, then she might have been more receptive to it earlier on—a query left for the audience to consider.
Finally, the winner of the 2017 Josette Frank Award for fiction was The Secret Life of Lincoln Jones by Wendelin van Draanen (Knopf, Oct. 2016). Van Draanen gave a stirring speech about her mother’s journey to the United States after growing up in Nazi-occupied Netherlands, the hard work her mom and dad put forth raising her and her siblings, and the devastating effect a hate crime had on the family business. From “heartbreaking to backbreaking,” van Draanen described how she and her siblings and mother (her father tragically passed away soon after the incident) tried to rebuild. Humor was essential to their survival strategy and van Draanen was honored that the Committee had seen and recognized the heartfelt humor and compassion essential to the book.