SAN DIEGO - The two debut books that just won the most prestigious U.S. children's-literature awards were on few people's radar screens before the prizes were announced on Monday at the American Library Association's midwinter conference here.
"A Sick Day for Amos McGee" (Roaring Brook, $16.99, ages 3-6), which won the 2011 Caldecott Medal as the best-illustrated children's book, had at least been mentioned as a long shot for the award. Illustrated by Erin Stead and written by her husband, Philip Stead, this delightful picture book tells how some zoo animals head out into the city to bring comfort to their beloved zookeeper when he stays home with a cold.
But "Moon Over Manifest" (Delacorte, $16.99, ages 8-12), which won the 2011 Newbery Medal as the best-written children's book, was a totally unexpected winner. The book, an intriguing Depression-era mystery about a girl trying to uncover her father's past, was written by Clare Vanderpool.
When the Newbery Medal winner was announced, there were audible gasps of surprise in the room filled with several hundred children's librarians and children's-literature experts.
Amy Kellman, a Pittsburgh-based children's-literature consultant, may have been one of the few who actually put odds on "Moon Over Manifest" before the awards were announced. In response to a query from Scripps Howard News Service about potential winners two weeks ago, Kellman said: "I like 'Moon Over Manifest' and 'One Crazy Summer' for Newbery."
While "Moon" won the Newbery, "One Crazy Summer" (HarperCollins, $15.99, ages 8-12), written by Rita Williams-Garcia, was selected as a 2011 Newbery Honor book.
Since the awards were announced, both "Moon Over Manifest" and "A Sick Day for Amos McGee" have become instant best sellers. The monetary power of the Newbery and Caldecott is immense. For example, just after ALA officials announced "Moon Over Manifest" as the 2011 Newbery Medal winner, the book was ranked at 49,676 in sales on Amazon.com. By the end of the day, it was No. 17.
It was a similar story for "A Sick Day for Amos McGee." It zoomed from 29,367 in sales rank on Amazon.com just after the awards were announced, and ended the day at No. 29.
Here's a closer look at the two winners:
-- When Philip Stead wrote the text for "A Sick Day for Amos McGee," he knew he wanted his wife to illustrate it. Erin Stead, 28, had worked as a design assistant at HarperCollins, and at Books of Wonder, a New York City children's-book store, before the couple moved to Ann Arbor, Mich.
Erin Stead told the Associated Press that she has long loved drawing illustrations showing the emotional connections between animals and people. While she loved working on the book with her husband, neither of them expected it to win an award because of its gentle text and understated illustrations.
As a result, Erin Stead told the Detroit Free Press, she was "floored" when she got the call on Monday morning that she had won the 2011 Caldecott Medal.
The book's story is charmingly simple: Amos McGee is beloved by the animals at the zoo for whom he cares. So, when Amos feels unwell one day and stays home, the animals decide to visit him to repay him for the care and kindness he shows them each day.
Erin Stead's illustrations, done in woodblock and pencil, clearly convey the affection between Amos and the animals. There's lots of humor here, too, as the animals board a bus to travel to Amos' house, and then spend the afternoon playing games and having tea with the zookeeper.
The illustrations, mostly done in muted colors, contrast sharply with the brilliant hues found in most picture books today, giving "A Sick Day for Amos McGee" something of a classic, retro look that matches perfectly with Philip Stead's story.
-- Clare Vanderpool, 46, worked on "Moon Over Manifest" for five years, fitting her research and writing in between raising her four children. Vanderpool, who has spent her life in Wichita, Kan., has long been fascinated by the role of place in people's lives.
In her Newbery winner, Vanderpool explores that concept as her narrator, 12-year-old Abilene Tucker, is sent by her itinerant father to spend the summer of 1936 with an old friend of his in the fictionalized small town of Manifest, Kan. Abilene and her father have never set down roots and, instead, moved around from place to place -- wherever Abilene's father could find work -- and so Abilene finds herself intensely curious about the place her father has talked about for so many years.
Vanderpool seamlessly moves back and forth in time as Abilene, an independent, self-reliant child, combs old newspapers and letters and talks with current Manifest residents in an attempt to learn more about her father's past. As she does, Abilene uncovers secrets about the town and about her father, gaining insights into herself in the process.
(Karen MacPherson, the children's/teen librarian at the Takoma Park, Md., Library, can be reached at Kam.Macpherson(at)gmail.com.)
Copyright 2011 Scripps Media, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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