Major annual book awards in the field of children's literature were awarded recently. Among them were the Caldecott Medal for illustration and the Newbery Medal for literature presented by the American Library Association, the National Book Award for Young People's Literature presented by the National Book Award Foundation and the Stonewall Children's and Young Adult Literature Award given by ALA.
"A Sick Day for Amos McGee" by Philip C. Stead, illustrated by Erin E. Stead (A Neal Book, Roaring Brook Press, an imprint of Macmillan Children's Publishing Group, $16.99, ages 3-6) This year's Caldecott winner is what some call an old-fashioned book. Perhaps with all the glitz, glitter and instant gratification of technology -- much of which has a predilection for action and violence -- readers are more than ready for a simply told tale of kindness. This is a fantasy with whimsical charm. Zookeeper Amos McGee takes care of his animals, befriending each in individual ways. For example, he'd "sit quietly with the penguin (who was very shy)" and he "read stories to the owl (who was afraid of the dark)." But one day McGee is too sick to go to work. All the animals gather and visit him at home, each one contributing to his recovery, repaying all the kind deeds he performed daily for them. The illustrations, using pencil and woodblock printing techniques, are as gentle as the text. This is a soothing book to share with young children and to be appreciated by them many times.
"Moon Over Manifest" by Clare Vanderpool (Delacorte Press, Random House, $16.99, ages 9-12) The current Newbery awardee is a gentle mystery written much like a memoir. When Abilene's father gets a new railroad job, he decides it's not fit for his 12-year old daughter to come along, and so he sends her to the small town he lived in as a youth, Manifest, Kansas. Abilene is hurt and bewildered but determined to find out more about her father, positive that he'll return for her at summer's end. The author sets the story during the Depression, but much of it also takes place during World War I. Each hidden memento that Abilene finds in a hidden cigar box triggers another tale from the past from Miss Sadie, an alleged medium. The reader is swept into the tangled mysteries and the history of the town. Abilene and new friends fill their summer leisure searching for the identity of a spy. But what Abilene finds instead is a complicated, caring youth on the run who wins her affection as well as ours and whom she forgives when she discovers who he really is. Vanderpool captures small -town life exquisitely in her debut novel.
This year the National Book Award for Young People's Literature was given to
"Mockingbird" by Kathryn Erskine (Philomel Books, a division of Penguin Young Readers Group, $15.99, ages 10 up). This is the moving story of Caitlin, a 10-year-old child with Asperger's syndrome, who has been shattered by a random school shooting that killed her brother, Devon. What is unusual is that Erskine jumps inside Caitlin's head and forces the reader to follow, so that we have a sudden and sympathetic understanding of how her mind works. She is safe with literal, logical black and white, but devastated by anything that doesn't conform to her orderly routine. She knows what empathy is by definition but not by experience. It is a major breakthrough when she allows color to enter her rigid black-and-white picture. Erskine has written a novel worthy of serious attention. As Caitlin shows signs of healing from her terrible loss, we begin to understand the complex world of patients with Asperger's syndrome.
"Almost Perfect" by Brian Katcher (Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House Children's Books, $17.99, ages 13 up) Katcher's novel about a transgender teen is conversational, compelling and compassionate. When we first meet the protagonist, high school senior Logan, he is depressed about his ex-girlfriend. Then a new girl arrives in his biology lab. She is fun, friendly, and he's attracted to her. But she insists she only wants to be friends. Only after several months does she blurt out her desperate secret, "I'm a boy." Logan is horrified. He's never met someone who's transgender and he's furious. But later he's torn apart, because he misses Sage. Katcher does not take an easy route. He addresses ugly issues of prejudice and homophobia. Although Logan is determined not to see Sage again, it's Logan who gets her to the hospital when she's brutally attacked by a guy. The pace is leisurely, so we get to know and to like both major characters. But there is no pat ending. As Logan starts college and Sage has sent him a goodbye letter with no return address, Logan thinks, "There was no point in worrying about the next girl in my life right now. All I knew was that she would have a hard time measuring up to Sage."
Joanna H. Kraus is a professor emeritus of the State University of New York, an award-winning playwright and an author of children's books. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.