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'The phone rings often'

Industry awaits word of coveted Caldecott, Newbery awards

By CNN Interactive Senior Writer
Jamie Allen

PHILADELPHIA (CNN) -- It will be a hand-wringing weekend for authors and illustrators of children's books, and not because the Super Bowl is Sunday.

The real Super Bowl to these artists comes Monday, February 1, when the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association, announces its winners for several awards -- most notably, the Newbery and the Caldecott medals honoring the best in children's literature.

The Newbery, named after 18th-century British bookseller John Newbery, is widely regarded as the most coveted prize in children's literature. Comparable to the Oscar in film or the Emmy in television, it has the power to make a career.

"The work of one author or artist may stimulate another author or artist to push the edge, to take the risk, to go where the field hasn't gone before."
-- Karen Hesse, 1998 Newbery Medal winner

Just ask Karen Hesse, last year's Newbery winner for "Out of the Dust," a moving tale of how a 14-year-old girl deals with her mother's death. Hesse says she's still enjoying the afterglow from her win.

Read an excerpt of "Out of the Dust"

"When I walk down the street in my hometown people give me the thumbs-up sign through their car windshields, children follow me through the library, the phone rings often and everyone, it seems, wants to talk about children's literature," she says.

The Caldecott has a similar effect in the lives and careers of illustrators.

The awards ceremony will be held in Philadelphia on Monday. Winners of seven different honors -- including the Newbery, Caldecott, and Coretta Scott King Award -- will be announced at the ALA's mid-winter conference in Philadelphia at 9 a.m. news conference.

Newbery, Caldecott histories

The Newbery was established by the ALA in 1922 to encourage creative work in the field of children's literature. Commmittee members consider theme or concept, presentation of information and development of plot, characters, setting and style. While subjective, each winner is immediately deemed a classic in it's category, and libraries and bookstores clamor to stock the book as the title heads to just about every summer reading list.

A call to the ALSC failed to reveal which books are considered front-runners this year. In fact, even the authors are kept in the dark until the winner is announced, followed by a short list of Honor Books.

"I wasn't aware that I was contending for an honor last year," says Hesse, who offers praise to such contenders this year as "Bat 6" by Virginia Euwer Wolff, "Whirligig" by Paul Fleishman, and "The Other Shepards" by Adele Griffin.

Hesse, who says she grew up reading Newbery winners, says children's literature has an appeal that draws in adults, as well.

"There is some extraordinarily fresh, tightly-written work being produced, presented in a way that transcends the intended audience," she says. "There are few children who would take great pleasure in reading the books appearing on the recommended adult lists. But I wouldn't be surprised to find a large segment of the adult population who could take pleasure in reading children's recommended titles."

The Caldecott was named after 19th-century English illustrator Randolph Caldecott. It was established in 1937 when the ALA became concerned that artists creating picture books for children weren't receiving the attention as their literary counterparts.

The honor goes to the most distinguished picture book of the year, with Paul O. Zelinsky taking home last year's honor for the re-telling of "Rapunzel."

'Push the edge ... take the risk'

This year also marks the 30th anniversary of the Coretta Scott King Award, which honors African-American authors and illustrators for outstanding contributions to children's and young adult literature.

Barbara Clark, who heads the Coretta Scott King Task Force for the ALA, says the award was originally created a year after the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., to honor Coretta Scott King for her courage and determination, and also recognize the talents of African-American artists and writers who were being ignored by the general press.

She says the task force is celebrating the award's 30th year by kicking off a nationwide campaign to make readers more familiar with the work it honors.

"I do a lot of work with libraries and every time I tell someone about the award, they've never heard of it," Clark says. "We're going to blanket the country with information on the award. We're trying to reach those audiences -- families, bookstores, churches -- to get the books in the hands of kids."

And that is the ultimate goal of the Caldecott and Newbery, as well. Hesse says the ALA awards give the impetus for better work.

"The work of one author or artist may stimulate another author or artist to push the edge, to take the risk, to go where the field hasn't gone before," Hesse says. "The result -- very exciting children's literature and art ... exciting both for the professional and for the intended audience, the children."

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