In January, when two committees appointed by the American Library Association announced the best children's picture book (Caldecott) and longer work (Newbery), political candidates were cruising the country shaking hands and making pledges. This year's committees and the two books they honored -- Brian Selznick's "The Invention of Hugo Cabret" (Scholastic $22.99, ages 8-12) and Laura Amy Schlitz's "Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!" (Candlewick, $19.99, ages 8-12) -- have important messages for our politicians.
Both books were unusual choices, each stretching the definition of their award. Happily, both books will please their audiences. Change, creative thinking and positive outcomes -- isn't that what we want from our politicians?
The Caldecott is generally awarded to a 32-page picture book, but "The Invention of Hugo Cabret" is 526 pages long. The book integrates words and pictures to tell the story of Hugo, an orphaned 12-year-old who lives by himself in a Paris train station in 1931. Determined to fix an automaton his father left him, Hugo is certain that it holds the key to understanding his father's life. The plot is fairly simple and, though the characters are intriguing, "Hugo Cabret" is not a book that could have won an award on writing alone. It's the unique blend of words and pictures that show the author-illustrator's genius.
The book begins with a series of pictures. Readers zero in on the moon, then pull away to see it hanging over the city of Paris. A 45-page series of black and white pencil images cinematically reveal hero, time and place as if we are following the lens of a camera. The rapid succession of silvery pencil drawings evokes a movie screen. Later, as the plot gels, we see that Selznick has embedded the real life and work of early filmmaker George Melies into his book with actual stills from Melies' 1902 silent surreal masterpiece, "A Trip to the Moon."
The references will please adults but won't get in the way of children's enjoyment. For them, there's plenty of excitement as Hugo and his feisty friend Isabelle stop hiding secrets and share information crucial to reviving the automaton. Mystery and friendship are important themes, but the drama inherent in text and illustrations drives the book. Selznick chooses the medium that best expresses the story and keeps his picture-loving audience guessing and involved. For example, Selznick wisely illustrates a chase scene with a series of charcoals. At other points in the book, graphics rest the reader, as in the story's end when a luminescent moon fills the page and then fades to black in the next illustration, leaving the proper sense of peace that comes at the conclusion of a satisfying story.
In contrast, this year's Newbery, generally awarded to novel-length books, went to a book that is only 85 pages long, including both the introduction and bibliography. Unlike most Newbery award-winners, which are primarily fiction, "Good Masters! Sweet Ladies" is an illustrated mix of drama, poetry, history and a bit of nonfiction. The book was written by a librarian to inform her performance-loving students about the Middle Ages. The 19 monologues and two dialogues provide so much more. Like the Caldecott-winner, the Newbery winner has a vision that pushes against traditional genres and encourages children to think beyond the typical.
Readers will first notice the colorful borders by Robert Byrd. These recall illuminated manuscripts, while his small figures and sweeping settings remind us of tapestries. Schlitz presents captivating characters from all ladders of society, their honest truths defying pretty stereotypes rendered by many medieval books for children. Will, the plow boy, understands that he will be caring for his mother and sister and farming three of the lord's fields until he, like his father, dies. Alice, the shepherdess, sings all night to save the life of Jilly, her favorite sheep, the lamb of the sheep who nursed Alice at her birth and mother's death. Otho, the bullied miller's son, is hated by everyone because his father cheats, and he realizes all that hate will probably turn him mean like his father.
Presentations vary as much as the cast. Sometimes stories are linked as when Isobel, the lord's daughter, complains about how someone threw dung and stained her beautiful dress when she'd done no wrong. In the next ode we meet Barbary, a poor peasant girl who can barely take care of her stepmother's twin babies, lives in a stink-filled cottage where she can't sleep and, in a bad moment, throws dung at the perfect Isobel, feeling nothing but remorse later. A dialogue shows Jacob, the moneylender's son, and Pentronella, the merchant's daughter, who escape parental and societal prejudices for a short, spontaneous session of rock throwing.
Schlitz's writings sparkle with variety of form as well. Some are free verse poems, while others rhyme. There are narratives and dialogues, and every so often Schlitz throws in a short nonfiction piece to explain crusades, pilgrimages or the three-field system of farming. All nonfiction pieces are brief and placed in the context of the character's lament. Alongside the elegant borders are notes about pronunciation or word meanings, each pithy and pleasing. Much like Chaucer did for his readers, Schlitz lets us see custom and controversy and how humanity and feelings never really change.
These authors challenge what is, take risks and are happily rewarded for their efforts. May political battles end the same.
New York Times best-selling author Haven Kimmel has shaken up her status quo by writing her first novel for younger readers, "Kaline Klattermaster's Tree House" (Atheneum, $15.99, ages 9-12). The hero is an inventive third-grader who is deeply disturbed by his father's leaving and his mother's dizziness. He argues and sometimes screams for (in annoying capitals) some kind of structure and parental understanding. This is a complex story, beyond the ken of most young readers, but here's hoping this author keeps taking risks.