Dr. Alice Belgray, Chair, Children’s Book Committee at Bank Street College Announces 2007 Awards
“Books may well be the only true magic,” author Alice Hoffman is quoted as saying. The Bank Street College of Education has long recognized such literary alchemy, ever since its nonprofit Children’s Book Committee was founded 75 years ago to recognize the enchantment that colorful prose infuses in the lives of young people and to guide librarians, educators and parents to the best books for children published each year. Bank Street College of Education President Augusta Kappner kicked off the Children’s Book Committee’s annual awards presentation last month, noting that “everyone in this room is committed to bringing good literature and writing to the lives of children.” In announcing this year’s book award winners – Sara Pennypacker’s Clementine, Christian Burch’s The Manny Files, and Russell Freedman’s Freedom Walkers – she noted that they were in rarefied company, with over 4000 books in contention for three prestigious awards. Two books garnered the 2007 Josette Frank award, given “to honor books of outstanding literary merit in which children or young people deal in a positive and realistic way with difficulties in their world and grow emotionally and morally”: Clementine and The Manny Files. Clementine author Sara Pennypacker began her acceptance speech by admitting that the antics of her own children (“I just stole everything my kids ever did or said and put them in order”) provided the inspiration for her zany protagonist Clementine, a precocious third grader whose well-intentioned desire to problem-solve lands her in a heap of good-natured trouble. Pennypacker infused her remarks with a cautionary message, urging children’s educational mentors to recognize the positive attributes of what may appear to be unruly or hyperactive behavior: “It would be fabulous if, for every time kids were not within a certain structure [in their behavior]…they were not only given the message that they were a troublemaker, but they were also given true messages about how positive they are and how valued they are…For instance, kids like Clementine often are empathetic and creative and ingenious…If you just said that enough times to kids, then they would have a much easier time dealing with [the negative message.]” Pennypacker’s co-honoree, The Manny Files’ author Christian Burch, related that his own experiences as a male nanny provided the muse for his award-winning book, a fictional account of the Dalinger family’s experiences with their male nanny, a Mary Poppins-like “manny” who makes unconventional lunches and wears costumes to the bus stop, and whose young charges must deal with such problems as bullying while developing self-acceptance and an understanding of human nature in the process. Burch touched upon his own difficulties in life, most notably coming out to his parents at the age of 25, adding poignant recollections of his parents’ acceptance (“my mom told me that I was opening up her world”) and unconditional love. “So you see, some might think that writing The Manny Files was cheaper than going to a therapist, but the truth is that growing up and learning how to laugh at myself and watching my parents have fun made me realize that we are never too old to be playful,” concluded Burch movingly. Last to the podium was Freedom Walkers author Russell Freedman, winner of Bank Street College’s 2007 Flora Stieglitz Straus Award, given to “a nonfiction book that serves as an inspiration to young readers.” Freedman’s powerful book -- which tells the story of the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, believed by many to be the catalyst for the modern civil rights movement – depicts the history-changing role of such icons as Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King as well as countless unsung heroes who “rise above safe routines of daily lives” to fight racial injustice. Freedman told the Bank Street audience that his impetus for the book was his own bus trip through the Deep South in the 1950’s, where he encountered prejudice first-hand and learned “how segregation humiliates both sides.” The 39-member Children’s Book Committee, chaired by Alice Belgray, further develops a list of “Best Children’s Books of the Year.” Every book is vetted by at least two committee members and then discussed by the committee as a whole. The committee also solicits feedback from 28 young reviewers, ages 2 to 18, who live throughout the country. Belgray noted with pride the important role-played by her committee’s youngest contributors, two of whom had attended the award ceremony and stood for a bow amidst the roaring applause of their adult peers. The Children’s Book Committee is also a founding member of the soon-to-be-established Bank Street Center for Children’s Literature, whose mission will be to create, identify and advocate for the highest quality literature for all children from infancy through adolescence while ensuring its accessibility to children throughout America. With 50 pages of newly recommended books this year, young readers will have lots to dig into over the coming months. Even parents and educators whose kids are too old to believe in magic will thank Bank Street for the delicious alchemy its selected books bring to their children’s lives.