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MAY 2008

The Christopher Awards for Best Children’s Books

The 59th annual Christopher Awards recognize films, broadcast TV and cable programs and books for both young people and adults that represent the power to make a positive influence on our world.

Several of the Christopher Award Winners were asked the following questions. We share their responses with you.
1. Who were your mentors in choosing a career in writing?
2. What are some of your favorite children’s books?
3. What are you currently reading?
4. What is the greatest challenge in writing a children’s book?

Caroline Cooney: Caroline B. Cooney was inspired to write Diamonds In The Shadow when her Connecticut church sponsored war refugee families. What makes this novel so touching is that it neither sensationalizes nor does it sugarcoat the experiences of the family that comes to America to find safety, carrying the burden of a dangerous secret. The story unfolds through alternating voices from two very different sets of youths—the American teens in a host family, and teens that are the African refugees.  

Mentors: I had a wonderful sixth grade teacher. His name was Mr. Albert. All the girls wanted to grow up fast and marry him. All the boys wanted to be just like him. We did a lot of writing in that class. He would pass out covers of old New Yorker Magazines (detailed colorful cartoons) and you had to write a short story explaining the illustration. He would set a timer. Maybe you would have twelve minutes. He introduced us to history. He loved to draw with colored chalk on our blackboard, and I still remember the drawing of Mesopotamia, with the rivers of the Fertile Crescent, the Tigris and the Euphrates. He left me with a lifelong passion for writing and for ancient history, and I still set a timer, reminding myself for hard tasks that I can do anything for twelve minutes.

Favorite Children’s Books: Now that my granddaughters are reading chapter books, I’m having fun locating the books I loved. I just sent them all the fantasies by Edgar Eager, wonderful time-travel books, where four children stumble into magic situations. The first is Magic by the Lake. I’ve always meant to have a house on a lake, in honor of this book. I did manage a house on a river, but it’s not the same.

Current Readings: Right now, I’m travel-reading. In a few weeks, my concert choir (I’m a soprano; I know lots of soprano jokes) is going to Germany, and I’m reading histories of Germany. Next year, I’m going to Africa. So I have a big pile of fiction and nonfiction about Africa. But I also teach a Bible class, so I have a really big pile of books for that. We’re going to do Joseph next, so we need to know about ancient slavery (Joseph is sold into slavery) and ancient prisons (Joseph is framed and sent to prison).

Greatest Challenge: Each book I write has a different challenge. The challenges are the best part. Code Orange is about the threat of smallpox, so the challenge was how to wedge in enough details about this horrific disease and its history in America without slowing down the excitement of the story. Diamonds in the Shadow is about two families coming together, so there are eight characters, and that’s a lot of people to keep straight. The challenge was being sure the reader always knows who’s who. I just finished a book (my first book out of 75) written in the present tense, and that’s a huge challenge.

Margaret McNamara: The book that proves BIG things sometimes come in SMALL packages. This is the lesson learned in Margaret McNamara’s children’s book, How Many Seeds In A Pumpkin, which provides an endearing reminder to children not to judge by appearances. At the same time, this beautifully illustrated and cleverly written storybook serves as a lesson in skip counting by 2’s, 5’s, and 10’s.

Mentors: They were not so much living, breathing mentors as they were inspirations: Shakespeare, Milton, and the Bible. Keats and Yeats. Emily Dickinson. Jane Austen. Archibald Macleish. Schwartz & Wade. And my wonderful English teachers: Miss Hancock in 9th grade; and Professor Phyllis Manocchi and the late John Minzer and R. Mark Benbow at Colby College in Maine.

Favorite children’s books: The Runaway Bunny, by Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd. Out of the Dust, by Karen Hesse. True Believer, by Virginia Euwer Wolff. Anything by Hilary McKay. In the Small, Small Pond, by Denise Fleming. Frog and Toad Are Friends, by Arnold Lobel, Knuffle Bunny, Too, by Mo Willems.

Current Readings: Moab Is My Washpot, by Stephen Fry, which I picked up partly because of its absurd yet Biblical title and partly because I am devoted to Stephen Fry; Spanking Shakespeare, by Jake Wizner, because the first two pages are convulsively funny; and Maakies with the Wrinkled Knees, by Tony Millionaire.

Greatest challenge: Thinking it through is the hardest thing. Then making the writing clear and direct. And keeping it honest. Other winners were Scott Menchin, writer/artist of Taking a Bath with the Dog and Other Things that Make Me Happy, The Wild Girls is Pat Murphy’s first children’s novel.  It takes place in the early 1970s, when twelve-year-old Joan’s family moves from Connecticut to California, much to her dissatisfaction. In California, Joan meets an unusual friend named Sarah, who lives in the woods with her father. Bonded by their feelings of isolation and difficult family situations the girls start writing their own stories together, and end up winning first place in a student contest.#



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