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2004 Newbery, Caldecott medal winners announced

Tuesday, January 13, 2004

By Karen MacPherson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Yesterday the American Library Association bestowed the highest honors of the children's literature world, the Newbery and Caldecott medals. "The Tale of Despereaux" (Candlewick Press, $17.99) by Kate DiCamillo has won the 2004 John Newbery Medal for best children's novel, and "The Man Who Walked Between the Towers" (Roaring Brook Press, $17.95), written and illustrated by Mordicai Gerstein, has won the 2004 Randolph Caldecott Medal for best picture book.

This is the second consecutive year that a book by Roaring Brook Press has won the Caldecott; the firm also published last year's winner, "My Friend Rabbit" by Eric Rohmann.

The Newbery and Caldecott medals are regarded as the Academy Awards of the children's book world. The winning books are virtually guaranteed to become best sellers and never go out of print, while their authors and illustrators are usually rocketed to fame and fortune.

"The Tale of Despereaux" is the third children's book published by DiCamillo, who turns 40 this year. Her first children's novel, "Because of Winn-Dixie" won a Newbery Honor in 2000. Her second book, "The Tiger Rising," was a finalist for the National Book Award for young people's literature in 2001.

In her latest book, subtitled "Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup, and a Spool of Thread," DiCamillo updates the traditional fairy tale in a fast-paced, beautifully written story focused on a mouse named Despereaux. Born with large ears and a timid personality, Despereaux eventually finds the courage to live out his dreams.

DiCamillo said she got the idea for the novel from the young son of a friend, who asked her to write a story about an unlikely hero with exceptionally large ears. When DiCamillo asked him what happens to the hero, the youngster replied: "I don't know. That's why I want you to write it down."

Eliza T. Dressing, chair of the ALA's Newbery committee, noted that in "A Tale of Despereaux," "DiCamillo masterfully weaves drama, mystery and intrigue with high humor and fun into a cohesive, captivating and distinguished tale. Time-honored themes of good vs. evil, light vs. dark, unrequited love, loyalty and search for identity have roots in many mythic and literary classics familiar to children.

"This story is sure to entice, challenge and delight readers of all ages," Dressing said.

The Newbery committee also chose two Honor books: "Olive's Ocean" by Kevin Henkes and "An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793" by Jim Murphy. Murphy's book also was chosen as the winner of the Robert F. Sibert Award for best nonfiction book for children.

Gerstein's book, "The Man Who Walked Between the Towers," explores the drama of Philippe Petit's walk between New York City's World Trade Center towers. Drawing on Petit's autobiography, as well as news accounts, Gerstein builds up the story slowly, showing first how Petit decided he had to walk across the towers and how he set up his equipment.

The story then explodes with color and excitement as Gerstein shows Petit's unfettered joy and lack of fear at being on a thin piece of wire high in the Manhattan skyline. Gerstein even expands the size of his story at this point by including two "gatefolds" -- pages that readers can open to see a bigger picture. In an emotional ending, Gerstein notes that the towers no longer exist, but adds that memories of them -- including Petit's walk between them -- live on.

Gerstein, 68, has been an artist since childhood, but has been working in picture books only since 1980. In a note on his Web site ( he says: "From the first, I loved the picture book medium. It was film and drawing and theater all in one."

Kathy East, chair of the ALA's Caldecott committee, said, "Gerstein's skillful composition and dramatic use of perspective make this a book that literally takes your breath away."

The Caldecott committee also chose three Honor books: "Ella Sarah Gets Dressed," written and illustrated by Margaret Chodos-Irvine, "What Do You Do With a Tail Like This?" written and illustrated by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page, and "Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus," written and illustrated by Mo Willems.

"The First Part Last," a novel by Angela Johnson, and "Beautiful Blackbird," a picture book written and illustrated by Ashley Bryan, were chosen as the winners of the 2004 Coretta Scott King Award honoring African-American authors and illustrators of outstanding books for children and young adults. Johnson's novel also won the 2004 Michael L. Prinz Award for best young adult novel.

Karen MacPherson can be reached at or 1-202-662-7075.

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