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Published: Sunday, 1/18/2004

Tragedy, youngster inspire authors

BY KAREN MACPHERSON
BLADE WASHINGTON BUREAU

Author Kate DiCamillo was inspired by a child, author/illustrator Mordicai Gerstein by a tragedy.

Both were honored when their books won the highest awards in children's literature. Ms. DiCamillo's novel The Tale of Despereaux (Candlewick Press, $17.99) won the 2004 John Newbery Medal for best-written children's book, while Mr. Gerstein's The Man Who Walked Between the Towers (Roaring Brook, $17) won the Randolph Caldecott Medal for best illustrated children's book.

The awards, announced Monday by the American Library Association, mean that the books will bear a gold-foil seal as a sign of their award, will quickly become best-sellers, and are virtually guaranteed to stay in print. Ms. DiCamillo and Mr. Gerstein, meanwhile, are guaranteed both a steady income and a permanent niche in the world of children's literature. Here's a closer look at the two winners:

Three years ago, 8-year-old Luke Bailey, the son of Ms. DiCamillo's best friend, asked her to write a book about an "unlikely hero" who has "exceptionally large ears." When Ms. DiCamillo asked Luke "What happens to this hero?" he told her: "I don't know. That's why I want you to write the story, so we can find out."

So Ms. DiCamillo, 39, set to work, and the result is The Tale of Despereaux. Subtitled Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup and a Spool of Thread, Ms. DiCamillo's book is a rollickingly updated version of the traditional fairy tale. Ethereal pencil illustrations by Timothy Basil Ering add extra charm to the book, which is aimed at readers ages 8-12.

"DiCamillo masterfully weaves drama, mystery, and intrigue with high humor and fun into a cohesive, captivating and distinguished tale,'' Eliza Dresang, chairwoman of the ALA's Newbery committee, said in announcing the award. "Time-honored themes of good versus evil, light versus dark, unrequited love, loyalty, and search for identity have roots in many mythic and literary classics familiar to children."

The hero of the story is Despereaux, a shy, smaller-than-normal-sized mouse who does indeed have exceptionally large ears. From the beginning, Despereaux understands that he is different from the rest of the mouse community that resides inside the walls of a castle. Unlike the other mice, Despereaux isn't content to nibble and scurry; he'd rather read books than eat them, and his soul rejoices in music, not cheese.

In fact, it is Despereaux's love of music that draws him one day to meet Princess Pea. The mouse and the princess become instant friends, and the friendship soon deepens into love on Despereaux's part. But his happiness is short-lived because, by showing himself to the princess, Despereaux has broken the mouse community's rules against fraternizing with humans.

Despereaux is banished to the castle's dungeon, where a story-loving jailer named Gregory dwells, along with numerous rats. Among them is the evil Roscuro, who plots with a dim-witted peasant girl named Miggery Sow to imprison the princess in the dungeon. It's up to Despereaux, made courageous by love, to save Princess Pea.

Ms. DiCamillo's plot has lots of twists and turns, but it is her characters - especially Despereaux and Roscuro - who help carry the story. Readers will find themselves cheering for the plucky Despereaux, but also rooting for Roscuro, whose love of light makes him an outcast among his fellow rats and helps provide the book's surprise ending.

Ms. DiCamillo, who won a Newbery Honor four years ago for her first book, Because of Winn-Dixie, adds a playful touch by having her narrator directly address the reader. The device sweeps readers into the story and makes them feel as if they are part of the action. Ms. DiCamillo even uses her "Dear Reader" device to cheerfully urge readers to look up words they don't understand in the text.

The Tale of Despereaux closes with one last note to readers: " 'Stories are light,' Gregory the jailer told Despereaux. Reader, I hope you have found some light here.' " Few readers will fail to find their hearts illuminated by Ms. DiCamillo's delightful story.

As he watched the World Trade Towers crumble to the ground after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Mr. Gerstein suddenly remembered the happier day many years before when Philippe Petit walked across a tightrope between the buildings.

Mr. Gerstein, 68, had long been fascinated by Mr. Petit's story, but his previous efforts to use it as the basis for a children's book hadn't panned out. This time, however, Mr. Gerstein - inspired by tragedy - finally found a way to tell the tale of Mr. Petit's remarkable feat in The Man Who Walked Between the Towers (Roaring Brook, $17.95).

Drawing on Mr. Petit's autobiography, as well as news accounts, Mr. Gerstein builds up the story slowly, showing first how Mr. Petit decided he had to walk across the towers, how he snuck into one of the towers, and how he and some friends set up his equipment. The story then explodes with color and excitement as Mr. Gerstein shows Mr. Petit's unfettered joy and lack of fear at being on a thin piece of wire high in the Manhattan skyline.

Even the size of the story expands at this point, as Mr. Gerstein includes two "gatefolds'' - pages that readers can open out to see a bigger picture. Mr. Gerstein concludes the book by noting that the towers no longer exist, but that memories of the buildings - including Mr. Petit's walk between them - live on.

Mr. Gerstein's spare text works perfectly with his oil and ink illustrations to highlight Mr. Petit's amazing accomplishment. In particular, the illustrations, using a variety of perspectives, have a "you are there" quality that allows readers to feel they are walking across the sky with Mr. Petit.

In announcing the Caldecott award, Kathy East, chairwoman 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…. Gerstein ensures that this extraordinary event is imprinted on readers' mind and creates a powerful, transforming memory.''



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