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Published: Sunday, 1/16/2005

'Kitten' leads in 'Oscars' of children's books

BY KAREN MACPHERSON
BLADE WASHINGTON BUREAU
<i>Kitten's First Full Moon</i> was chosen by a Caldecott discussion group. <i>Kitten's First Full Moon</i> was chosen by a Caldecott discussion group.
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Psst Want a hot literary tip? Here it is: Kitten's First Full Moon (Greenwillow / HarperCollins, $15.99), written and illustrated by Kevin Henkes, is the odds-on favorite to win the Caldecott Medal this year.

That's the word from hundreds of librarians, literary experts, and children's book lovers who have spent recent weeks sifting through piles of books and trying to predict the winners of this year's Caldecott and Newbery medals.

"If I were a betting woman, this is the book I would bet on to win the Caldecott this year," says Anita Silvey, author of The 100 Best Books for Children.

Often called the "Oscars" of children's literature, the Caldecott and Newbery are the most prestigious awards given each year to those who illustrate and write books for children. The Caldecott is awarded to the best-illustrated picture book of the previous year, while the Newbery is given to the best written book - usually a novel, although non-fiction books also are eligible.

The winners of those two medals - plus several others for such categories as the best young adult book - will be announced tomorrow at the American Library Association's winter conference in Boston.

Each award is chosen by a committee composed of librarians and other children's book experts who read hundreds of books throughout the year before meeting and making their final decision at the ALA conference.

While these experts get to bestow the actual medal, increasing numbers of adults and children around the nation are gathering at mock Newbery and Caldecott discussion groups each year in the late fall and early winter to choose the books they think will eventually win the "real" awards.

In some cities, these mock medal groups are sponsored by public libraries. In other places, schools host them as a way to boost kids' interest in reading. No one knows how many mock medal groups there are, but knowledgeable children's book lovers estimate there are hundreds of them throughout the country.

Anyone can start one; the ALA even publishes a booklet to help people set up mock medal groups. Titled "Newbery and Caldecott Mock Elections," it is available for $18 via the ALA's Web site, www.ala.org.

"These mock elections have been going on for some time," said Eliza Dresang, a noted children's book expert who chaired last year's "real" Newbery committee, which bestowed the 2004 Newbery Medal on The Tale of Despereaux: Being the Story of a Mouse,

a Princess, Some Soup, and a Spool of Thread, written by Kate DiCamillo

Kathleen Horning, head of the Cooperative Children's Book Center (CCBC) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says she's not sure "if the interest has increased or if the Internet just makes it easier for us to learn about other mock discussions happening around the nation."

Ms. Horning's group has been holding mock Newbery and Caldecott discussions since 1981. The center holds monthly discussions throughout the year, and develops a "short list" of potential medal winners through those discussions. Then, in December and early January, CCBC have online discussions about the contenders, finally choosing a winner for each medal.

This year, the CCBC - like numerous other mock Caldecott groups around the country - chose Henkes' Kitten's First Full Moon to "win" its Caldecott. The CCBC's mock Newbery group, meanwhile, made an unusual decision and gave its mock medal to a nonfiction book, A Dream of Freedom: The Civil Rights Movement from 1954 to 1968 (Scholastic, $19.95), by Diane McWhorter.

Mock medal groups are notorious for choosing the "wrong" book as the medal winner. But Ms. Horning stresses that "we're really not trying to predict the winners. We see the discussions as a teaching tool to help people understand how the Newbery and Caldecott award winners are chosen."

So, where does that leave Henkes' Kitten's First Full Moon? It's the top choice this year of just about every mock group that has posted "winners," and is a unanimous favorite with children's books experts.

"Kitten's First Full Moon has the feel and structure of a classic,'' says Leonard S. Marcus, a children's book reviewer and historian.

Other top Caldecott contenders this year include: Sidewalk Circus (Candlewick Press, $15.99), written by Newbery Medalist Paul Fleischman and illustrated by Kevin Hawkes; ellington was not a street (Simon & Schuster, $15.95), written by Kadir Nelson and illustrated by Ntozake Shange; A Hot Day on Abbott Avenue (Clarion, $15), written by Karen English and illustrated by Javaka Steptoe.

Other possibilities include: Knuffle Bunny (Hyperion, $15.99), written and illustrated by Mo Willems; Sequoyah: The Cherokee Man (Houghton, $16), written and illustrated by James Rumford; Walt Whitman (Scholastic, $16.95), written by Barbara Kerley and illustrated by Brian Selznick, and The People Could Fly (Knopf, $16.95), written by Virginia Hamilton and illustrated by two-time Caldecott Medalists Leo and Diane Dillon.

Jewell Stoddard, the veteran children's book specialist at the Washington bookstore Politics & Prose, adds two more to the list: Polar Bear Night (Scholastic, $15.95), written by Lauren Thompson and illustrated by Stephen Savage, as well as Science Verse (Penguin, $16.99), written by Jon Scieszka and illustrated by Lane Smith.

Coming up with the possible 2004 Newbery Medal winner, however, is a tougher task. Unlike the Caldecott, there is no clear top contender this year.

"What it comes down to is a clash between the veterans - those who already have won a Newbery and have new books out - and another group of people who are quite new,'' Silvey says.

Books by Newbery "veterans" include: The Sea of Trolls (Atheneum, $17.95) by three-time Newbery Honor author Nancy Farmer; Messenger (Houghton Mifflin, $15) by two-time Newbery Medalist Lois Lowry; The Outcasts of 19 Schuyler Place (Simon & Schuster, $16.95), by two-time Newbery Medalist E.L. Konigsburg, and Heartbeat (HarperCollins, $15.99) by Newbery Medalist Sharon Creech.

Top contenders by newcomers include: The Game of Sunken Places (Scholastic, $16.95) by M. T. Anderson; Al Capone Does My Shirts (Putnam, $15.99) by Gennifer Choldenko; So B. It (HarperCollins, $15.99) by Sarah Weeks; Ida B and Her Plans to Maximize Fun, Avoid Disaster and (Possibly) Save the World (Greenwillow, $15.99) by Katherine Hannigan; and Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy (Clarion, $15) by Gary Schmidt.

Two nonfiction books round out the list of Newbery possibilities: McWhorter's A Dream of Freedom, and The Voice That Challenged the Nation (Clarion, $18) by Russell Freedman, who won a Newbery Medal for his photo-biography of Abraham Lincoln.

Contact Karen MacPherson at: kmacpherson@nationalpress.com or 202-662-7070.



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