Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Award-Winning Children's Books

Continuing our celebration of award-winning books, today Jungle Red welcomes Neil Plakcy.

NEIL: As soon as Rosemary told me that the Jungle Red Writers were celebrating awards in April, I thought of all those books I read as a kid which had gold seals of approval from various awards. The ones I remember most are those which won the Newbery Medal, awarded annually by the American Library Association for the most distinguished American children's books. I thought it would be fun to look at the list of award winners and see which ones I still remembered. The oldest book on the list that made an impression on me is Miss Hickory, by Carolyn Sherwin Bailey, which won the medal in 1947. I always liked these kind of anthropomorphic books as a kid-- all the odd little creatures living together by the riverbank, for example with Jack-in-the-Pulpit preaching on Sunday. Miss Hickory is a twig doll who is abandoned by the little girl who owns her, and has to go out among the animals and trees and make a new life for herself. Then there’s My Father’s Dragon, an honor book from 1949.

There are three in the series, which I gobbled up greedily. More magical characters! The boy narrator recounts his father’s adventures rescuing and raising a baby dragon. Just looking at the cover brings back a lot of memories. These books were among my real favorites. Another discovery on the list was Carol Kendall’s The Gammage Cup, an honor book from 1960. To this day I remember the Periods-- the foolish members of the upper crust who had names like Geo. and Ltd. Their names came from a list of abbreviations brought back from an expedition. Reading about it today, it sounds like some sort of anti-Communist allegory, but I just remember it as a great book. Two of the Lloyd Alexander books are on the list-- The Black Cauldron from 1966 and The High King from 1969. I just reread these books last year in preparation for a trip to Wales (there’s a lot of Welsh mythology and language wrapped up in them) and they held up beautifully. They are the story of Taran, an assistant pig-keeper (he helps take care of the oracular pig Hen Wen) and his friends Princess Eilonwy and the bard Fflewdur Fflam, as they battle evil in the land of Prydain. I fell in love with the Welsh language through these words. There are lots of others I remember in bits and pieces-- The Island of the Blue Dolphins; It’s Like This, Cat; and Shadow of the Bull. But the biggies on the list for me are two books by E. L. Konigsburg: From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth. Mrs. Frankweiler was such an amazing book, about a girl and her brother who hide out in the Metropolitan Museum. It was a prequel to all the mystery and adventure books I’ve loved ever since. How will Claudia and Jamie survive in the museum? And what’s the secret of the angel statue? And then there’s Me, Elizabeth. Who wouldn’t want a friend who’s a witch? I went through a long period when I searched for every spell-casting book I could find. I bought all these herbs and spices and tried to make my own potions. Sadly all I ended up with was a lot of not-very-nice-smelling potpourri. But it was the sixties, so that was OK-- it went with my Nehru jacket and my psychedelic T-shirts. There are lots more books that were important to me as a kid, but these are the ones which had that Newbery stamp of approval, and that makes them easier to remember, after all the time that has passed. What books made an impression on you as a kid? Any of these?

ROSEMARY: I have to find a copy of Miss Hickory - it sounds wonderful! Misty of Chincoteague is right at the top of the list for me along with every horse and dog book I could lay my hands on. I had to google the Newbery winners since I didn't trust my memory - I seem to remember more of them from my days as a bookseller than as a child (I moved on to the hard stuff early!) I do remember A Wrinkle in Time and in fact I picked up a copy last week at Left Coast Crime because I want to read it again!

HANK: Oh, Black Beauty, of course. And Jane Langton's Diamond in the Window. And A Wrinkle in Time. (Hi, Neil!) Oh, and please--everyone read the Edward Eager books. Thyme Garden. Magic or Not. Knight's Castle. However--Hallie and I will argue over A Little Princess--I really really do NOT like that book! And Neil--you don't know whether those potions worked or not...do you???

DEB: Loved the Lloyd Alexander's--I still have my copies somewhere. But my all time favorite was Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time. I read it when I was eleven and then read all her other books. I'm sure A Wrinkle in Time went a good ways towards setting my view of the world. Black Beauty, of course, Hank, but I never thought about it being a Newberry winner. I just read everything horsey I could get my hands on. One I missed was Mrs. Frankweiler--am going to have to look for that one!

HALLIE: My Father's Dragon! I'd forgotten all about that one. I can see the illustrations. I loved all of E. B. White's books for children, but most especially Charlotte's Web which I read aloud to my children. SOME PIG! The Dr. Doolittle books were great favorites, and I read every one of L. Frank Baum's Oz books, though they don't hold up so well on rereading. Then there were the books I gobbled up after my daughter. The Ramona Quimby books, Judy Blume (Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret.) -- why didn't a single one of her books ever make the list? Oh, and of course Sarah Plain and Tall. DEB: More Newberries: Johnny Tremain. King of the Wind. The Grey King by Susan Cooper. Interesting to see some of the books that DIDN'T win: Laura Ingalls Wilder. Charlotte's Web. Misty of Chincoteague . . .

ROSEMARY: Misty didn't win? Marguerite Henry was robbed!

RHYS: The ones I remember most are those I read as an adult. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. The Westing Game--truly one of the cleverest mysteries written for kids (and adults). Beverly Cleary's Dear Mr. Henshaw--again such a deep and clever book. Did Zylpha Keatley Snyder ever win? Loved all of hers (and I'm not just saying that because we used to be good friends). I think only adults truly appreciate the best children's books. Kids prefer action and clever dialog. Oh, and I've just remembered an alltime favorite: Bridge to Terabithia.

JULIA: It's wonderful to me to see how vital these books remain for kids today. Between my three children, now 18, 17 and 10, we have a huge number of the titles mentioned here on our bookshelves at home. There's The Wizard of Oz, the first long chapter book my youngest and I read all the way through. My Father's Dragon (and sequels) which my son adored, despite the old-fashioned language and illustrations. And my oldest, who has a treasured copy of Diamond in the Window signed by Jane Langton herself. One series I adored as a kid and have pushed on my own children are the Freddie books by Walter Brooks. Freddie the Detective was my introduction to the world of mystery fiction, as Freddie the Pig and Jinx the Cat solved the mystery of a disappearing train set at Farmer Brown's house. I reread a few of the books with my youngest a couple years back and I agree with Rhys; I loved them as a kid but I only truly appreciated the language and the sly cleverness as an adult.

ROSEMARY: Which books from childhood have stayed with you? Any award-winners?

Neil Plakcy is the author of the Mahu mystery series, about openly gay Honolulu homicide detective Kimo Kanapa’aka. They are: Mahu, Mahu Surfer, Mahu Fire, Mahu Vice, Mahu Men, and Mahu Blood (2011).

He also writes the Have Body, Will Guard adventure romance series, Three Wrong Turns in the Desert, Dancing with the Tide and Teach Me Tonight (2011).

His other books are the Golden Retriever Mysteries In Dog We Trust and The Kingdom of Dog, as well as the novels GayLife.com, Mi Amor, and The Outhouse Gang and the novella The Guardian Angel of South Beach.


  1. What I love about so many of the Newberry Medal books is their ability to transcend time and multiple generations of readers. There were so many books in all of your lists that I nodded over as I recalled my childhood favorites--notably "The Westing Game," "A Wrinkle in Time," the E. L. Konigsburg books and the Zylpha Keatley Snyder books. There are others that were family staples which didn't win any Newberry Awards (that I know of), but which were a huge part of my childhood: the Bagthorpe Saga by Helen Creswell is absolutely hilarious and still worth picking up. You basically have a family of genius kids, save for Ordinary Jack, the main POV character. Creswell's characters were my first real exposure to very quirky, somewhat neurotic characters that still managed to appear sympathetic and believable--quite a feat in any novel! There are other books that I discovered as a teenager and as an adult: Shannon Hale's children's novels are beautifully written (I think "Princess Academy" may have won a Newberry, or has at least been nominated for one); M. M. Kaye's "The Ordinary Princess" was a teenage favorite; "Howl's Moving Castle" and the other two books of the Howl universe is a series I discovered after seeing the Miyazaki film; "The Witch of Blackbird Pond" was a book I read in 4th grade and loved it more when I bought a copy a few years ago; and Elizabeth Marie Pope's two novels are also pleasurable reads for me today, even though some of the material is a bit dated (she wrote them in the 50s and the 70s, respectively). There are just so many brilliant children's novels on the market nowadays which I'll read to my son once he's older (these days it's Sandra Boynton books for him), like "The Mysterious Benedict Society," and others with a similar theme of celebrating differences in each other. I often think that children's literature is among the most creative out there, and I don't write in that genre myself. Not sure I have what it takes to pull off the kind of novel for children that I've waxed eloquently about for a very long paragraph now. Here's to great novels across all genres!

  2. ..and I feel sure that an entire generation of children will remember Moshe's book fondly.

  3. Hi - 1948 Medal Winner: The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pène du Bois
    This was always my favorite...Dee

  4. At my one and only Bouchercon two years ago, Saturday night found me alone and watching all the people having fun down in the lobby. Suddenly a semi-familiar face looked up and called out, invited me for dinner with all of his friends. It was Neil Plakcy. I had a marvelous time, met some amazing new writers, and learned that Neil is a gentleman to know and respect. What a great guy!

  5. Oh, I see a lot of my favorites on the list--CADDIE WOODLAWN, THE WITCH OF BLACKBIRD POND, A WRINKLE IN TIME...to mention a few.

    THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS is my all time favorite, and CHARLOTTE'S WEB too. And I read all the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. And what about THE BORROWERS?

    thanks for bringing us back Neil!

  6. Welcome Neil --

    Sorry I missed this earlier -- I don't think I was aware of awards as a kid ---

    The children's books that affected me most were LIttle Women and Eight Cousins by Louisa May Alcott -- after that it was all a blur. Or maybe those are just the only ones I remember. My mother started handing off her own books pretty early -- I remember a lot of Taylor Caldwell --

  7. When I was a kid (reading everything I could lay my hands on), I didn't pay attention to awards, although maybe my parents did. Lot's of familiar titles here, but how about The Rescuers? The Borrowers? The whole Mary Poppins series. Hmmm, looking at my list, I have to say that the illustrations played a significant role, and a lot of my favorites were illustrated by Garth Williams (including Charlotte's Web, Stuart Little, the Little House series, and a whole lot more).

  8. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler fascinated me. I grew up near D.C., so the thought of living in a museum thrilled me.

    My favorite, favorite children's book growing up was Riverboat Adventures by Eric and Lucy Kincaid. It told the story of an otter, a mouse who couldn't swim, and a mole sailing along the river on a riverboat. My kids love that book too.

    Rats of Nimh is one on the list that I enjoyed. Reading the book Zucchini made me want a ferret. Mom said no. I loved Treasure Island so much I wanted to pen a sequel. I had the biggest crush on Jim.

  9. Okay...on Neil's recommendation I just bought Miss Hickory. It's charming. And the rather senior salespersonwas delighted with my purchase!

  10. I remember two books that I read when I was in elementary school. I think both won awards: Up a Road Slowly and Across Five Aprils. I think the first was by Irene Hunt and it was a wonderful book about intolerance and class. I don't remember the author of Across Five Aprils but it was about the Civil War told through the eyes of a young boy. He wrote President Lincolin and asked him to pardon his brother who had deserted the Union Army. I'd love to read both of them again.

  11. I read Misty of Chincoteague as a kid, too and very much wanted to go to Virginia to see the horses run. Never worked out, though.

    LOVED Freddy the Pig too, and The Witch of Blackbird Pond, the Wind in the Willows (just re-read it last year and it held up well) and also LOVED The Borrowers series.

    Rosemary, I want to hear how you like Miss Hickory. I have a feeling it's a darker book than I remember.

    I do recall looking for those Newbery and Caldicott medals on book covers. Somehow they seemed to say "Read Me!"

  12. You bring back wonderful memories, Neil, thanks! And the comments thread is a rich source, too.