Books that will blow you down

It's time to pig out on the year's best-looking children's books.

TQuestion: What's better than a fresh new picture book?

Answer: One with a shiny Caldecott Medal on the cover.

his year's prestigious medal will adhere to the cover of The Three Pigs, written and illustrated by David Wiesner. That was announced Monday, at the American Library Association's meeting in New Orleans. The Caldecott Medal is awarded annually in recognition of the most outstanding picture book for children published in the United States.

"The Three Pigs" is a wonderfully playful romp in and out of stories - and possibilities. In Wiesner's imaginative version, after building their homes of straw, sticks, and bricks, the industrious pigs are blown right off the page and out of their own story by the huff-puffing wolf. Folding one of their abandoned pages into a paper airplane, the pigs fly off to visit other nursery rhymes and folk tales. Wiesner moves his characters among illustration styles with magnificent ease.

At one point, they visit a cartoon rendering of "Hey Diddle Diddle." (Randolph Caldecott - the Englishman for whom the Caldecott Medal is named - illustrated this familiar nursery rhyme himself in the early 1880s.) The trio of porcine travelers finally heads home, where they incorporate new chums into the original tale. Visual puns and allusions to other literary works abound in this surprise-packed volume. It's one to be pored over again and again.

Wiesner is no newcomer to the Caldecott winner's circle. In previous years, he won the Caldecott Medal for "Tuesday" (1992) and Caldecott Honors for "Free Fall" (1989) and "Sector 7" (2000).

Runners-up

Three other fine picture books were Caldecott Honor winners this year. All have true-life stories as their starting point, but each is illustrated in a decidedly differently manner.

Martin's Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is a picture-book biography about King, written by Doreen Rappaport. The brief text, interlaced with quotes from King, allows Bryan Collier's stunning collage-and-watercolor illustrations to give power and poignancy to the book. Illustrations are large, often filling a full double page. Collier uses a controlled palette of dark colors, especially black, accentuating the jewel-like qualities of stained-glass windows, which are featured repeatedly. The artist says that the windows are metaphors, allowing people to see in and to see out - and to see beyond. The imagery in this moving biography is somber and serious, rich and celebratory.

The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins was written by Barbara Kerley. Brian Selznick's illustrations and book design, based on extensive research, make this a standout volume. It records the fascinating story of a little-known man in the specialized field of dinosaurs. In the 19th century, long before dinosaur skeletons filled many museums and dino books filled even more shelves, Hawkins was completely absorbed with the gigantic animals. His life work was to build full-size models based on scientific speculation. Those endeavors were filled with success and elation, as well as failure and disappointment. Selznick captures these ups and downs and bases his illustrations on many of Hawkins's own drawings. The result is a considerable achievement and a welcome book for dinosaur enthusiasts.

The Stray Dog, written and illustrated by Marc Simont, is a sweet - but not sentimental - story about a young family that adopts a stray dog. In doing so, they foil a dogcatcher and give readers a happy ending. Paging through the expressive watercolor illustrations, it's possible to understand the engaging tale without reading any of the lean text. (Reviewed March 22, 2001.)

Newbery Medal

The Newbery Medal for children's literature, announced at the same ALA meeting, was given to Linda Sue Park for "A Single Shard" (Clarion Books). Two Newbery Honor Books were named: "Carver: A Life in Poems," by Marilyn Nelson (Front Street), and "Everything on a Waffle," by Polly Horvath (Farrar Straus Giroux) (reviewed July 19).

For more information about new or previous Caldecott and Newbery winners, go to www.ala.org/alsc/awards.html.

• Karen Carden reviews children's books for the Monitor.

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