Children's book awards

The American Library Association announced the winners of a number of prizes for children's literature last week in San Diego. Considered the "Academy Awards" of children's book publishing, the Newbery and Caldecott medals typically generate intense interest from libraries, schools, and parents, in addition to ensuring that the winners will remain in print for many years.

Fantasy writer Ursula K. LeGuin received a lifetime achievement award at the annual meeting for her contribution to young adult literature. LeGuin's "Earthsea" series (1968 to 1990), "The Left Hand of Darkness" (1969), and "The Beginning Place" (1980) remain extremely popular.

For more information about other ALA prizes, go to www.ala.org.

Newbery Medal

The Tale of Despereaux, by Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by Timothy Basil Ering, Candlewick Press, $17.99

Despereaux Tilling's ears aren't the only thing about him that's unusually large. He's also got a heart big enough to love a princess - and the courage to save an entire kingdom from everlasting darkness. None of this would sound too strange except that Despereaux is a mouse. Using the conventions of 19th-century female writers, Kate DiCamillo spins her sometimes "Grimm" fairy tale of this unlikely hero and his quest for romance. Separate stories describe Roscuro, a ruthless rat, and Miggery Sow, a farm girl who wants to be royalty, until all three characters collide in a final adventure. There's literal and figurative gloom here, but the light of humor, hope, redemption, and forgiveness wins out. This is also a novel about the weight of words and the power of a story to shape a life - or even transform it. (272 pp.) (Ages 8-12) By Jenny Sawyer

Caldecott Medal

The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, by Mordicai Gerstein, Millbrook, $17.95

On the morning of Aug. 7, 1974, Philippe Petit of France walked across a cable suspended between the World Trade Center Towers. This book commemorates the aerialist's feat in spare text and sparkling illustrations. Gerstein's unusual perspective gives readers the dizzying feeling of standing atop the towers, with Manhattan spread below. With quick brush strokes, he captures the wind tumbling Petit's hair and the billowing clouds. Still, readers may not be able to shake a feeling of eerie sadness now that the towers are gone. Gerstein acknowledges the towers' demise, but doesn't let the tragedy dissuade him from the joy he finds in Petit's adventure. Parents may wonder what sort of message is conveyed to kids by Petit's secretly planned, illegal event, but children will probably enjoy Petit's daring and persistence. By April Austin

Coretta Scott King Award/Author

The First Part Last, by Angela Johnson, Simon & Schuster, $15.95

At 16, Bobby shares a pediatrician with Feather, his new baby daughter. Up all night, he sleeps through class and can't even think about college. When Feather lies on his stomach in the gathering dark and doesn't want anything in the world but him, he's a scared kid in love. But when he makes the decision not to give her up for adoption, he feels like a man. The book's spare, lyrical writing sings with Bobby's feelings for his daughter. Its dialogue, as in the scene where he and his pals pretend to stare at a blaring TV while discussing the possibility of adoption - "Too right you should keep her, man, too right" - is authentic and moving. A late plot twist, revealing Bobby's girlfriend in a coma, doesn't ring true, and neither she nor her parents are well developed in the book's flashbacks. Still, Johnson, a three-time Coretta Scott King Award-winner, has made something wonderful in Bobby's singular voice. (131 pp.) By Mary Wiltenburg

Coretta Scott King Award/Illustrator

Beautiful Blackbird, by Ashley Bryan, Atheneum Books, $16.95

The folktale, based on the Ila-speaking people of Zambia, tells the story of Blackbird, voted the most beautiful bird in the forest. Blackbird teaches his colorful feathered friends that true beauty comes from within. This book begs to be read aloud with drama and action: "Tip tap toe to the left, spin around, Toe tap tip to the right, stroke the ground. Wings flip-flapping as you glide, forward and backward in a Show Claws Slide." Bryan has written and illustrated a groovy, meaningful tale about learning to accept others, no matter the color of one's feathers. The simple, bright cut-outs of birds, along with the fun, well-written text, make for a lively read. "Blackbird" is geared toward kids ages 3-7. Older ones might find it too simple - till they get off their feet and do the Show Claws Slide. By Lisa Leigh Connors

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