Appreciation for storytellers

By

The Newbery-Caldecott dinner (the event at which this year's winners of the prestigious children's book awards are honored) took place this week and you won't find a better piece of reporting on that than what appears in the 7/2 edition of "Shelf Awareness," the e-mail newsletter that goes out daily to independent bookstores. Their website is still under construction so I can't send you there but I can paste a copy for you below. It's a lovely tribute both to the winners (Brian Selznick and Laura Amy Schlitz) but in addition it also honors the magic of the story. Take a look and enjoy.

Newbery-Caldecott Dinner: Sweet Ladies, Good Gentlemen

It is the night we have been waiting for,
The Academy Awards of the children's book field,
For which hundreds don their finery
And pull up their chairs to large round tables
For the speeches they've been anticipating for nearly 6 months.
Brian Selznick takes the stage in a black shirt that sparkles
Like the stars in the sky
At the opening of The Invention of Hugo Cabret.
He speaks of the 70th Anniversary of the Randolph Caldecott Medal.
On two giant screens at either end of the Anaheim Hilton ballroom,
The image of the medal appears:
John Gilpin, one of the esteemed 19th-century artist's characters, astride a runaway horse.
Selznick tells us to peer into a small apartment in Paris where a boy named Hugo sleeps.
Symbols crash, the lights dim,
And the images on the giant screens transport us
Across the Atlantic to the City of Lights,
Rendered in the graphite illustrations we know so well.
We see Hugo asleep in his bed.
The phone rings.
Hugo's eyes pop wide open.
The caller is Karen Breen (Caldecott Chair,
Who holds a phone in a black-and-white photo).
Hugo clutches his head in disbelief
And races out the door, through the streets of Paris.
He calls up to Isabelle's window
And the two head off together into the night.
Their destination: the Air France terminal at Charles de Gaulle Airport.
Their pilot: A man with a patch over his right eye.
On the plane, Hugo and Isabelle read
First the Egg, The Wall, Henry's Freedom Box
And Knuffle Bunny Too.
Hugo's eye metamorphoses into the full moon he views out the plane's window.
Suddenly he is on the street in front of the Anaheim Hilton
Where a white-haired man rides out of the mist on horseback.
The man looks familiar.
Could he be. . .
George Méliès?
Yes! But wait. . . .
The image transforms; time stops.
And George Méliès on horseback suddenly becomes
The image on the Randolph Caldecott Medal,
To the audible gasp of hundreds of onlookers.

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Selznick had spoken before about how much he had loved
As a child Remy Charlip's Fortunately.
About the revelations behind each page turn,
Like a series of doors opening,
And how this technique influenced his own work.
Selznick had spoken before about how much he had loved
Maurice Sendak's wild rumpus
And the wordless dance that allows us to become one
With Max and his Wild Things.
But that night Selznick spoke of a time five years ago when he felt stuck
And of meeting Maurice Sendak
And Sendak telling Selznick that he "showed promise
But [had] not yet done [his] best work."
"Make the book you want to make," Sendak told him.
And that night Selznick also spoke of meeting Remy Charlip,
And Charlip's resemblance to George Méliès,
And Charlip posing for the drawings of the filmmaker in Hugo Cabret.
And then he asked Remy Charlip to stand, present in the audience.
The real and the illusory merged,
As George Méliès stood in our midst.

Nina Lindsay, chair of the committee
that selected Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! took the mic next:
"Has a Newbery winner ever been shorter than the Caldecott winner?" she asked.
The audience laughed heartily but also perhaps a bit nervously, too.
How would Laura Amy Schlitz follow
The cinematic magic of Brian's words and pictures?
We silently rooted for her; we need not have worried.
Rejecting the podium, Laura Amy Schlitz,
In a shawl as blue as the ocean,
An exact match to the color of her eyes,
Stepped to the end of the table and seemed to fill the room, all 5' 2" of her.
She explained "Whenever I've dreamed, as writers do,
Of winning the Newbery, my dream has always ended
With the sad conclusion that I never would.
And then I've comforted myself:
Alright, I'll never win the Newbery,
But at least I won't have to give one of those speeches."
Having won, she reasoned,
"My friends, you deserve a good speech,
Something coherent and profound . . .
But . . . I have a storyteller's mind, a deranged junk drawer
Clogged with memories and metaphors.
I deal in mental pictures . . .
I brood over these images until I divine their stories."
To summarize her stories here would not do them justice.
But even to read her speech in print would not capture
The life she gives the stories when she tells them.
For you see, as she threaded together three anecdotes that "haunted" her,
Into tales involving "playground duty, a kite, and having moles removed,"
She did not read from typed pages, or even notes.
Laura Amy Schlitz had memorized every word,
Every hurried phrase, every pause.
For 17 minutes, we left Anaheim behind.
We were on a school playground with her,
Coaxing a frightened child to a soft landing.
We were in the woods, begging a bear to grant us our heart's desire,
And we were running on the beach, learning to fly a kite for the very first time.
Her gifts as a storyteller reminded us of the power of words fully inhabited.
She held us spellbound.

As we left the Anaheim Hilton
Across from a Disneyland now closed for the night,
We were engulfed by the profound silence that follows
The cries of children riding rollercoasters.
The quiet night sky became the backdrop to thoughts of
A child guided to a soft landing,
An imaginary bear in the deep woods,
A kite airborne above a salty ocean
A full moon illuminating the rooftops of Paris
And wait . . .
What was that?
The clipclop of hooves coming out of the mist?--Jennifer M. Brown

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