For children: award-winning stories of a pen-pal friendship, historic flight

January is a month of awards in the publishing world. To open the season, the 1983 Newbery and Caldecott Medals, the most prestigious annual awards in children's books, were announced.

Naming the winners, who are honored for distinguished writing and outstanding illustration, is a highlight of the American Library Association's midwinter meeting in Washington. The selection is made by an appointed committee of children's librarians throughout the country, who peruse the 2,000-plus books for children published in the United States each year.

The John Newbery Medal, first given in 1922, is awarded by the ALA to the most outstanding children's book of the year. The 1983 winner is Dear Mr. Henshaw, by Beverly Cleary, illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky (Morrow Junior Books , $8; ages 8-12). The book centers on a boy named Leigh who forms a pen-pal friendship with a children's-book author, Mr. Henshaw. The letters reveal interesting details about the boy's home and school life.

The Newbery Honor books for the year are:

The Sign of the Beaver, by Elizabeth George Speare (Houghton Mifflin, $8.95; ages 10P jmWt in the 1700s, this is a story of a 13-year-old boy, Matt, left alone by his father to guard a newly built cabin. He meets an Indian boy and learns ways of surviving in the wilderness.

A Solitary Blue, by Cynthia Voigt (Atheneum, $10.95; ages 12 up). Last year's Newbery Award winner (''Dicey's Song'') writes a companion book, but not a sequel, about a friend of Dicey's, Jeff Greene. At 7, Jeff was left with his father when his mother went off to do ''greater'' work in the world. Jeff worked hard to keep his father from leaving him. When his mother comes back into his life years later, Jeff struggles with the turmoil this causes.

Sugaring Time, by Kathryn Lasky, photographs by Christopher G. Knight (Macmillan, $10.95; ages 9-12). A charming photo essay about maple sugaring in Vermont, complete with a team of majestic bald-faced draft horses. The author wife and photographer husband follow the Lacey family through every step of the syrupmaking process.

The Wish Giver, by Bill Brittain, pictures by Andrew Glass (Harper & Row, $9. 95; ages 8-12). Three young believers in magic fall for Blinn's spiel at the Coven Tree Church Social. ''Just buy a card and push the red button in the center and make a wish,'' he promises. Some of the wishes that do come true bring fun and surprises.

The Randolph Caldecott Medal, which originated in 1938, honors the illustrator of the most distinguished American picture book of the year. The 1983 recipients are Alice and Martin Provensen, the wife and husband team who illustrated and wrote The Glorious Flight Across the Channel with Louis Bleriot (Viking, $13.95; ages 5-8).

The adventures of the French pioneer of flight, who flew over the English Channel 18 years before Lindbergh's ocean crossing, and his family are depicted in charming stylized paintings with a 19th-century primitiveness. The richly detailed and strong pastel illustrations enhance the authenticity and humor of the somewhat sparse text.

The Caldecott Honor Books for the year are:

Ten, Nine, Eight, story and pictures by Molly Bang (Greenwillow Books, $10; ages 3-6). A charming and original bedtime countdown story, from 10 small toes to one big girl all ready for bed. Even the youngest child will enjoy it. A book to add to previous award winners by this artist.

Little Red Riding Hood, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman, written by the Brothers Grimm (Holiday House, $13.95; ages 5-8). Never was Red Riding Hood more winningly portrayed than by this renowned children's book illustrator. The text on each page is framed in a style reminiscent of an illuminated manuscript, with panels of repetitious patterns alternating with blocks filled with flowers, fruit, tiny cottages, and hearts of Scandinavian design.

The coveted medals for 1983 will be awarded to Beverly Cleary and Alice and Martin Provensen during the Annual Conference of the ALA, to be held in Dallas in June.

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