When you win a Newbery or a Caldecott Medal, you find out in an early morning phone call—and your life is changed in an instant. Both Erin Stead and Clare Vanderpool received that call this past Monday morning; PW spoke with both of them to find out where they were when the phone rang, what their reactions were, and what they did next. (Click here to see a full list of the ALA Youth Media award winners.)
'IThought I Heard Them Wrong'
Erin and Philip Stead live in a renovated 100-year-old barn in Ann Arbor, Mich. He writes picture books; in fact, he wrote A Sick Day for Amos McGee, about an elderly zookeeper’s relationship with his charges, with his artist wife in mind. She’d never illustrated a book before, but Philip and his editor, Neal Porter, took Erin out to dinner, to talk her into giving it a try. Sick Day came out last May, to two starred reviews and a Flying Starts interview from PW. Last Monday at 9 a.m., the Steads were getting ready to take their dog for a walk when the phone rang. “Phil walked out the door and I answered it,” Erin Stead said. “The nice woman who was head of the Caldecott committee [Judy Zuckerman of Brooklyn Public Library] asked me, ‘Is this Erin Stead?’ and when I said yes, she said ‘Hold on, let me put you on speakerphone.’ They told me they had awarded the Caldecott Medal to A Sick Day for Amos McGee.” Then everyone started cheering.
“I thought I heard them wrong,” Stead said. “I started shaking and had to sit down. Later I worried that I was a disappointment to them.” While on the phone, the committee gave her what she found to be a worthwhile piece of advice. “They told me to relax for the next two hours, and then my life was going to change.” Stead said it was a fairly brief phone call, and then she got on the phone with Porter, and asked him to tell her what just happened. “He told me, and then he told me to start packing my bags.”
Stead said she ran down the street to tell her husband that their book had won the industry’s top picture book honor. “He looked at me and said, ‘Did you win?’ I said, ‘We won the medal!’ ” Then he asked who else had won—“we’re really big book nerds,” Stead explained. But she had to tell him she (understandably) hadn’t had the wherewithal to ask about the other honorees.
Since ALA’s midwinter meeting was in San Diego this year, and Ann Arbor is on Eastern time, Stead had to wait two hours for the live feed and the official announcements, which began at 7:45 a.m. Pacific Time. “Right when it ended, the phone started ringing. It was 12:01.”
Who did she hear from? “A lot of newspapers,” she recalled. “My publicist, Liz Kerins, was working very hard. I heard from family members and got lots of emails and text messages from friends. Phil and I met in high school, so we called to tell our high school art teacher as soon as we could. And a lot of my friends who do books all worked at Books of Wonder together, and I heard from them. We’re a big family, so that was exciting.” Later the Steads flew to New York, where they were feted by Macmillan at a big lunch in their honor.
Did Stead ever entertain the thought that her book might win? “I read some blogs, because I love books and love the business,” she said, “and I had seen [Sick Day] mentioned every once in a while. I just thought, ‘That’s nice of them.’ There are a lot of talented people out there, and it was a great year for picture books. I just didn’t see this coming.”
Already she’s had a few warnings about “the speech” (the medalists each deliver an acceptance speech at the Newbery and Caldecott banquet during the ALA’s summer conference). “I’m very shy,” she said, “so it’s awfully nice that the awards presentation isn’t till the summer. I’ll get to think about it for a while.” And Stead admits to feeling a bit daunted by the fact that she won the Caldecott for her very first book. “Mostly I haven’t started dwelling on it,” she said, “but there will be some moments I might be a little intimidated. I try to work very hard and I’m very critical of myself.”
But winning the award for a collaboration with her husband has made the honor even sweeter. “We work together all day long, every day. We’re each other’s first pass. It would be really different if we didn’t win this as a team.”
'So Grateful and Honored'
Monday morning found Claire Vanderpool doing “what I normally am doing at that time: cleaning up the kitchen and loading the dishwasher.” When the call came in, Vanderpool said it was a little hard to hear, because the call was via speakerphone. “She kept asking “Is this Clare?” and I’d say ‘Yes,’ and she’d say ‘Is this Clare?’ Then she identified herself as the chair of the Newbery committee, and that put it in context right there. I was thinking she would say ‘Newbery Honor,’ but then she said she was delighted to tell me that I’d won the Newbery Medal. I was really stunned and the tears started to flow. The only other thing I can compare it to is when you have a baby and they tell you ‘it’s a boy’ or ‘it’s a girl.’ It was amazing.”
The call was fairly brief, Vanderpool said; when the committee finished telling her the news, they all cheered. “I was fairly teary, they said they were, too. I told them I was so grateful and honored.” Her three children were at school, but her husband was home; “he saw my tears, and he thought it was about my Dad,” who had recently returned home after an extended hospital stay. She couldn’t explain to him what was going on, she said, but she could see he was worried. “Then when I hung up I told him I’d won the Newbery.”
Next, she sent texts to her two sons, who are in high school, and went with her sister to her daughter’s school to share the news, as well as to her parents’ house. “After about 10 minutes of congratulations, my father turned to me and asked me, “Now, what is the Newbery?” She also got a call from her editor, Michelle Poploff—“we hooped and hollered. Then the word started to spread. The phone started ringing and emails started coming. That was an additional kind of shock, a bit of a whirlwind.”
A first-time author for Moon Over Manifest, a coming-of-age story set in 1936 Kansas, Vanderpool said she had been aware that it was the morning for the Newbery announcement. I’d talked about it with my agent [Andrea Cascardi of Transatlantic Literary Agency], so it was on my radar. I knew my book had been bandied about. The South Central Kansas library system had selected Moon Over Manifest as its mock Newbery winner, though I knew I had the hometown advantage there. My parents always raised me to think, you can do it, it’s always possible. Another side of me said, it’s not gonna happen.”
Like Stead, Vanderpool flew to New York and headed to her publisher’s office to celebrate the happy news. “I figured it would be the same eight or 10 people I’d met when I was there in October [Moon Over Manifest’s publication month]. But I walked into the reception and the entire Random House children’s department was there. It was wonderful.”
Vanderpool said she is currently working on another book, though she hasn’t sent it to her editor yet. “Andrea and I talked about sending a portion of it, but we decided not to submit it until it’s close to being done.” Will it be hard to pick it up again, given all the recent excitement? “Fortunately,” she said, “I think I’m far enough to plug back in again. I do need to get back to it.”
“I didn’t go into this aspiring to win a Newbery,” she said in conclusion. “I went into it wanting to write a really good story that would get published that kids would enjoy. [Winning the award] has been such an affirmation, and I know it will get my book out into the hands of more kids.”