A decade ago, a committee of 14 women and one man chose Linda Sue Park’s A Single Shard for the 2002 Newbery Medal and then chose... to stick together. In the years since, they’ve become a tight-knit bunch, rooming together at ALA conferences, and reuniting whenever possible for tea and conversation.
So when the idea of a formal 10th anniversary celebration began to percolate, Park wanted in. “When I heard that 14 of the 15 [committee members] were going to be in Dallas for Midwinter, I said, ‘I’m coming.’ ” Not only that, she offered to host a dinner in the committee’s honor.
On January 22, Park, committee chair Kathleen Odean, and 13 others feasted at RJ Mexican Cuisine in Dallas’s West End neighborhood. Over jugs of agua fresco and platters of ceviche and guacamole (“along with a few margaritas and mojitos, of course,” Park reports) the group reconnected. “It was one big, reminiscing lovefest,” says Park.
“I’ve been on many committees but there was just something about this one that worked so beautifully,” said Odean, who remembers making everyone choose a new seat each day so they didn’t wind up sitting next to the same person at every meeting.“It wasn’t that we didn’t have disagreements – there were spirited discussions – but everyone got to know each other so everyone was respectful.”
At the dinner, Odean, now a writer, lecturer, and adjunct professor of children’s literature at the University of Rhode Island, gave a toast, as did committee member Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, a librarian and award-winning author herself for 2009’s Bad News for Outlaws. (“When Vaunda won the Coretta Scott King Award, [the committee members] all made sure to be at that breakfast,” Odean said.)
Then it was Park’s turn. “I told them that I really needed them to know how much the decision they made in that room 10 years earlier had changed my life,” she told PW. Park cited how winning the Newbery had led to invitations to appear all over the United States and around the world – her travels have taken her to Korea, India, Russia, and Singapore, to name just a few of the places she’s visited.
Perhaps most importantly, she said, joining the Newbery club brought her work to the attention of Avi, a Newbery Medalist in 2005 for Crispin, who asked her for a contribution to his “Breakfast Serials” program, original stories told in successive installments which appear in hundreds of American newspapers.
That story became A Long Walk to Water, a novel based on the true story of one of Sudan’s “Lost Boys,” who was relocated to the United States in the mid 1990s but returned home years later to install deep-water wells in remote villages. After serialization, the story was published in hardcover by Clarion in 2010. It quickly became a staple in middle-school curriculums across the U.S.
“I have gotten dozens of e-mails from teachers who use the novel when the seventh grade is doing its Africa unit who tell me the universal reaction among their students is ‘We want to raise money to build more wells,’ ” Park said. “The organization that builds the wells regularly lets me know that the book has led to another donation.”
So, Park continued, “It’s a long and convoluted chain. Maybe I would have eventually met Avi and written this story anyway, but maybe not. I choose to see it as, because of what you decided in that room, people in south Sudan are getting clean water for the first time.”
By the end of her toast, many at the dinner were in tears, but Park cheered them up with special “party favors” – a tiny Celadon vase in the maebyong style that Tree-Ear, the apprentice potter who is the main character in A Single Shard, dreams of making, and a silver crane-in-circle charm to remind them of another beloved character from the book, Crane-man. Park bought the items on a trip to Korea in February 2011. “I bought a lot of them, thinking of the committee, but long before I knew this dinner would occur.”
Park wrote about the evening on her blog, noting how everyone “expressed their appreciation and delight for the dinner and the small gifts I had given them. But the gift they gave me will last more than a lifetime.” She listed their names, “each of which is etched forever on my writing heart”: Kathleen Odean, Patty Carleton, Lisa Falk, Roxanne Feldman, Joann Jonas, Jeri Kladder, Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, Gail Nordstrom, Elizabeth Overmyer, Ken Setterington, Louise Sherman, Vicky Smith, Junko Yokota, Deb Taylor (who was at the conference, but unable to make the dinner) and Sharon Harvey (the only member unable to attend Midwinter.)
“The committee chooses a book, not an author,” Odean said, “but she is such a lovely person to have given an award to. She is just so gracious.”
Bonus trivia question: The 2002 Newbery Committee chose two honor books. Can you name them? (without Googling, of course.)