Earlier this week, three lucky authors got phone calls from the Newbery, Caldecott, and Printz committees, letting each of them know they had won the top prize. And whether they were at home when the call came (in the case of Jack Gantos), in search of a missing cell phone (Chris Raschka), or on the highway heading to Dallas (John Corey Whaley), the messages awaiting them on the other end of the line were life-changing. What was going through their minds when the phone rang? And what did they do next? Bookshelf spoke with all three writers this week—read on to find out what they had to say. (For our complete listing of this year's winners, click here.)
Jack Gantos: ‘I Picked Up the Phone, and It Was Like History Changed’
This past Monday morning might have started off ordinarily for author Jack Gantos—sending his daughter to school, feeding the cats—but he was aware that it wasn’t just any old Monday. He knew that the ALA conference was underway, but not if he would be getting a certain phone call. “There’s no such thing as a tipoff in this business,” he says. “They keep that information locked up in a vault somewhere.”
He also knew that, if a call were to come, it would probably be between 7:30 and 8:30 in the morning. “And when the phone rang, I looked at it, and I said, ‘OK.’ And you hope it’s not your mom calling.”
It wasn’t. It was the Newbery committee, telling him that his novel Dead End in Norvelt (FSG)—a semiautobiographical story about a boy named Jack Gantos and his wild summer in the town of Norvelt, Pa.—had won the Newbery Medal. “I picked up the phone, and it was like history changed,” he says.
Gantos had received a Newbery Honor in 2001 for Joey Pigza Loses Control, and he briefly wondered whether this was “the silver or the gold” one. “It’s kind of embarrassing to say, ‘Excuse me, could you clarify?’ ” Gantos says, but he figured that since they hadn’t said “Honor” it was the gold one. Instructed not to share the news until after the awards announcements had been broadcast, Gantos, his wife, and the cats kept quiet for a couple hours (“that was like putting a cork in a bottle of champagne and shaking it”), with the author later texting his ninth-grade daughter, Mabel.
Gantos also called his longtime editor, Wes Adams (“I think I got him out of the shower”), with whom he has worked on nearly 20 books since 1992. “We have a pretty deep relationship,” Gantos says. “All of my awards have come from working on those books with Wes.” He also spoke with his agent, Amy Berkower of Writers House, “who is singularly the best agent in the business.” Gantos had high praise for his publisher, saying, “They have always given me the opportunity to write my best book. They don’t try to over-steer the process. And nobody ever talks about what the latest trend is or in what direction the industry is going. They are looking for literature.”
After the announcement, the news quickly went viral. “I probably instantly had about 200 emails,” says Gantos. “And then the phone calls started coming. I’ve been typing with one hand and talking with the other. It’s been my entire day. I’ve mastered the three-sentence e-mail.”
Gantos lives in Boston, not far from his favorite library, the Library of the Boston Athenaeum, “where I wrote most of the book.” He visits the Athenaeum almost every day. “They have great books, a great history section, and great librarians who can answer any question you come with,” he says. “They’re like pit bulls for information.”
And Gantos had plenty of questions for the librarians, given how much history about the town of Norvelt, as well as first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, is present in the Dead End in Norvelt. Evidence of the book’s significant historical content: just last week, it won the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction.
Gantos is glad that writing the book allowed him to shine a spotlight on Norvelt, even if not all the plot twists in the book actually happened. “I love that little town, I love the history of that town, and I love the values that were built into that town,” he says. “I try not to over-detail the history, but I do spell out the values of that town, and of course the book is just shot through with humorous scenes, one after another after another. The humor keeps the history from looking like a dusty object behind glass.”
Gantos is currently working on what he calls “another substantial novel,” though he imagines he’ll be speaking a lot more about Norvelt in the near future. About the Newbery, Gantos says he’s grateful for the new, attentive readers that the award will bring to his book. “My job is to put a book that will move the reader,” he says. “Young readers allow a good book to change them. I could not ask for a greater audience.” —John A. Sellers
Chris Raschka: ‘I Kind of Hyperventilated for a While’
Chris Raschka has won two Caldecott Medals, the first in 2006 for Norton Juster’s The Hello, Goodbye Window, and the second awarded on Monday for his picture book A Ball for Daisy (Random/Schwartz & Wade). And Ingo, his son, plays a role in each of his “how I heard the news” stories.
For his first medal, Raschka missed the committee’s phone call entirely, because he was putting Ingo on the school bus. On Monday, Ingo, now 16, found himself getting quizzed by his dad to see if he had his cell phone, which had gone missing.
Ingo didn’t have it, so Raschka headed to his studio – about 14 blocks from his home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “I found the phone on the windowsill, and about 45 seconds later it rang.”
Raschka says he made the Caldecott committee repeat the news to him, “because I couldn’t quite believe it. I was so completely out of the loop, I didn’t even know ALA was happening. I kind of hyperventilated for a while. Then I made my cup of coffee and thought about the coming months. I hardly know what to say. It’s such a wonderful honor by thoughtful people.”
In Raschka’s wordless story, readers follow a dog’s (Daisy) emotional highs and lows as Daisy romps playfully with a red ball, before a fateful encounter with another dog. Doing a wordless book has its joys and challenges, Raschka says. “The joy is that it’s all there in the paintings. There has to be the right pacing of images to tell the story. I’m always stunned at how little you can put in. If you put in the right ‘little,’ you create the whole.” One challenge, he notes, is creating a recognizable Daisy, “who stays real and right from page 1 to 32.”
The original Daisy was a dog owned by a neighbor. “When my son was four, he had a ball he loved,” Raschka says. “In her exuberance Daisy bit and crushed the ball, which devastated my son. That was the impetus.” In shaping this event into a picture book, Raschka decided to turn things around and make Daisy the lead character. “The real Daisy [who was big and black] didn’t look anything like the Daisy in the book, who’s a scruffy white dog.”
Raschka says he worked on Daisy on and off for a decade: “I showed it to some people 10 years ago, but no one wanted it, and I just put it away.” A few years later he brought it to Lee Wade and Anne Schwartz, “on a whim.” They were interested, he says, “but had strong suggestions. All of which turned out to be right.”
Throughout the book’s long incubation, Raschka was of course working on other books, but kept trying new iterations of Daisy, and created six complete sets of dummies. “At one point we even achieved finished artwork,” he says, “but even then Lee and Anne didn’t think it was right, and we started again. Looking back I’m very glad that we redid it.”
Starting from scratch isn’t all that unusual for Raschka; in the “about 50” picture books he has illustrated since Charlie Parker Played Be Bop came out in 1992, he has completed the artwork for several other books and then began again. “Usually I’m the one who says I don’t like it.” (Luckily, he works quickly.)
Daisy’s spreads and panels were drawn in watercolor, which give the illusion of effortlessness, but are anything but. “Part of why I like watercolor,” he says, “is that mistakes are visible and you can’t really repair much. It has to look easy. When it comes out it looks easy, but to get to that point takes a lot of doing.”
What Raschka finds particularly gratifying about winning the Caldecott Medal for Daisy is that “I never quite know if what I do will be understood. This book was so simple, and the painting style is very loose. I never know if people know what I’m getting at or not.” It sounds like this year’s Caldecott committee understood him just fine. “It’s a great, great honor," he says. "It hasn’t really sunk in yet. I’m totally stunned and amazed, and utterly thrilled.” —Diane Roback
John Corey Whaley: ‘I Had to Pull Over, Needless to Say’
To get a phone call from an ALA awards committee during its annual Midwinter conference is an incredible experience for any writer. To get two phone calls? That’s something else altogether.
This past Monday, John Corey Whaley—author of Where Things Come Back (Atheneum), about the disappearance of an Arkansas teen and the possible reappearance of an extinct woodpecker—received not one but two awards from the American Library Association: the William C. Morris Debut YA Award, presented to a first-time author for teens, and the Michael L. Printz Award, given to “a book that exemplifies literary excellence in young adult literature.”
Whaley was hanging out with friends in his small town of Springhill, La., this past Saturday afternoon when he got the first of his two calls. Well, he missed the first call, actually. “I had known I was a [Morris] finalist for about a month, so I was kind of hanging by the phone,” Whaley says; when he noticed he had a missed call on his cell phone, he called the number back right away—it was the Morris committee. “They all just cheered on speakerphone and congratulated me,” he said. “That’s the best part of it—you’re being told by a group of librarians who are just so excited to be sharing the news. I was completely stunned and overwhelmed.”
Since Springhill is only about four hours from Dallas by car, Whaley decided to travel to the ALA conference to accept the Morris award in person, at a reception on Monday. And it was while he was on the road Sunday afternoon, about 40 miles outside of Dallas, that he got the second phone call. “I had to pull over, needless to say,” Whaley says. “I was already reeling from the Morris announcement, because that’s such a huge honor. I just assumed that everyone had already been contacted about all of the awards. Complete, complete shock is the best way to describe it.”
The phone call itself was much like the Morris call, with lots of shouting and cheering from the award committee over speakerphone. “They somehow knew it had been my birthday on Thursday,” Whaley says, “and they said we want to give you a birthday present and tell you that you’ve won the Printz. It was pretty much the best birthday present ever.”
The writer called his parents right away and later spoke with his editor, Namrata Tripathi, and his agent, Ken Wright of Writers House. Whaley spent much of the remainder of the drive to Dallas talking on the phone, “which was probably very unsafe,” he admits, though he was using a hands-free device.
Since the awards were announced, Whaley says that he’s been humbled by the outpouring of phone calls, texts, and messages on Twitter and Facebook that he has received. “At one point, I had to turn my phone off. There was no way I could respond to everything.” In the hours after Whaley’s Printz win was announced online, Where Things Come Back was even trending nationally on Twitter (“Add that to the list of crazy, unbelievable things that have happened this weekend,” Whaley says. “I took a screenshot on my phone”). And at the ALA conference, he found that he was getting plenty of attention from attendees, too. “Most people wouldn’t recognize me if I was just walking around,” he says, but thanks to his nametag, there are “these amazing, sweet people who just want to shake my hand.”
While the Printz and Morris Awards are the latest accolades Whaley has received for Where Things Come Back, they aren’t the first. Whaley was chosen as one of PW’s Flying Starts last spring, and back in October he became the first YA novelist to be included in the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 program, which honors promising young fiction writers.
He’s currently working on his second novel, set in Louisiana, about a teen whose best friend is murdered. But for now, Whaley is enjoying these two new developments in his nascent literary career. “It’s completely life-changing news,” he says. “And for it to be a complete surprise, I can’t imagine anything better.” —John A. Sellers