The Children’s Book Committee and the Bank Street College of Education honored their Best Children’s Books of the Year at an awards presentation held at the college on April 6. In addition to celebrating the more than 600 titles that are presented in The Best Children’s Books of the Year: 2017 Edition (given to each attendee), Bank Street College and the Children’s Book Committee also presented awards to five 2016 titles in the categories of nonfiction, poetry, and fiction.
The ceremonies offered a morning full of emotional, timely, and illuminating speeches. Opening speakers were Linda Greengrass and Mollie Welsh Kruger, co-chairs, Children’s Book Committee; Shael Polakow-Suransky, president, Bank Street College; Jed Lippard, dean of children’s programs, Bank Street School for Children; Todd Jackson, co-director, Young Reviewers’ Program, Children’s Book Committee; and Cynthia Weill, director, Bank Street Center for Children’s Literature. Lippard spoke about the enormous and sometimes contentious work involved with selecting the best books of the year. He noted that his husband is a member of the Children’s Book Committee and jokingly said, “We haven’t had a conversation for the last four months.”
Jackson praised the efforts of the children who contributed to the selection process by reading and reviewing the books. Weill added that she “marvels at the efforts” of the committee and noted the “dozens of boxes of books” that were submitted from publishers on a daily basis. She commented that the work done by the committee represents “Bank Street’s commitment to championing high-quality children’s literature.” Polakow-Suransky shared that there were some 6,000 submissions this year and that the more than 600 books compiled in the guide will be valued by booksellers, librarians, and teachers.
Accepting the first 2017 Flora Stieglitz Straus Award for nonfiction was Susan Hood for Ada’s Violin: The Story of the Recycled Orchestra of Paraguay (Simon & Schuster). The book takes place in the real-life village of Cateura, Paraguay, which is located on the grounds of a garbage dump. Inspired by his own love of music, Favio Chávez decided that the garbage could be reused to make musical instruments. With the help of a talented carpenter, Chávez began teaching children of Ceteura to make music using the instruments—eventually creating an orchestra. Rather than create a fictional character, Hood based the story on an actual member of the orchestra, musician Ada Ríos: “the orchestra story is astounding because it’s true,” she said, adding that, if the story was presented as fiction, “who would believe anyone could make a clarinet from drain pipes, buttons, and house keys?”
Following Hood, illustrator of Ada’s Violin, Sally Wern Comport, spoke briefly. She discussed how she used the collages in the book to mimic the mounds of trash that would be made into instruments. Describing how “choreographing the book was like a dance,” she remained inspired throughout the creative process by the “playing of instruments amidst awfulness.”
Leigh Walton, the editor of March: Book Three, the final book in a trilogy, also accepted the book’s Flora Stieglitz Straus Award on behalf of the authors, Congressman John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, and illustrator, Nate Powell. Walton spoke about how, in the process of writing the series, they came across an archived recording of speeches made during the 1965 rally held on the steps of the Alabama Capitol. The recording, which included a speech by John Lewis, was surreptitiously made by the Alabama Department of Public Safety—part of the organization’s efforts to gather “dirt on the Civil Rights Movement.” Ironically, this surveillance by an organization attempting to disrupt the Civil Rights Movement, “gave [John Lewis’s] words back to him,” said Walton.
Walton went on to speak about how we live in a world “with a very complicated relationship to history.” Today, there is an abundance of readily available information, yet with the deaths of individuals who witnessed moments of history, including its horrors, he said: “We are losing living memory.” He believes in the importance of finding the “emotional truth” behind historical events and crafting narratives that are “irresistible” to readers. Walton concluded by saying, “This is not a story about super heroes; it’s a story about heroes. Let’s all keep marching together.”
Also accepting an award for nonfiction was Caren Stelson for her book Sachiko: A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor’s Story (Lerner/Carolrhoda). Stelson talked about the process of writing the book with the help of the St. Paul-Nagasaki Sister City, which enabled her to meet the subject of her book, Sachiko Yasui, several times—meetings that changed her life. Stelson reflected on her own brief brushes with the impact of war, notably “the nightmare screams” of her father, who fought in World War II. Yet, she often wondered: “How do people truly survive war? How do children survive war?” She didn’t know the answer “until [she] met Sachiko.”
Sachiko, who was six when the atomic bomb dropped, agreed to tell Stelson her story only “if she could look into my eyes.” In addition to Sachiko’s story of surviving the bombing of Nagasaki, Stelson spoke of the strength Sachiko gained from an unexpected source: Helen Keller, whom she met in Japan at the age of nine. She channeled Keller’s fortitude when she lost her voice from thyroid cancer in her 20s. Recovering her speaking voice enabled her to ask, “Now that I have a voice, what will I use it for?” The experience of writing the book and meeting Sachiko fact-to-face not only gave a voice to Stelson’s book, but ultimately solidified for Stelson the words of philosopher Martin Buber: “All real living is meeting.”
Julie Fogliano accepted the Claudia Lewis Award for poetry. Before When Green Becomes Tomatoes: Poems for All Seasons (Roaring Brook/Porter), Fogliano was struggling through what felt like an insurmountable writer’s block. Married with two children and living in upstate New York, Fogliano found it was easier for her to make excuses not to write than it was to sit down and put words on the page: “I felt I had entire universes inside me, yet I couldn’t seem to unleash them.” At the urging of a friend, she vowed to write one thought a day for a year and to practice the art of “watching, listening, and paying attention.” On or about thought 125, Fogliano explained, something took seed. That seed would eventually grow into When Green Becomes Tomatoes.
Fogliano didn’t think that what she was writing was poetry, but when editor Neal Porter read it, he told her that’s what it was. Fogliano’s reaction was: “I don’t write poetry. These are just my tiny thoughts.” She realized that she held a deeply ingrained sense that “poetry was something sacred and serious, a puzzle and a code,” and if she didn’t correctly decipher it, she was left “feeling like a failure.” Despite her resistance to calling herself a poet, she learned from Porter that “the dreaded word would appear on the cover.” Today, she hopes that when children first encounter poetry that they “listen to the sounds of words,” and in doing so, learn “to connect to poems before deconstructing them.”
Finally, Wendelin Van Draanen took the stage to accept the 2017 Josette Frank Award for her novel The Secret Life of Lincoln Jones (Knopf). Van Draanen spoke about the deceptive nature of appearances, and how each person contains a story that is readable only by looking below the surface. Such is the case with her protagonist, Lincoln Jones. And such is the case with Van Draanen herself. She shared a slide show that featured photographs of her parents, who emigrated from the Netherlands and “took a ship to the U.S. with nothing but big dreams.” Another slide showed the result of an arsonist’s hate crime against her family, burning their business to the ground and “leaving nothing but rubble and ash where their dreams had been.”
After Van Draanen’s father died of brain cancer, she took on the highly physical task of rebuilding the family business: “That is a pipe wrench in my hand and I know how to use it,” she commented about one slide. Learning, by necessity, to be a roofer, accountant, and plumber, becoming a writer didn’t seem to be in the cards. Yet, while living with her husband in a 400-square-foot house in a less-than savory neighborhood, she began writing and “putting hope in the mail,” a.k.a, submitting her manuscripts to agents and publishers. Ten years passed before she received an acceptance.
Van Draanen discussed more defining life experiences, including witnessing her mother’s struggle with dementia and learning about the histories of the other residents at her mother’s dementia facility—each with a “unique history of pain.” Such encounters would lead her to explore the secret life of a character who finds refuge in his own private world of storytelling. In closing, she suggested that “it’s through open hearts that we find compassion, understanding, and common ground.”