By SLJ Staff
Talk about improbable true-life stories. Erin Stead, an illustrator who had completely lost faith in her artistic talent, and Claire Vanderpool, a first-time author who had written seriously for 17 years before her first book was finally published, took center stage at this evening’s Newbery/Caldecott banquet, honoring the year’s best books for young readers. The event was part of the American Library Association’sannual conference in New Orleans.
Stead, the winner of the 2011 Caldecott Medal for A Sick Day for Amos McGee (Roaring Brook/Neal Porter Bks.), written by her husband, Philip Stead, who’s also a children’s book illustrator, spoke candidly about her struggle to overcome severe self-doubt to become the artist she had hoped to be. Stead had actually given up drawing, when her husband showed her the first draft of the story about a kind zookeeper and his devoted animal friends, which he had written on a legal pad especially for her.
“I had completely lost the courage to make my own drawings,” said Stead, her voice breaking with emotion. “I suffered from a severe and self-inflicted loss of confidence. I made the decision to stop daring completely, and stuck to that decision, for better or for worse, for three years.”
Gently encouraged by her husband, and later by Roaring Brook editor Neal Porter, Stead began drawing again at her kitchen table. She started with a very tiny drawing of an old man and an elephant, which eventually became the main characters of Amos McGee.
Although Vanderpool’s personal story isn’t as dramatic, she-along with many kids’ book fans-was shocked when her debut novel, Moon Over Manifest (Delacorte), won this year’s Newbery Medal. “Moon Over What? Clare who?” said Vanderpool good-naturedly, expressing the lack of familiarity many readers had with her book and surname when the award was first announced in January at ALA’s midwinter meeting in San Diego.
“I come from a family of optimists,” said Vanderpool, who lives in Kansas, the setting of her big-hearted, multi-generational epic, which alternates between World War I and the Great Depression and focuses on the tough-yet-vulnerable heroine, Abilene Tucker. “My parents are both Depression-era children, one born on a farm and one raised in a little house next to the railroad tracks. They raised my siblings and me with a can-do attitude. ‘You’ll figure it out. You can make it work. Keep at it. Anything is possible.’ And I believed them.”
But not even Vanderpool, who had struggled for more than a decade to become a published author, believed she’d win a Newbery. She drew the evening’s biggest laugh when she said, “Somebody asked me recently if winning the Newbery is as wonderful as having a baby. That analogy falls a bit short, but it is like having a baby-if you didn’t know you were pregnant.”
Author-illustrator Tomie dePaola also received the 2011 Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal, which honors an author or illustrator whose books, published in the United States, have made a substantial and lasting contribution to literature for children. DePaola, who has written or illustrated more than 200 children’s books, including the classic Strega Nona and 26 Fairmount Avenue, spoke about knowing his life’s calling at the precocious age of four. “Even though no one asked me, I announced, “When I grow up, I am going to be an artist. I’m going to write stories and draw pictures for books, and I’m going to sing and tap-dance on the stage.”