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Courier & Press Article by Carol Cariens
Sunday, January 11, 2011

Strong Works for Young Readers Vie for Top Honors

Tomorrow morning (January 10) the annual Youth Media Awards, among them the coveted John Newbery Medal, Randolph Caldecott Medal, and Coretta Scott King Award, will be announced at the American Library Association's Mid-Winter Conference in San Diego. For youth services librarians everywhere, these are our Oscars, Emmys, and Golden Globes rolled up in one big post-Christmas package. Here are three books that I would love to see recognized as Newbery honorees by the official committee. All come with great pedigrees: one author is a past Coretta Scott King Honor recipient; one is a past Newbery Honor recipient, and one is a former Newbery Medalist. All three titles are among my favorites of all the books published in 2010. I hope they will become your favorites, too.

Author Rita Williams-Garcia is already a Coretta Scott King Honor author (for the young adult novel, Like Sisters on the Homefront) but looking into my crystal ball, I think she has a very good chance for winning a Newbery Honor, if not the Medal itself, for One Crazy Summer, a 1960s-era novel, described as "...the Penderwicks meet the Black Panthers". It is 1968 and eleven-year-old Delphine and her two younger sisters, Vonetta and Fern, are travelling from Brooklyn to Oakland, California to spend the summer with the mother they barely know. Anticipation and trepidation also accompany the girls on their first-ever flight to sunny California. Will their mother like them? Will they like her? And then, there she was: Cecile Johnson. Their mother. "Big black shades. Scarf tied around her head. Over the scarf, a big hat tilted down, the kind Pa wore with a suit. A pair of man's pants." Cecile, their mother, is definitely not the motherly Mother the girls had in mind. She's a poet and printer, reclusive, secretive, and a total enigma to three young girls craving affection. Further, she doesn't intend to cook for them. It's Chinese take-out from the neighborhood restaurant, or nothing at all. Daytimes are to be spent at the nearby summer camp sponsored by the Black Panthers. It's a far different world than Brooklyn and the girls are like sponges absorbing all the new ideas, sights, and experiences as fast as they can. This book is an absolute delight. It's funny, it's witty, it's heart-wrenching at times, but always, always, an insightful look at a family desperately trying to define itself.

Remember the old adage...don't judge a book by its cover? Well, I did. I took one look at the snowflakes falling in the background and the bright blue-eyed character wearing a sock hat on the cover of Jake and knew immediately that I would like this story. I was right. It's a gem. Newbery honoree Audrey Couloumbis (for Getting Near to Baby) has written another great family story, one that has a heart-stopping, what-will-he-do beginning that leads to a warm-as-flannel-sheets ending. We're introduced to ten-year-old Jake and his single mom right from the start. It's a Saturday before Christmas and an errand day for them both-and it's icy. Very, very icy. Before Jake knows what's happened, his mom has suffered a bad fall in the parking lot. Suddenly Jake's life is topsy-turvy, no more so than when his bristly, gruff paternal grandfather comes to stay with him. It's an uneasy relationship for the two of them as they seek a common ground. Their eventual reconciliation is as much a delight to them as it is to the reader. A nice, quick read for a wintry day.

Back in the day when Saturday afternoon Western serials were popular at the neighborhood Bijou, this next book would have made a bang-up addition to the genre. In Emily's Fortune, former Newbery Medalist Phyllis Reynolds Naylor (for the perennially popular dog story, Shiloh) has penned a rip-roarin' tale of the old West complete with a damsel in distress (albeit pint-sized), a despicable villain (the very hiss-able and slimy Uncle Victor), a knight in shining armor (Jackson, who is young in years and minus the armor but trusty, nonetheless), and an unlikely pet and travelling companion (Rufus the turtle). When sweet little Emily Wiggins is orphaned, her take-charge elderly neighbors (with the very appropriate Wild West names of Mrs. Ready, Mrs. Aim, and Mrs. Fire) see to Emily's future. She will travel to Redbud to live with her Aunt Hilda. Emily will board a train to Trumpet Junction and continue the journey to her new life by stagecoach. Easy as pie, right? Afraid not. That's when the adventures begin because little does Emily know that she is not a poor, penniless orphan. No indeed. Someone knows, though, and is out to claim the fortune for himself (ahh, a clue!). If you like cliffhangers and want a great family read, look no further than Emily's Fortune. I promise you a rootin-tootin' good time!