Sunday, December 4, 2011

Caldecott, Newbery Prizes and Children's Books

America has a very deep intellectual culture that is best epitomized by the plethora of prizes awarded in so many fields, especially books. The Pulitzer's are the most widely known prizes. There are others too like the 'National Book Award', 'National Book Critics Circle Award, 'PEN/Faulkner Award', "Bancroft Prize' and much more. Of course each carries different prestige with the Pulitzers being ranked highest. New York Times book review is a treasure for any bibliophile. A few years back NYT started a separate section to review children's books. Children's toys, movies and now books are money spinners. During summer movies for kids hit the screens raking in hundreds of billions of dollars. Only after coming to America I realized that there are really kids movies made for kids. As a kid in Tamil Nadu we had watched a few pathetic children's movies that were replete with club dances (that movie also received a tax exemption categorized as 'kid friendly'). Other than Amar Chitra Katha that peddled mythologies as comics there was simply no child friendly literature. One poet Valliappa, labeled 'children's poet', wrote some eminently forgettable verses. As an obsessive visitor of book stores I am well aware of wonderful books for children in US book stores. The county libraries offer library cards for tiny tots. However a recent discovery has made me yet again say, like Tim Russert's dad Big Russ, "what a country".

Caldecott Medal is given to children's picture books, not illustrated, just 'picture books'. This being Christmas season such books are stacked as 'gift ideas'. Of course there will be people who will see this as 'commercialization', or 'money making'. My reply, "take a hike" or "get a life". One medal winner I saw was a picturisation of the time worn tale of "Lion and Mouse". There were no words just luscious drawing in vivid colors. The image that stuck in my mind was the lion looking forlorn through the net as it sees the mouse nibble the thick braids of the net. Note, children's books, does not necessarily mean only Aesops fables and fairy tales. A 'National book award' winner illustrates charmingly what "life cycle" mean. There are books on symbiotic relationships of organism, idea of 'time', the book 'What to do with a tail like this' details regenerative organs.

Intrigued by this genre of prizes I looked further and learnt of the Newbery Medal which is awarded for the best in children's literature since 1920.A few weeks back I had bought Hendrik Willem Van Loon's "The story of Mankind". I remembered Will Durant writing about that book, "adults bought Hendrik Willem Van Loon's 'Story' for children and surreptitiously read it themselves". The book is a riot to read. Books deal with delicate subjects of Civil Rights too. Van Loon, I was delighted to learn, is the first recipient of Newbery Medal in 1922. In 1918 Pammal Sambanda Mudaliar had written the incorrigibly stupid play titled 'Sabapathi' about a country bumpkin. Sambanda Mudaliar is hailed as the first Tamil novelist. With such a beginning Tamil literature went nowhere in the decades after.

Both Caldecott and Newbery are administered by the "Association for Library Service to Children". The wikipedia for ALSC threw a huge surprise listing 10 prizes awarded for various categories in Children's literature plus notable listing of books for each year. NYT too just released the best children's books for 2011. The ALSC website, , has a plethora of resources for teaching children ( ).

Last week we attended our daughter's parent-teacher conference. The ways in which a first grade student is evaluated is simply amazing. The learning atmosphere, how the concepts are introduced and ingrained, the web resources etc only mades us, as parents, feel so good about her educational prospects. I've absolutely zero hesitation in bringing up a girl child in USA. In fact we feel comfortable that she is NOT studying in India. Recently I heard that a premium convent in Chennai has classrooms divided on caste basis with students, not even in teens, trade remarks on caste and talk about reservation quotas. For those who keep bringing up teen pregnancy, dating etc, my reply is "look beyond and grow up". Also let me note that we often forget that the India we left behind is not there. There is a new India that is practically living the American 60's sadly taking only the vices of that age not its institutional virtues like Caldecott and Pulitzer's.

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