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Feb 2, 2015 11:02 AM

Alexander, Santat win top children's book prizes

The Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) Kwame Alexander's "The Crossover," a novel in verse about basketball and coming of age, has won the John Newbery Medal for the year's best children's book. Author-illustrator Dan Santat's "The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend," a fantasy featuring an island for pretend playmates, received the Randolph Caldecott Medal for best picture book.

The awards were announced Monday in Chicago by the American Library Association, currently hosting its annual midwinter meeting. The Newbery and Caldecott awards are widely regarded as the highest honors in children's publishing, near-guarantors of increased sales and lasting places on school and library shelves. Both books were out of stock on Amazon.com as of midday Monday.

Another coming-of-age story in verse, Jacqueline Woodson's "Brown Girl Dreaming," won the Coretta Scott King author prize for outstanding work by an African-American. Woodson, last fall's winner of the National Book Award, was a finalist Monday for the Newbery medal and the Sibert medal for "most distinguished informational book."

In a telephone interview with The Associated Press, Alexander said he had written about basketball because he wanted the story to appeal to boys, traditionally the most reluctant readers. He began "The Crossover" in 2008, needed four to five years to finish, and was turned down by several publishers before Houghton Mifflin Harcourt signed him up.

"I knew basketball would be the hook, and then I could take them to some places, to some magical places," said Alexander, a native of Reston, Virginia, who has written more than a dozen other books and has also produced music and worked in radio, television and theater. He has conducted poetry workshops around the country, organized book festivals and has advocated for literacy worldwide.

Alexander said that as a teenager he went through his own phase of disliking books, but changed while attending Virginia Tech, where the poet Nikki Giovanni was one of his teachers. He has a novel in verse about a kid who learns to love reading more than he does soccer, "Booked," scheduled for 2016 and says he wanted to make sure it was done before the Newbery announcement.

"I had a feeling that if I won I would be taken to a very different place than I was before," he said. "Now, I know that I will be no good for the next couple of weeks, or even months. I will be over the moon, my friend."

Santat, who lives near Pasadena, California, said Monday that "The Adventures of Beekle" was a metaphor for the impending birth of his first son, Alek. Santat was inspired by memories of forming a bond with someone he hadn't met yet. The word "beekle" was the infant Alek's pronunciation of "bicycle."

"The book was my way of saying to my son, 'Welcome to the world. I've loved you before we even met,'" Santat said of Alek, who recently turned 9. Santat's next project is the picture book, "Are We There Yet?" based on a common lament from his younger son, Kyle.

"The premise is about a boy who is so bored that time starts to slow down, then go backward, and the boy goes further and further back until he ends up in the Jurassic era," Santat said. "He then starts playing with the dinosaurs and has so much fun that time speeds up, passes the present day and ends up in the future."

Other honors Monday included lifetime achievement awards for Sharon M. Draper and Donald Crews. Marjorie Agosin's "I Lived on Butterfly Hill" received the Belpre author award for best Latino book, while the Belpre illustrator prize went to Yuyi Morales' "Viva Frida."

Anthony Doerr's "All the Light We Cannot See," one of last year's top literary novels, was among 10 winners of the Alex prize for adult books most liked by readers aged 12-18.


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