Children's Corner: Applegate, Klassen join kid-lit hall of fame

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SEATTLE -- She's a veteran children's novelist. He's only illustrated a handful of children's books. Yet novelist Katherine Applegate and illustrator Jon Klassen share a key common bond: They are the 2013 winners of the most prestigious awards for children's literature.

Ms. Applegate won the 2013 Newbery Medal, given annually to the best written children's book, for "The One and Only Ivan" (HarperCollins, $16.99, ages 8-12). Mr. Klassen, meanwhile, won the 2013 Caldecott Medal, given annually to the best-illustrated children's book, for "This Is Not My Hat" (Candlewick Press, $15.99, ages 4-8).

Mr. Klassen also accomplished a rare feat: He won a 2013 Caldecott Honor (or runner-up nod) for a second book, "Extra Yarn" (Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins, $16.99, ages 4-8), written by Mac Barnett. Only one other person has accomplished this one-two punch. In 1947, illustrator Leonard Weisgard won the Caldecott Medal for "The Little Island," written by Margaret Wise Brown (under the pseudonym of Golden MacDonald), and a Caldecott Honor for "Rain Drop Splash," written by Alvin Tresselt.

Winning a Newbery or Caldecott brings instant fame to an author or illustrator. It also brings instant fortune. On Jan. 28, when the winners were announced at the American Library Association's conference in Seattle, "This Is Not My Hat" ranked at 1,501 in sales on Amazon.com. By the end of the day, it had zoomed to No. 10.

It was a similar story with "The One and Only Ivan," which was ranked at 1,933 in sales on Amazon.com when the awards were announced and ended the day at No. 13. By the next day, "The One and Only Ivan" had risen to No. 2, followed closely by "This Is Not My Hat," which held the No. 3 spot.

Here's a closer look at the two newly minted medalists and their winning books:

Ms. Applegate, 56, was a best-selling children's novelist even before "The One and Only Ivan" won the 2013 Newbery Medal.

Under the name "K.A. Applegate," she and her husband, novelist Michael Grant, co-wrote the popular "Animorphs" series, which tells the adventures of teens who can transform, or morph, into any animal they touch. More than 35 million copies of the science-fiction series, aimed at ages 8-12, have been sold around the world.

Ms. Applegate, whose first book was a romance published by Harlequin, also has written a chapter-book series for ages 6-9 called "Roscoe Riley Rules" and the "Summer" series for teens, which includes titles such as "Beach Blondes" and "Tan Lines." In addition, she has written stand-alone books, including the award-winning "Home of the Brave."

In an interview with Publishers Weekly after winning the Newbery, she jokingly called herself the "consummate hack," adding that "I've written so many books along the way" -- about 150.

Ms. Applegate started thinking 20 years ago about the book that eventually became "The One and Only Ivan." She had read about a gorilla named Ivan who lived a solitary existence for nearly three decades in a circus-themed mall in Washington state, and while she wrote other books, Ivan's story haunted her.

Five years ago, she began to write about Ivan in earnest. But she had trouble trying to figure out how to tell his story, which by then had a happy ending, as -- after a public outcry -- Ivan was brought to live among the large gorilla population at Zoo Atlanta. Ivan died there last summer at the age of 50.

Ms. Applegate finally decided to tell her story from Ivan's point of view, and things clicked into place. Yet having a gorilla as the main protagonist is an unusual literary device because some readers absolutely refuse to read books about talking animals.

But it's Ivan's voice -- and his story -- that will capture readers. Using short bursts of chapters, Ms. Applegate tells how Ivan refuses to give up on a promise he made to give a chance at a better life to Ruby, a baby elephant and newest attraction at the decaying roadside zoo where he lives. Using his unusual artistic ability, and with some help from a special human friend, Ivan is able to keep his promise to Ruby and also find a new life for himself.

Ms. Applegate told Publishers Weekly that she recently found a scrap of paper, written while she was struggling to write the novel, on which she had written "Should I give up on Ivan or not?"

"I was at one of those many places you get to in a book, where I say, 'I just can't make it work.'... I'm going to have it framed."

Mr. Klassen, 31, first came to the notice of the children's book world with his illustrations for "Cats' Night Out" (Simon & Schuster, $15.99, ages 4-8), a picture book written by Caroline Stutson. It won a major Canadian children's literature award.

But it was his 2011 picture book, "I Want My Hat Back" (Candlewick Press, $15.99, ages 4-8), that really put him in the spotlight. The sly story of a rabbit who steals a bear's hat and meets a tragic -- but predictable -- end, "I Want My Hat Back," both written and illustrated by Mr. Klassen, was named one of the 10 best illustrated children's books of 2011 by The New York Times.

It turned out, however, that he wasn't quite done with his hat theme, as evidenced by "This Is Not My Hat," a book published in 2012 that he both wrote and illustrated. As this darkly humorous morality tale opens, a small fish has stolen the blue hat of a larger fish and is unrepentant about it.

As he tells the reader: "I know it's wrong to steal a hat. I know it does not belong to me. But I am going to keep it. It was too small for him anyway. It fits me just right."

The small fish thinks the larger fish will never figure out who has stolen his hat. But, as readers readily can see in Mr. Klassen's earth-toned digital and Chinese ink illustrations, the small fish is clueless as the larger fish sets off to reclaim the hat.

The book's ending, showing the larger fish with the tiny hat back on his head, can be seen as ambiguous. Some readers may believe that the larger fish merely took back his hat; others may believe that nature took its course, with the larger fish eating the smaller one before taking back his hat.

When he got the call from committee members early in the morning of Jan. 28, before the official announcement, that "This Is Not My Hat" had won, Mr. Klassen, who was about to catch a cab from his Los Angeles home to the airport, was stunned.

"I couldn't believe it; I was going crazy," he told Publishers Weekly.

He told his wife the good news, then the phone rang again. It was his cab driver, waiting downstairs. Then, there was a third call, with the news that his book "Extra Yarn" had won a Caldecott Honor.

"I think I was too turned around by the first phone call to register the second," Mr. Klassen said.

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Karen MacPherson, the children's/teen librarian at the Takoma Park, Md., Library, can be reached at Kam.Macpherson@gmail.com.


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