Superpower squirrel and 19th Century train win Caldecott and Newbery in Philly

The two major prizes for children’s literature were announced Monday morning in Philadelphia at the American Library Association’s winter convention. The Newbery and Caldecott awards went to “Flora and Ulysses” by Kate DiCamillo and “Locomotive” by Brian Floca, respectively.

If librarians had a Super Bowl, this is it: about 1,000 teachers, librarians, and publishers watched in-person or on closed-circuit TV at the Pennsylvania Convention Center as the awards were read. There was no shush-ing as deafening cheers erupted during the one-hour session in which the winners of 16 awards were announced.

“Locomotive” also won the Robert Sibert Award — less prestigious than the Caldecott — for informational books. Floca meticulously illustrated book tells a story of a 19th century family taking a cross-country train trip, and it features American landscapes, travel adventures, and the inner mechanical workings of a train.

“It is mechanical, but it’s also very painterly,” said Rachel Fryd, a Free Library of Philadelphia librarian and member of the Caldecott selection committee. “There is so much detail, with wonderful shifts in perspective, and a wonderful use of color for tone and foreshadowing and celebration. It’s technical, and extremely artistic.”

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The Newbery Award recognizes not artistic but literary achievement. The Philadelphia-born DiCamillo had won it in 2003 for “The Tale of Despereaux,” and again this year for her novel about a girl who befriends a squirrel, which develops super powers after being sucked into a vacuum cleaner.

“It’s a very funny book, and I don’t remember how long it’s been since a humor book has hit the top of the Newbery,” said Betsy Orbsurn, the Newbery selection committee chair who recently retired from the Free Library of Philadelphia. “It is also a little bit of a graphic novel. That’s a first for the Newbery – for there to be more illustrations that are critical to the book.”

The Newbery and Caldecott are the most prestigious of 16 awards announced at the ALA’s annual meeting. One of them — Theodor Seuss Geisel Award, named after Dr. Seuss — was awarded to Philadelphia artist Greg Pizzoli for his book, “The Watermelon Seed.” It’s about a crododile who fears a watermelon will grow inside his stomach after he eats a seed.

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