When the ALA Calls: Stead and Pinkney on Winning the Big Prize

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By Diane Roback -- Publishers Weekly, 1/21/2010 1:35:00 PM

When you win a Newbery or a Caldecott Medal, you find out in a phone call—usually very early in the morning—and then your life is instantly changed. Both Rebecca Stead and Jerry Pinkney got that phone call this past Monday morning; we spoke with both of them to find out where they were when the phone rang, what their reactions were, and what came next.
Rebecca Stead was awake in her family’s apartment on New York City’s Upper West Side. She’d woken up a few times during the night, but when she heard her eight-year-old son get up around 6:15 a.m., she decided it was now “a legitimate time to get out of bed.” With the amount of pre-ALA buzz that had surrounded her novel, When You Reach Me (Random House/Wendy Lamb), she was aware of what day it was, and though she thought the phone “probably won’t ring,” she did notice it was off its base and wandered around the apartment looking for it.

It did ring, shortly after that. “My husband came running out of the bedroom like a rocket holding the phone,” Stead recalled. “When Kate O’Dell [chair of the Newbery committee] started talking, I had this incredible ‘this is it’ moment. She said, ‘I’m about to tell you something that will change your life.’ There was such a rush of emotion, it made it hard to speak. A wonderful cheer went up in the room [the committee members were all on speakerphone]. I remember standing in my kitchen thinking, I can’t move either of my legs. I was definitely shaking. It was just unbelievable.”
After the call, she immediately told her family (“we went in and woke up my 11-year-old; he sat bold upright and gave me a big hug”), and then Stead’s editor Wendy Lamb, who had also received the good news, arrived at the apartment so they could watch the live webcast from Boston together.
“It was wonderful, so moving to see everybody’s books honored,” she said. “There were books I loved, books by friends. Wendy and I were huddled in front of the desk watching the computer, drinking coffee, holding hands, and screeching. It was a complete, complete thrill. Then the phone started ringing.”
Stead said she did several interviews that day, and her mother “swung into action,” planning an open house for that evening so that family and friends could come by and celebrate. Tuesday morning, she said, “I made my kids lunch and put my eight-year-old on the school bus and got in a car that took me to the Today Show.”
The experience of walking into the NBC studios was “unreal,” she said. “It was fun to see all the behind-the-scenes stuff.” She met Jerry Pinkney, her fellow medalist, in the green room, and they exchanged books. And then it was time to go on the air. “We were told we would each be asked one question, and that the segment would be two minutes. I was thinking ‘talk short,’ and trying not to look scared. They said it will feel really fast, but it was just right from my point of view.” [Watch their video clip here.]
Stead said she’s gotten “a ton” of phone calls and e-mail and notes on Facebook. “It’s been this constant love shower. I haven’t even begun to figure out how to answer them.” She’s heard from college roommates, lawyers she worked with during her years as a public defender, friends from writers’ groups, and—out of the blue—her third-grade teacher. “She wrote to me and said she’d seen the announcement and recognized my name. ‘I know you were my student, I remember you!’ ”
Stead credits her editor for much of her success, saying she’d never have written a children’s book if it weren’t for Lamb. When You Reach Me is Stead’s second novel; she began the first one, First Light, while in between law jobs. “I was full of doubt,” she said. When she finished her first draft (“it was unwieldy and too complicated”), she contacted Lamb, whom she had met at a short story workshop several years before. “I told her I had this big mess of a draft, what do I do? She said, ‘Send it to me.’ She read it and really encouraged me. She told me, ‘This is not ready but there is a lot here. You need to find a writing community to help you.’
Through connections made on a listserv, she and others founded a critique group, where she reworked the draft for two years. Then she sent it back to Lamb, and they revised the book further, for another year. “If she hadn’t done all that,” Stead said, “I would have taken a different path.”
Stead is currently drafting another middle-grade novel—“I have a decent start”—the second in a two-book contract. She’ll go on an already-arranged short book tour at the end of the month, as a “thank you to some of the wonderful stores that have been supporting this book for a long time.”
And, understandably, the fact of being a newly minted Newbery Medalist still feels hard to process. “I’m really at the very beginning stage of taking this all in,” Stead said. “You can never be prepared for something like this, because it’s sort of magical.”
“I Kept Waiting for the Word ‘Honor…’ ”

Jerry Pinkney was asleep at his home in Croton-on-Hudson, a river village about 35 miles north of New York City, when the call came—at about 6:20 a.m. As with Stead’s novel, there had been so much chatter about the possibility of a medal for his picture book, The Lion & the Mouse, that when the phone rang Pinkney knew it had to be from the ALA. “When I got the call that announced that the ALA had awarded me the Caldecott,” he said, “I kept waiting for the word ‘Honor.’ [Pinkney has been awarded the Caldecott Honor five times, in his 46-year career.] I wondered if maybe there was a blank space on the phone line.” Then he realized there was no blank space, and that he’d won the top prize. “When you hear the applause and cheers from the committee, it’s very gratifying.”
When he hung up the phone, Pinkney said, “I got back into bed with my wife [children’s book author Gloria Pinkney], and we talked about the award and what it would mean. I called my family [sons Brian and Myles and daughter-in-law Andrea are all involved in children’s books as well]. Then I decided I was going to do what I do every day—exercise, eat breakfast, and then go to work. Well, at 2:00 I was still sitting at the table and hadn’t had anything to eat, I was still answering the phone!”
Is it a different feeling, winning the medal this time, as opposed to the five Honors? “There’s the sense that yours was a choice of all the books,” he said. “There’s something about getting the recognition from the ALA. And the medal itself is just right for the time, just right for the place I’m in. I just turned 70. I’m settled now, I’ve always just worked for the work. When you get a medal like this, there are no expectations except to do the work. I don’t have to yearn for it. It’s very confirming, very satisfying.”
Tuesday was a whirlwind day, with a car arriving early in the morning, for his 9:50 a.m. appearance on the Today Show. “In the green room,” he said, “there was an excitement and warmth that really made me feel good about being there.” And in hair and makeup he ran into Today Show real estate contributor Barbara Corcoran. “I saw her and said, “I know her!” So it turned into a fun experience.
When he got home from the studio, Pinkney finally had the chance to sit and read the many congratulatory e-mails that had arrived. And then he got back to work. “I’m in my studio now,” he said when reached late on Tuesday afternoon. “I’m here, I’ll work this evening. It grounds me. And I’m behind schedule.”
On his drawing table is the art he’s creating for the nursery rhyme Three Little Kittens, which Dial will publish this coming fall (see Bookshelf’s recent Q&A with Pinkney here). “I’ve done over 100 books, and only two or three have been for the age group 3–6,” he said. “I have a great-granddaughter, and I’ve been responding to her and her interests. It’s fascinating to see how their minds work. She needs to interact. They’re learning process in the form of play.”
And in reflecting on this week's experience, Pinkney said he was more than a bit surprised to discover how calm he had been feeling since receiving the news. “I feel grounded,” he said. “It’s not only the medal, it’s what led up to the medal”—the reception the book had been getting since its publication last September. “It’s very, very fulfilling.”

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