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Newbery roundup

A grownups' list of the top children's books

Newbery roundup

The Newbery Awards, the "Oscar of children's books" is an annual indicator of what some grownups think kids ought to read. Each year a committee composed of 15 members of the American Library Association develops a cloistered mystique during months of top-secret evaluation. Will they make a daring choice or a traditional one? Stick with conventional wisdom or break new ground? This year, yes and no.

The Gold Medal goes to Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! by Laura Amy Schlitz, private-school librarian and only recently published author. Good Masters! is unique among Newbery winners: the first nonfiction book since 1988, the first in verse (or partly) since 1998, and the only one to be written as a play.

The subtitle, Voices from a Medieval Village, sums up the content: In 19 monologues and two dialogues, the young people of an English manor share their stories and ambitions. This is not the Hallmark version: Nelly the sniggler (eel catcher) tells how she was almost drowned as an infant by her "starving poor" father, whose heart softened when her "wee fingers" clung to the side of the bucket. God reigns ambiguously, all circumstance attributed to His inscrutable will. Copious footnotes, no less interesting than the text, will cement the book's place in social studies syllabi, but they seem more reliable on details than generalizations. The rationale for the Crusades (for example) was more than "escape the tedium . . . kill muslims, see the world, and go to heaven in the bargain." Still, for style, verve, and illustrations by Robert Byrd, the book shines.

Three Silver Medals go to previous winners, starting with The Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt, professor of literature at Calvin College. Coming of age in 1968 is no picnic if your name is Holling Hoodhood and you're the only Presbyterian in a class of Jews and Catholics. Holling has also decided that his homeroom teacher Mrs. Baker hates him, partly because she's making him read Shakespeare on Wednesday afternoons when the rest of the class is at Catechism or Hebrew school. Not surprisingly, the Bard proves relevant over a year of simmering family conflicts and national crises, plus a theatrical debut, a major disappointment, a first love, an athletic triumph, a tangential tragedy, and a happy ending. Too much material is spread too thin, but Holling is an appealing character-though there's nothing especially Presbyterian about his outlook, which resolves to hazy spirituality.

Even more spiritual is Jacqueline Woodson's Feathers, whose title reflects a Dickinson poem and whose pivotal character calls himself Jesus. This is the kind of "good-for-you book" that appears on nearly every Newbery list: earnest, literary, and slow, even though Woodson sermonizes deftly. "Jesus," the new kid in class, and the only white kid, is predictably despised and rejected. But subsequent events are meant to make us wonder if we all, even the worst, have a little Jesus in us. "I don't know if I believe in miracles," ponders Francine, the narrator. "I think things happen and we need to believe in them." Faith in faith triumphs: "Hope is a thing with feathers that perches in the soul," murmuring to Francine and friends that everything will be all right. Somehow.

Christopher Paul Curtis is both more modest and more precise in his aims-one reason why he's a most reliable children's author. Elijah of Buxton takes place in Buxton, Ontario, an antebellum refuge for freed or escaped slaves. Elijah Freeman was the first baby born in the settlement, and his main distinction so far is that he spit up on Frederick Douglass when the latter came to visit. Like all 11-year-olds, Elijah is trying to figure out the world of "growned-upness," which too often makes "no sense atall" to him. Curtis writes with effortless humor, echoing the episodic structure and slightly burlesque style of Huckleberry Finn until the climax of the story. Confronted by a great injustice, Elijah discovers he can't save the day-but he can save a piece of it. And that's as good a definition of growned-upness as any.

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