At what other formal occasion would you take a seat at your table in a grand ballroom and be greeted by a gaggle of giraffes on top of your plate?

Only at the Newbery Caldecott Banquet, an annual event honoring the best in children's literature. This year's banquet was held Sunday night in Washington, D.C. as part of the American Library Association's annual conference, and Kate and I were thrilled to be among the hundreds in attendance. Changing quickly out of our convention clothes into something spiffier, we rushed over to the Hilton and took our seats at a fun table with BookPage husband-and-wife super reviewers Dean Schneider (2008 Newbery Committee member) and Robin Smith (2011 Caldecott Committee member).

After dinner, librarians, authors, illustrators, publishing industry pros and others who love children's books listened with rapt attention as Rebecca Stead accepted the Newbery Medal for When You Reach Me and Jerry Pinkney accepted the Caldecott Medal for The Lion & the Mouse. The Newbery honors the "most distinguished American children's book" of the previous year, while the Caldecott goes to "the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children." Though both award winners were announced in January, the summer banquet and acceptance speeches are a cherished tradition that give children's authors and illustrators a chance to shine.

And shine they did. A gracious Jerry Pinkney, who's 70 years old and has been illustrating children's books since 1964, joked about being a five-time Caldecott Honor recipient (the runner-up award). When Caldecott Committee Chair Rita Auerbach called early on a January morning with the announcement that he had won the Caldecott, Pinkney said he waited anxiously for her to add the word "Honor." When she didn't -- and it finally dawned on him that he had won the big one -- Pinkney turned from the phone to share the exciting news with Gloria, his wife of 50 years.

Pinkney's winning book takes young readers to the plains of the Serengeti for what Auerbach called "a stunning and caring retelling of a classic tale." Since The Lion & The Mouse is a wordless picture book, Pinkney said, illustrator Mo Willems advised him to give a wordless acceptance speech. He passed on that suggestion, and instead gave listeners an introduction to his creative process, noting that he is "just as excited today as he was 50 years ago," when he was illustrating his first book. In a wordless book, Pinkney said, "it's about what you discover in the images. Each reader is free to take his or her own journey through the pages." And what a beautiful journey it is, reproduced in miniature in the illustrations that graced the evening's program.

Next up at the speaker's podium was Rebecca Stead, who was honored for what Newbery Committee chair Katie O'Dell described as a "highly original, brilliantly crafted novel," When You Reach Me. "I wanted to write a great speech," Stead said. "I wanted you to know the kind of happiness I felt on the morning of January 18." But having been warned by a friendly librarian that she should keep her remarks as short as possible (and having given the librarian a flashlight to wave from the audience if she talked too long) Stead decided instead to give what she called four short speeches: on becoming a storyteller, on the creation of When You Reach Me, on getting the Newbery news and on being grateful.

"Like many people who secretly want to write, I became a lawyer," she told the crowd with a laugh, relating her personal journey from a childhood where books held a special place to a writing workshop where an editor spotted her talent. She touched on some of the elements from her own life that inspired When You Reach Me (including her work in a Subway sandwich shop) and explained that, ultimately the book is more about exploring "the mysteries of life" than about time travel. Finally, Stead saluted many of those she is grateful to, from her agent and editor, to the members of the Newbery Committee (for "a lightning bolt of joy"), to illustrator Sophie Blackall ("for the gift of her gorgeous cover art") to librarians everywhere ("the smartest, funniest, most open-minded people I have ever met"). Stead's presentation was self-effacing, sometimes hilarious and extremely touching. We can't wait for her next book, though we hear she's been so overwhelmed by the Newbery hoopla she'll only now have a chance to start writing again.

Congratulations also to Newbery Honor winners Phillip Hoose (Claudette Colvin); Jacqueline Kelly (The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate): Grace Lin (Where the Mountain Meets the Moon); and Rodman Philbrick (The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg); and to Caldecott Honor recipients Marla Frazee (All the World) and Pamela Zagarenski (Red Sings from Treetops).

It was a wonderful night for listening to inspiring authors, and for spotting many others in the audience (Libba Bray, John Green, Linda Sue Park, Brian Selznick and Jon Scieska, to name but a few). I'm already looking forward to next year's banquet in New Orleans!

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