NEW YORK – Oh, the horror: Neil Gaiman has received the top prize for children's literature: The John Newbery Medal.
"I am so wonderfully befuddled," the best-selling author said Monday after winning the 88th annual Newbery for "The Graveyard Book," a spooky, but (he says) family friendly story about a boy raised by a vampire, a werewolf and a witch.
"I never really thought of myself as a Newbery winner. It's such a very establishment kind of award, in the right kind of way, with the world of librarians pointing at the book saying, `This is worthy of the ages.' And I'm so very used to working in, and enjoying working in, essentially the gutter."
Also Monday, the Randolph Caldecott Medal, given to the illustrator of the best picture book, went to Beth Krommes for "The House in the Night," written by Susan Marie Swanson. The Coretta Scott King Award for best author was given to Kadir Nelson, for "We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball." The illustrator award went to Floyd Cooper for "The Blacker the Berry." The King prizes were founded 40 years ago to honor the works of black Americans.
The Newbery and other awards were announced by the American Library Association, currently meeting in Denver.
Other winners included Melina Marchetta's "Jellicoe Road," given the Michael L. Printz Award for young adult literature, and two Pura Belpre awards for Latino writing — best author to Margarita Engle's "The Surrender Tree" and best illustrator to Yuyi Morales for "Just in Case."
Gaiman, known for his "Sandman" comic-book series, had worked on the "Graveyard Book" off and on for more than 20 years, an understandable delay for the author of more than 20 books and the winner of prizes for science fiction, fantasy and horror.
Newbery winners have included such favorites as Louis Sachar's "Holes" and Kate DiCamillo's "The Tale of Despereaux." But medal judges have also been criticized for picking books either too difficult (last year's "Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices From a Medieval Village," by Laura Amy Schlitz) or too disturbing (Susan Patron's "The Higher Power of Lucky").
"School librarians say they simply don't have enough money to spend on books that kids won't find interesting — and in their opinion, that category includes most of this century's Newbery winners," the School Library Journal reported last fall. "Book aficionados frequently used the words `odd,' `unusual' or `unconventional' to describe the latest Newbery winners."
Gaiman is a beloved writer for adults and children, but "The Graveyard Book" isn't the coziest read, at least at the beginning, with its image of a knife so sharp that "if it sliced you, you might not even know you had been cut, not immediately."
He says "The Graveyard Book" was inspired in part by "The Jungle Book," Rudyard Kipling's classic about a boy raised by animals. Gaiman's book opens with a baby boy escaping an assassin who is massacred by his parents and older sister. The boy totters to a decrepit cemetery, where he's adopted by ghosts, christened Nobody Owens (Bod for short) and given the Freedom of the Graveyard.
On Gaiman's blog, he writes that "The Graveyard Book" is not a children's book. It's "a book for pretty much for all ages, although I'm not sure how far down that actually starts. I think I would have loved it when I was eight, but I don't think that all eight-year olds were like me."
On Monday, Gaiman said he has been following the debate about the Newbery, never imagining he would become part of it. Beloved by readers and book-sellers, he is certainly far more popular than the past few Newbery winners, and he doesn't think his novel, beyond a little death and darkness, is upsetting.
"Apart from the first few pages, it doesn't exist to frighten people or trouble people," he said. "I've written my share of disturbing stuff, but this book is really a way of trying to think about the process of growing up, and, of course, the fundamentally joyous tragedy of being a parent, that if you do your job properly, your kids will grow up and leave you."
Gaiman, 48, has three children. Two have grown and moved away.