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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Children's book illustrators may not have gotten a lot of sleep last night because they know that one of the grand prizes of children's literature, the Caldecott Award, will be announced this morning at the annual meeting of the American Library Association. NPR's Lynn Neary reports this year is the 75th anniversary of the Caldecott Medal, which is given to the most distinguished children's picture book of the year.

LYNN NEARY: Picture books are a brilliant way to connect with children, even before they're able to speak. They continue to feed the imagination as a child grows older. And for those who are on the cusp of reading...

RITA AUERBACH: They give children a sense of pictorial possibility, a way to imagine words that they might not imagine on their own.

NEARY: Rita Auerbach is a retired children's librarian who was chair of the 2010 Caldecott Award committee. Over its 75 years, the Caldecott Medal has been given to a long list of children's books, from "Make Way for Ducklings" and "Madeline's Rescue," to "Where the Wild Things Are" and "The Invention of Hugo Cabret." Auerbach says winning the Caldecott is a very big deal for the creators of these books.

AUERBACH: It's a little like winning the Nobel Prize, in that forever afterward you are Caldecott-winning illustrator. That phrase accompanies your name wherever your name appears, and that's a quite wonderful thing.

NEARY: As important as the honorific may be, the Caldecott has another advantage. It has a big impact on sales, more so than most literary awards. Chris Van Allsburg remembers the first time he really thought he had a chance at winning, with "Jumanji."

CHRIS VAN ALLSBURG: I always believe that you can curse your possible good fortune by anticipating it. So a much better mindset is to tell yourself you couldn't possibly get it, but on some level believe that it might still happen. So that's a hard place to get to mentally, but I'm capable of doing it.

NEARY: Van Allsburg won a second Caldecott for "The Polar Express," which has become a beloved children's classic, especially popular around Christmas.

ALLSBURG: Years ago, I signed it for parents giving it to their children, and their children have subsequently become parents themselves. So now I am signing it for, you know, that generation. So that's a terrific feeling.

NEARY: Kevin Henkes has created a series of books about whimsical little kids who just happen to be mice: "Chrysanthemum," "Sheila Ray the Brave" and perhaps most famously, Lily, of "Lily's Purple Plastic Purse." So it was somewhat ironic that he won his Caldecott for "Kitten's First Full Moon," a book about the natural enemy of mice.

KEVIN HENKES: It is funny. I think, you know, bulk of my work, the thing I am most well-known for are the mouse books. But I'll take it.

NEARY: Like Van Allsburg, Henkes writes as well as illustrates his books. He says he loves the way words and pictures can play against one another.

HENKES: When it's done right, it can be so beautiful. And I think when it's done right and you see those words and those pictures together, those particular words and those particular pictures, once you see them, you can't separate them anymore because they really become one.

NEARY: Both Henkes and Van Allsburg say they're happy their books have helped young children learn to read. Van Allsburg, who started as a sculptor, says he never expected to get fan mail from teachers.

ALLSBURG: They say, you know, Mr. Van Allsburg, your books have a kind of challenge and a puzzle and a mystery to them that seem to stimulate the desire for the kids to read, and they've been enormously helpful in getting kids who are reluctant readers to become enthusiastic readers. I think that's just naturally what will happen if you've got a great story and it's got some great pictures along with it.

NEARY: And there's a good chance that kids will be learning to read with those Caldecott Award-winning books for many years to come. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.

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