As a child I mean the nerdy hyper-alert kind who spent long hours in the library getting willfully lost in words I never could get straight the difference between the Newbery and the Caldecott medals. Turns out that the former is handed out by the American Library Association to distinguished works of children's literature and the latter is for the artwork. But you don't have to remind author Shannon Hale of the difference. Her young adult novel The Princess Academy (Bloomsbury) was the recipient of a 2006 Newbery honor not quite a medal, but something special nonetheless.
The impact of the honor shouldn't be undersold. Hale is still blown away by it.
"It's a dream," Hale says. "It's weird, I don't feel like I earned it myself. It's this gift somebody gave me. For my career it really means I'll be able to go on writing. For the rest of my life I'll be a Newbery honor winner."
The accolade comes as an official blessing of what was already one of the most promising careers in the lucrative and highly competitive realm of young adult fantasy, where juggernauts like Harry Potter and Eragon rack up huge sales. It's a field Hale is quite happy to be playing in, and one she's been drawn to since she started writing as a little girl. As she explains it, "I've always loved fairy tales and loved fantasy. I remember as a young reader, I always would get bored with books that were like 'Amy moves to a new town.' I would have preferred 'Amy can move objects with her mind.' That was just much more interesting to me."
In a Hale book, you won't find giant monsters or magic wands or ancient evils lurking in a dusky dungeon, but you will find all sorts of magic on a smaller scale, a twilight world just on the cusp of conscious understanding.
The author explains that her stories exist in a place "like our world, just one step to the side, where just a little bit more is possible." The magic in her stories is less clinical, more innate and subtle an organic expression of the mysteries of the natural world that's softer and more feminine than the common hack-and-slash hysteria of the genre. This is evident in her debut novel The Goose Girl (2003); a reworking of a Grimm's fairy tale, where the heroine learns to speak with animals, partly because she has a gift for it, but mostly because she takes the time to listen to them.
Her books are lushly written and perceptive, and her characters have rich emotional lives not always found in children's literature. Because of this, Hale connects with readers of all ages.
"The greatest picture book writers I know are 6 or 7 on the inside, and they really are just writing to their internal reader," she says. "That's why they're successful. It's certainly how I work."
Inspiration seems to be a rushing river at the moment Hale is terribly prolific, producing at least a book a year, and currently she faces the greatest challenge of all: co- writing a graphic novel with her husband.
"It's been an interesting exercise, working with your spouse. We've done remarkably well together. I think this would have been the big test of our marriage."
While some fantasy writers seem content to create a fictional kingdom and never stray from it, Hale is more adventurous, and she's working far out of her wheelhouse, a nonfantasy adult-themed book, which she says is coming together surprisingly quickly. "Writing contemporary and writing realistic is so much easier; I don't know if I just like the harder path, but the possibilities of fantasy are just so intriguing."
Hale will be available for a meet-and-greet and discussion 7-8:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 4, at the Oak Park Library, 14200 Oak Park Blvd., Oak Park; 248-691-7480.Corey Hall is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]