To understand the significance of the John Newbery Medal, the most prestigious award in children's literature, consider some books that didn't win:
E.B. White's "Charlotte's Web" was a runner-up but not a medalist in 1953.
Five books from Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House on the Prairie" series were Newbery Honor books but didn't capture the top prize.
Gary Paulsen, Carl Hiaasen, Tomie dePaola, William Steig — all talented, popular children's writers. None of them are Newbery Medalists.
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Clare Vanderpool is.
Vanderpool, a Wichita mom who lives in the same College Hill neighborhood where she used to ride her bike to the pool and still has dinner with her parents every Sunday, can't believe it.
"Surreal," she said of the prize for her debut novel, "Moon Over Manifest," and of her plunge into the spotlight since it won the Newbery Medal last month.
"I truly never dreamed this would happen."
Others saw it coming.
"Rarely do you come across a new writer who is as gifted as Clare," said Dian Curtis Regan, a Wichita author who has published more than 50 books for children.
The women are part of a small group of children's writers who meet regularly to share and critique one another's work.
"I knew Clare was going to make her mark in children's books," Regan said. "I just didn't know she was going to start off with such a bang."
"Moon Over Manifest" is the story of 12-year-old Abilene Tucker who, after a Depression-era childhood spent riding the rails with her father, is sent to stay the summer in the fictional Kansas town of Manifest. The novel is part history, part mystery, part Midwestern yarn strung together with narrative, newspaper columns and letters from a soldier fighting in World War I.
"It definitely reads like something my mom would write," said 16-year-old Luke Vanderpool, the eldest of Clare and Mark Vanderpool's four children. "She's nostalgic like that."
Clare Vanderpool said the idea for the book started with a quote from Herman Melville's "Moby Dick" —"It is not down in any map; true places never are."
She decided to explore the idea of home and place, beginning with her maternal grandparents' town of Frontenac, Kan. She scoured newspapers, yearbooks and graveyards and remembered childhood stories. She used it all to create Manifest and its cast of characters.
"I've always loved Southern fiction," she said. "There's a richness and color to those works that I kind of envy.
"But we're here on the Plains, and it's plain," she said. "So I wanted to somehow include both those things — this setting, but with rich voices and a good story."
Vanderpool jokes that she started writing the book nearly a decade ago because she "obviously had too much time on my hands." Luke was 7; her youngest, Lucy, had just turned 1.
Years before, she had quit her job as director of youth ministries for the Wichita Catholic Diocese to stay home and care for the children. Her husband, Mark, is an engineer at Cessna.
"I guess I wrote when most moms manage to get things done — naptimes, when the kids are at school," she said.
Ever since she was a child — born Clare Sander in November 1964 — reading has been her escape, she says. She recalls taking books into dressing rooms, math class, the church confessional.
Every summer her family spent three weeks exploring the country, towing a 17-foot Holiday Rambler behind their car. During one trip to Maine and Prince Edward Island, Vanderpool's most vivid memory was her mother reading "Anne of Green Gables" aloud to the children, chapter by glorious chapter.
"Those things just became a part of me," she said.
She attended Blessed Sacrament Catholic School and Wichita Collegiate School, where she honed her passion for writing and storytelling. She graduated from Kansas Newman in 1987 with a degrees in English and elementary education.
She never taught full time, but leads a summer writing camp for children at Blessed Sacrament. There, she tells kids that to be good writers they need to read, play and pay attention.
After a handful of rejections from agents and publishers — and a first book titled "My Grandmother Was a Spy" that never saw print — Vanderpool found a taker for "Moon Over Manifest." It was published last fall by Delacorte Press, a division of Random House.
As she waited for the first copies to arrive, Vanderpool visited schools to talk about writing and read portions of her book aloud. During one such visit, a friend's fourth-grade son raised his hand.
"When you become a famous author," he said, "will you sign a book for me?"
"Absolutely," she said. "I'd love to do that for you."
"Great," the boy said. "Could you make it the fourth Lemony Snicket?"
Life is like that, Vanderpool jokes. Those familiar with the Newbery Medal tell her she's famous now, that her book will never go out of print, that she'll be listed alongside such renowned authors as Madeleine L'Engle, Lois Lowry and Beverly Cleary. Others prefer "The Miserable Mill."
Deb Seely, who met Vanderpool at a workshop for writers at Newman, said her friend's big win has reinspired local children's authors.
"More than anything, we're just so happy for Clare," Seely said.
"She's funny and observant and incredibly disciplined and able to really get into a child's mind, and she puts all that into her writing," she said. "I'm glad she's getting the attention she deserves."