Despite the chill of a February night, Dennos Museum Center in Traverse City fills up quickly. Local libraries and other sponsors are serving up punch and goodies at a reception to honor Leelanau County author Lynne Rae Perkins and her 2006 John Newbery Medal for children’s literature — that shimmery gold seal on the cover of great kids books, essentially the Academy Award of the genre.
Although there hasn’t been much time to publicize the event, well-wishers show up by the dozens: neighbors and friends from Leelanau County, parents of her children’s friends, members of her church, a woman who once sold her some wallpaper border, lots of librarians. Perkins, dressed in black slacks and sweater, her straight, red hair held back by leopard-print reading glasses, begins the evening greeting guests. Then, as book-clutching fans form a tentative line, she brings out her pen to sign one copy after another of Criss Cross, the winning title, and her previous books.
Later, when it’s time for a short program, she learns that the portable loud speaker isn’t working, and Perkins bows out of reading. She’ll just keep talking to people individually, she says, because "I’m having so much fun doing that." Looking into the crowd of nearly 200 people, she grins broadly.
"In the 18 years I’ve lived here, I’ve been successful at being anonymous," she laughs. "That seems to be changing."
At age 49, Perkins, who has an MFA in printmaking and spent the majority of her career as a visual artist, is suddenly a literary luminary and best-selling author. Within hours of learning that she’d won the Newbery, Perkins was whisked to New York for an appearance on the Today Show. About 50 interviews followed, including one on National Public Radio’s Talk of the Nation, where host Neal Conan asked what she planned to do when the royalties rolled in.
"I’m going to buy a new watch," Perkins responded.
Yes, she can buy a watch, all right. Criss Cross, the story of 14-year-old Debbie’s adolescent awakening, will stay in print indefinitely. Every library in the country will purchase at least one copy, explains Virginia Duncan, Perkins’s editor and a vice president and publisher at Greenwillow Books. Schools will buy the books, too, as will grandparents and parents, who use the Newbery list as a buyer’s guide. Perkins’s first novel, All Alone in the Universe, and her picture books for younger children — including two that Greenwillow is rushing back into print — will no doubt ride the wave.