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Flashback: Susan Patron's Newbery winner, pre-controversy

December 13, 2009 |  8:38 am

Susan Patron

In today's paper, our pages focus on books for children and young adults. Susan Patron, the author of "The Higher Power of Lucky," has some suggestions on how to pick books for young readers: Mix classics with those hot-topic books like the "Twilight" series.

Patron spent more than 35 years working in children's services at the L.A. Public Library, so she knows her stuff. She also knows how worked-up people can get about what their children read: After her book won the Newbery Award, some school librarians objected to its use of the word "scrotum." In this 2007 L.A. Times editorial, which ran before the controversy broke, we see a snapshot of a writer who'd been at work for a long time, and was just about to get more attention than she'd bargained for.

Hollywood's latest celebrity shrinks from the limelight. Susan Patron has spent her career in one of the least glamorous places in Los Angeles: the public library.

Patron, who won the Newbery Medal for children's literature last month, has worked for the Los Angeles Public Library for about 35 years. Her office is in the gorgeous Central Library downtown, though she travels frequently to the branches, helping librarians select books and organize events for children. She also tried her hand at creating children's literature, but after publishing a few books in the early 1990s, she produced nothing for more than a decade.

Then came last year. After years of weekends and vacations spent writing and rewriting, she was finally able to make a story work on the page for the characters she had in mind: three idiosyncratic kids in a washed-out desert town. The book received a modest initial printing of 10,000 copies.

Last month, "The Higher Power of Lucky" won the Newbery Medal, considered the Pulitzer of children's literature. Patron was called to appear on the "Today" show, and "Lucky" -- on back-order lists at bookstores all over the country -- is going through a second printing of 100,000 copies.

But Patron is back at work at the library. Though born and reared in Hollywood, where she still lives, she never absorbed a desire for public attention. Part of her job is to set up "Meet the Author" sessions where children can meet professional writers. She resists any suggestion that she should set up a session with herself.

Patron's book is as atypical as her modesty. Lucky, its main character, is a 10-year-old girl who eavesdrops on 12-step meetings and whose mother has been accidentally electrocuted by a downed power line. Here is its second paragraph:

"Sammy told of the day when he had drunk half a gallon of rum listening to Johnny Cash all morning in his parked '62 Cadillac, then fallen out of the car when he saw a rattlesnake on the passenger seat biting his dog, Roy, on the scrotum."

From decades of living and working among children, Patron knows that, like Lucky, kids often face terrible losses and fears. They hear and try to make sense of more than protective adults prefer to imagine. And they don't like being talked down to. Thanks to the Newbery Medal, which keeps a children's book on shelves (and well read) for decades, it will be easier for kids to find a story -- and storyteller -- they can relate to.

On Sundays, Jacket Copy often delves into our archives to find interesting ways that the L.A. Times once looked at writers and books that have returned to our pages.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Susan Patron with her Newbery Award-winning book, "The Higher Power of Lucky." Credit: Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times