SAN DIEGO -- The story of a small mouse in love with a princess has won the top honor in children's literature from the American Library Association.
Kate DiCamillo received the 2004 Newbery Medal Monday for the year's best writing for "The Tale of Despereaux."
The Caldecott prize, given for the best illustration, was also announced Monday. It went to Mordicai Gerstein for "The Man Who Walked Between the Towers," the story of a young Frenchman who in 1974 walked on a tightrope between the World Trade Center twin towers.
DiCamillo, 39, wrote her third book after her best friend's 8-year-old son asked for a story about "an unlikely hero with exceptionally large ears," according to a note from the publisher, Candlewick Press.
"It's set in a fairy tale time but it embodies all the universal truths that children need to understand - love, friendship, forgiveness, courage, redemption, perseverance," said Cynthia Richey, president of the Association of Library Service to Children, a division of the ALA.
DiCamillo's "Because of Winn-Dixie" was named a Newbery Honor Book in 2001, Despite that honorable mention, the Philadelphia native said she wasn't expecting the top prize this year.
"I haven't been making a lot of sense today," she said in an interview from Minneapolis, her home for the last 10 years.
Gerstein, 68, said the destruction of the Twin Towers more than two years ago in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks reminded him of Phillipe Petit's tightrope walk across the buildings in 1974.
"When the Towers went down I remembered it, then sat down and wrote," he said from his home in Northampton, Mass. Petit's act, he said, "defies reason, it defies gravity. it defies the law. It's an act of unbelievable courage, skill, art, optimism and just freedom."
Gerstein, a Los Angeles native who spent a career animating television films, was at work in his studio when he received the news.
"At first I didn't believe it but I'm starting to believe it," he said. "It's really the big one. I think anybody who makes picture books, this is what they kind of dream they might get someday."
Gerstein's book is published by Roaring Brook Press, a division of Middlebrook Press.
Ursula K. Le Guin, whose many books include "The Left Hand of Darkness" and "The Beginning Place," received a lifetime achievement prize.
Other winners included author Angela Johnson ("The First Past Last") and illustrator Ashley Bryan ("Beautiful Blackbird"), recipients of the Coretta Scott King prizes for the best African American children's writer and children's illustrator.
Illustrator Yuyi Morales ("Just a Minute") and author Julia Alvarez ("Before We Were Free") were the respective winners of Pura Belpre award for the best Latino illustrator and best Latino writer. Alvarez is widely known among adult readers for the novel "How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents."
The ALA is holding its winter meeting in San Diego.