The story of a little boy named Nobody Owens who lives in a graveyard and is raised by ghosts has won children's literature's most prestigious award. "The Graveyard Book," by Twin Cities author Neil Gaiman, was awarded the 2009 Newbery medal Monday.

Gaiman, who has lived in the metro area for years, was on his way to New York City for an appearance on the "Today" show this morning and could not be reached for comment. But he blogged about the award, writing that he was asleep in a Los Angeles hotel when the phone call came at 5:30 a.m.

"You are on a speakerphone with at least 14 teachers and librarians and suchlike great, wise and good people," all offering congratulations, he wrote. Gaiman said he told himself: "Do not start swearing like you did when you got the Hugo [Award]. ...

"I might have imagined all of this, or they may have to do a sudden recount or something. But I think it probably happened. I mean, it's now 7:20 a.m. and I'm drinking tea and blinking happily at the world."

Meanwhile, two Minnesotans had a hand in the winner of the Caldecott medal for picture books, also announced Monday in Denver. The prize went to Beth Krommes, a New Hampshire illustrator of "The House in the Night," which was written by St. Paul author Susan Marie Swanson and edited by Ann Rider of Lutsen, Minn.

"Beth called me to tell me," Swanson said. "We chatted and cried."

Gaiman, 48, is originally from Great Britain and has lived in the Twin Cities area for 16 years. He is known around the world for his prolific output, his great imagination and his wide range of works -- many, but not all, in the realm of science fiction and fantasy. (He is a three-time winner of the Hugo, that genre's top award.) He first made his mark writing the comic book series "The Sandman," but he also has written novels, screenplays and children's books, and directed movies.

"Coraline," an animated film based on his Hugo-winning novella, is scheduled to open nationwide Feb. 6.

His most recent novel, "Anansi Boys," debuted at No. 1 on the New York Times best-sellers list in 2005. Two years ago, he adapted the British saga "Beowulf" for the big screen.

Opens with a murder

"The Graveyard Book" starts out scary, right from the very first line: "There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife."

There are murders right away, though only hinted at, not graphically described. And when the murderer goes looking for his last victim -- a baby -- the baby is missing.

"The man Jack sniffed the air. ... He could smell the child: a milky smell, like chocolate chip cookies, and the sour tang of a wet, disposable, nighttime diaper. He could smell the baby shampoo in its hair, and something small and rubbery -- a toy, he thought, and then, no, something to suck -- that the child had been carrying."

Gaiman wrote about the book last February on his blog. "I think 'The Graveyard Book' is a book for pretty much all ages, although I'm not sure how far down that actually starts. I think I would have loved it when I was eight, but I don't think that all eight-year olds were like me. ...

"There's no sex in it and no swearing. There is some really scary stuff in there, and a few of the people (all adults) who have read it have written to tell me they cried in the last chapter."

The book spent 15 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list. Last fall, Gaiman went on a nine-city tour, reading aloud one chapter from the book at each stop. His appearances were filmed and can be watched online at

Gaiman lives in western Wisconsin; he is the third writer from the Twin Cities area to win the Newbery, which is bestowed by the American Library Association. The first was Carol Ryrie Brink, an Idaho native who was living in St. Paul in 1936 when she won for "Caddie Woodlawn." The second was Kate DiCamillo, who won the award in 2004 for her third book, "The Tale of Despereaux."

The Newbery and the Caldecott will be presented in Chicago in July.

Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune books editor. She is at 612-673-7302.