The Caldecott Committee – A View from the Inside

By Gwen Vanderhage, MLIS

Me?  On the Caldecott Committee?! What a dream come true! Throughout 2018, I had the honor of serving on the American Library Association’s Caldecott Medal selection committee. While teachers, librarians, aunts, and the pharmacist all have said to me, “I always wanted to do that!” few know very much about the nuts and bolts of how the Caldecott Committee chooses a winner.

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Hello Lighthouse, illustrated and written by Sophie Blackall

Let’s start at the beginning. The Caldecott Award honors the illustrator of the most distinguished American picture book for children of any given year. The winner of the 2019 Caldecott Medal is Hello Lighthouse, which Sophie Blackall both wrote and illustrated. That’s a quick summary of a year-long effort, but there’s much more to tell. What follows is an insider’s perspective on the experience, which for me was nothing short of transformative.

Serving on one of the ALA’s book award committees is usually a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, if even that. “What is it like?” People ask. “I’ll bet you get a lot of books!” To start, yes, I did get a lot of books. By the fall, the busiest time in the publishing year, my doorbell was ringing every single day with deliveries of picture books. The publishers send out what they want the committee to see, which this year was close to 1,000 picture books. It is also up to committee members to be aware of other picture books that are receiving positive reviews, word of mouth recommendations, or books that may not have been sent out by publishers, and then track those down and look at them, too. It is a LOT of books!

How does the committee read and evaluate the books? What are we looking for? Page 12 of the Caldecott Manual (available in its entirety here), lists many criteria and definitions. I don’t have room today for all of those, but will say the illustrator must be an American citizen or resident of the United States and the book must be published by an American publisher. The following are the major criteria, as cited by the manual:

In identifying a “distinguished American picture book for children,” defined as illustration, committee members need to consider:

  • Excellence of execution in the artistic technique employed;
  • Excellence of pictorial interpretation of story, theme, or concept;
  • Appropriateness of style of illustration to the story, theme or concept;
  • Delineation of plot, theme, characters, setting, mood or information through the pictures;
  • Excellence of presentation in recognition of a child audience.

With these criteria in mind, the 15 committee members carefully read, re-read, and take notes on the books. During the year, members send around suggestions of titles to examine more closely. The formal suggestion process helps build support for stronger titles and helps members identify strengths and weaknesses in books they liked or did not appreciate as much.

Figuring out how to identify strengths and weakness and articulate them early on is one of the most valuable parts of being part of this kind of group. As readers, we are practiced at talking about language and storytelling.  Learning artistic terms and techniques and expressing how art works in storytelling was a new, challenging skill to develop.  Saying “I like the colors” isn’t enough. Why? How do the colors assist in conveying emotion or telling the story? “I don’t like this style.” Why? What about it is weak to me? To build a strong case for a book I loved, I needed to be able to articulate the way the art affects the reading experience.

In the fall, each committee member nominates seven titles total: three titles in October, two in November, and two titles in December for the ALA Midwinter conference meeting, where these books are discussed and voted upon until a winner emerges. Out in Libraryland this year, people have been asking the question, “Why don’t the Newbery and Caldecott committees release a short list of considered titles, the way the National Book Award or some YALSA prizes do?” While there are a variety of answers to this complicated question, one is because the current process allows each of the 15 committee members to nominate seven books. While some titles could receive multiple nominations from within the committee, it is also possible there could be no crossover and 105 titles could, theoretically, be nominated. That is not a short list!

When I arrived at the Midwinter conference in Seattle, I came ready to discuss, celebrate, defend, and have an open mind about all the titles committee members deemed distinguished this year. There were so many wonderful books! My favorite part of discussion is the moment when someone else’s argument for a book completely wins me over when it had not been one I appreciated before. That is why 15 different people, voices, experiences, and viewpoints come together to evaluate great books, and why we sometimes come to surprising conclusions. Working with this group created a new family; one that has had disagreements, shared appreciation and emotion, and has come together with mutual respect. One of my committee members lamented, “If only every problem in the world could be tackled by sitting down for two solid days of respectful and open communication!”

The committee has the freedom to choose as few or many honor books as it pleases; the criteria for that are not set in stone, though the process is outlined in the manual. Our committee chose four honor books, shown below.

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Alma and How She Got Her Name, illustrated and written by Juana Martinez-Neal

A Big Mooncake

A Big Mooncake for Little Star, illustrated and written by Grace Lin

Rough Patch2

The Rough Patch, illustrated and written by Brian Lies

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Thank you, Omu!, illustrated and written by Oge Mora

The actual discussion details are completely confidential. That is a really hard thing. Of course I, and the other members, would love to tell you all about how we chose our winner and four honor books. We would love to tell you about the books we loved that did not make that list, or the books you loved and whether we discussed them. But we can’t. As individuals, we are now allowed to say, “Oh! I love that book!” about any book we please, as long as we don’t discuss the committee process. Just like me, you are free to continue to champion your favorite books to the readers you see every day. That is the wonderful thing about books, Caldecott medal or no.

lighthouse hatsFinally, “What do you do on announcement day?” Our committee met at 5:50 a.m., to call the winners. We gathered as a big group in a tiny cubicle around one speakerphone. We called Sophie Blackall, traveling in Burma; Juana Martinez Neal, traveling in the Amazon; Grace Lin and Oge Mora, at home; and Brian Lies, who was at the gym and did not get the call. While we would have loved to talk to Brian, reading about his reaction to his surprise honor when he saw it on the live stream with the rest of the world makes for a pretty good story. Then we all trooped together to the announcement ceremony and cheered on the other ALA Youth Media award winners and applauded our wonderful books. One of our members made very silly lighthouse hats, which we wore with glee.

This year, following my service on the Caldecott committee, I will likely scour the internet for fun interviews with the illustrators who have become my favorites. I will look forward to meeting them at the ALA Annual conference, where the medals are given out at a big banquet. I will read fewer, and longer, books. I will be looking back this year, and every year, on this amazing experience and the things I learned from the books I read and the committee members who changed my viewpoint. What a gift!

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Gwen

After spending many years as a children’s librarian and collection development specialist at Denver Public Library, Gwen joined Brodart to share her passion for children’s literature with as many different libraries as possible. Click here for more.

 

Shreddings of the Heart: Who Was V. C. Andrews?

By Paul Duckworth, MLS

As a young, impressionable librarian, recently graduated with my MLS degree, I went to work in a public library in a medium-sized Midwestern city, where I did the usual reference tasks common in the 1970s. I was fascinated by the rich variety of interests and passions that motivated patrons to not only visit the library but actually come to the desk and ask for help (how often does that happen these days?). Among the subjects and authors that people were looking for, two names often popped up in requests: “Where’s Barbara Cartland?” and “Why aren’t there any V. C. Andrews books on the shelf?”

I gracefully step aside from discussion of Cartland’s bodice rippers and ask you to focus your attention on today’s topic: shreddings of the heart, which is what Andrews penned. Stir together themes of vulnerable children tormented by neglect, rape, incest, greed, death, or betrayal by a family member, sprinkle in ghastly gothic overtones, skillfully fold in some personal tragedy, and top it all off with the workings of a vivid imagination, and it is no wonder that readers of V. C. Andrews’ five-book Dollanganger series identified with the characters and felt as if their hearts had been ripped apart with each new installment.

V._C._Andrews Source Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

Who was this V. C. Andrews who attracted so much interest from readers, especially teenage girls? And whatever became of her? Yes, I know — in simple terms, she died. “What!?” you say, “Dead? But she has a new book coming out this month!” Indeed. That’s part of the story. There is much more to tell, both before and after her passing.

Cleo Virginia Andrews was born on June 6, 1923 to William and Lillian Andrews of Portsmouth, Virginia. After high school, she enrolled in art correspondence courses and then began a successful career as a commercial artist and fashion illustrator. All the while, she felt completely compelled to write, and did so every night after work, at home, where she continued to live with her mother, Lillian, for Cleo’s entire life (for Lillian outlived her).

Silent Pain

Unbeknownst to most people, Virginia was crippled and confined to a wheelchair much of her adult life. Two conflicting stories exist about the cause of her condition. One claims she fell down the stairs at school, which caused back injuries. The other, vouched by relatives, says she suffered from severe rheumatoid arthritis. Family members describe her as being in a full-body cast for a time, and having little or no neck movement. Her editor, Ann Patty, said, “Her spine was fused – it didn’t move. From her butt bone to her head, the spine did not move.” Her cousin describes Andrews as standing up at a high desk and typing out her first few novels. Whatever the cause, Andrews lived her life in great, unremitting pain. She suffered in silence, but the pain poured out through pen and paper. Fans of her fiction can be thankful that her hands and mind did not object to constant use.

Andrews was bored by her artistic daytime job. All her imagination and energy went into writing. Several stories and novels were rejected. Then, a magic moment: her pitch letter to a literary agent resulted in Flowers in The Attic being bought by Pocket Books with a $7,500 advance. Two weeks after its 1979 paperback publication, it was on the bestseller list. And the rest, as they say, is history.

So how did Cleo Virginia Andrews become V. C.? As one story goes, a printer at Pocket Books reversed her name on the cover and shortened it to initials. Another explanation is that the publisher wanted readers to wonder if the author was a man or a woman. Just think—we could be talking about the famous Cleo Virginia Andrews today! A happy accident, or publisher’s strategy, indeed.

Fame and Inspiration

When fame (and fortune) landed in her lap, Andrews avoided publicity. She was quite private and gave few interviews. Indeed, her physical condition was not well known. She kept her focus, day and night, on writing, never caring about health or other matters. According to a relative, Joan Andrews, “She knew she had a lump on her breast, but would not take care of the situation until she finished the current novel she was working on and also the sequel. By then the cancer had begun to spread.” She died of breast cancer on December 19, 1986, just seven years after Flowers’ first publication and is buried in Olive Branch Cemetery, Portsmouth, Virginia. In a rare interview with Contemporary Authors, she said, “There is no beauty without ugliness, and no enjoyment without suffering; we have to have the shade in order to see the light, and that is all I do in a story, put my characters in the shade–and try before the ending, to have them in the sunlight…. My novels are based on dreams, and situations taken from my own life, in which I change the pattern so that what might have happened actually does happen–and therein lies the tale.”

Andrew Neiderman

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Source: IMDB

V.C.’s two brothers and her mother took charge of her estate, and along with their publisher, secretly selected an author to continue the ideas and storylines of her books. It seems that a tax case in the early 1990s between the estate and the IRS resulted in the ghostwriter’s name being publicly revealed. Andrew Neiderman has been the voice of V.C. Andrews’ many bestsellers since finishing up her fifth book, Garden of Shadows. His story is fascinating in itself. He was hired by the estate, never met V.C. Andrews, and is a popular fiction writer in his own right, with several novels published. When he began writing as V.C. Andrews, he used two different computers, one for his own work, and one for Andrews’. He has done quite well in imitating her voice, types of characters, and nuances. Contemporary readers maintain the popularity of her novels, with no end in sight. Many seem not to know that Andrews has been gone for more than 30 years.

Continuing a Legacy

Neiderman recently signed another contract with Simon & Schuster for an additional four V.C. Andrews titles, after already having done about twenty. Silhouette Girl was just released on January 2. Beneath the Attic, a prequel to Flowers in the Attic, comes out at the end of August, 2019. For those with a fondness for statistics, her 75+ novels have sold more than 100 million copies in 95 countries and have been translated into 25 languages. Not bad, eh?

 

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Paul

Nothing brings a smile to Paul Duckworth’s face quite like a good book, a long walk, and the unmatched beauty of country life. Click here for more.