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.
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.
Alma and How She Got Her Name, illustrated and written by Juana Martinez-Neal
A Big Mooncake for Little Star, illustrated and written by Grace Lin
The Rough Patch, illustrated and written by Brian Lies
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.
Finally, “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!
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.