by Anita Silvey
With this editorial I do not mean to cast aspersion on this year’s Caldecott choice or on any particular choice of the Caldecott Committee over the past dozen years but to talk about a trend in the selection process. Since I worked with and supported Chris Van Allsburg during the beginning of his career in children’s books, I am obviously not writing about him. What disturbs me is an emerging sensibility about what constitutes “the most distinguished American picture book for children.”
Barbara Bader — in the Newbery-Caldecott volume to be published by Horn Book this fall — raises some important questions about the past ten years of the Caldecott Medal. Does, she asks, “the term ‘distinguished’ inherently skew the award, toward ostensible importance and outward appearance? In honoring the artist’s work alone, is too little notice taken of the book as a whole?… Technique and facility may be too easily confused with art.” In speaking about the books in general, she states, “The danger for illustration is the substitution of a manner for a thought-and-felt response, and the production of work that calls attention to itself at the expense of the subject-matter.”
In this centennial year of Randolph Caldecott’s death, it might be beneficial to look at the attributes of the illustrator whose name adorns the Caldecott Medal. Maurice Sendak in his beautiful appreciation in The Randolph Caldecott Treasury (Warne) states, “There is in Caldecott a juxtaposition of picture and word, a counterpoint that never happened before. Words are left out — but the picture says it. Pictures are left out — but the word says it…. The word quicken, I think, best suggests the genuine spirit of Caldecott’s animation, the breathing of life, the surging swing into action.” He goes on to mention the Caldecott hallmarks: characters who leap across the pages, his sense of dance, music, and theater. We do not laud and praise the father of the picture book for his technique, his facility, his art — but rather for his sense of liveliness, exuberance, movement, and economy. His works are not to be framed and enjoyed in museums; they are an integral part of a book and work in close conjunction with the text. Caldecott did not illustrate material merely to display his artistic ability; he illustrated material because it would make a lively text for a book — most important, for a picture book.
For almost fifty years now, the American Library Association has honored Caldecott with an award that bears his name. Some of the choices — Where the Wild Things Are (Harper), Make Way for Ducklings (Viking), Sylvester and the Magic Pebble (Windmill), and The Little House (Houghton) — without a doubt mirror Caldecott’s vision of picture books and illustration. But I cannot help feeling that lately the award has gone, as Barbara Bader states, to those books which stress a completely different conception of a picture book. High art, high glass, decoration, emotionless embellishment seem to be the most recent standards for what we are calling distinguished. If the award were called the Madison Avenue Medal, the trend would not be so painful. Possibly we need to rename it. Possibly we need to rethink the criteria — because I do not honestly believe that in 1986 Randolph Caldecott could win the award named after him.
From the July/August 1986 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.