On Friday, June 27, I attended the ALSC preconference, “A Wild Ride: 75 Years of the Caldecott Medal,” which took place at the Art Institute of Chicago and was organized by co-chairs K. T. Horning and Diane Bailey Foote and their planning committee. It was an amazing day, a day that started promptly at 8:15 am and concluded after 4 pm — and yet, far from being exhausting, it was energizing and invigorating.
Caldecott winner (for The Invention of Hugo Cabret) Brian Selznick gave the keynote address. Note: don’t call him Brian O. Selznick. He did a little riff in the beginning on how people tend to add the “O” because of his family relation to Hollywood mogul David O. Selznick and his resemblance (LOL) to author-illustrator Paul O. Zelinsky, who just happened to be the day’s closing speaker (and who, later in the conference, riffed back by inking in a middle initial “O” on his own conference nametag.)
Back to Brian’s speech: it was everything a keynote should be — setting up the theme of the day (the 75th anniversary of the Caldecott Award) both comprehensively and specifically. He gave some background on illustrator Randolph Caldecott, for whom the award is named, and also gave insight into Caldecott’s work and why ALA chose to name the award in his honor. Selznick said that Caldecott was perhaps the first illustrator to breathe life into books for children — to use the picture to tell some of the story and the words to tell another part of it — to make books in which the art and text were interdependent.
After a quick tour through the 75 years of Caldecott-winning books, he concentrated on one exemplary winner: to hardly anyone’s surprise, Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. Selznick said that it was perhaps the most important book for children published since Randolph Caldecott’s own books, and treated the audience to a dramatic reading (complete with atmospheric background music). Brian noted WWTA’s innovative use of shrinking and expanding white space and the brilliance of ending on a blank page, a page that is all white space except for the words “and it was still hot.”
But the best was yet to come. Brian spoke movingly about how Sendak came to be his mentor and how important he was to Brian, especially in encouraging him to reach his full potential and “make the book you want to make.” (The Invention of Hugo Cabret was the eventual result.) Then, almost unbelievably — you could hear the audience gasp — Brian told the audience that he attended a gathering at Sendak’s home on what would have been his birthday, and that in his studio was the art he had been working on just before his death — paintings for what was to have been Sendak’s next book — and that Brian had gotten permission to share the work with the preconference audience. WHAT!!??!!
And then there it was. Up on the big screen. A few sketchbook pages of recognizably Sendakian art — with the final page blank. A blank page representing what might have been, a blank page heartbreaking in its finality, a blank page linked now forever in the audience’s mind with the final white page of WWTA. Needless to say I found myself handing out Kleenex left and right.
All in all it was a powerhouse of a keynote talk. (In the ladies’ room directly afterward there was much stunned and thrilled reaction, and overheard was this gem: “There’s nothing like a smart person.”) It was an auspicious start to the day, and the day continued on that high level, full of vigorous book discussions; break-out sessions led by museum staff that took us into the galleries of the Art Institute (my group got an in-depth introduction to Japanese printmaking and how it might have influenced Peter Brown’s Caldecott Honor book Crazy Carrots); and three fascinating conversations between illustrators and their editors/art directors: Erin Stead, Philip Stead, and Neal Porter; Chris Raschka and Lee Wade; and Jerry Pinkney and Patti Ann Harris.
Philip Stead joked that Neal Porter’s approach to editing is like Yoda’s. Neal doesn’t say, “You need to do more work on your character”; instead, he asks, more obliquely but more effectively, “What does Amos McGee eat for breakfast?” The Steads concluded that making a picture book is an ever-evolving process. Each one presents its own challenges, so you never really know what you are doing. And Neal asserted that that was a good thing.
The Chris Raschka/Lee Wade presentation was eye-opening, because although A Ball for Daisy won the Caldecott in 2012, the process began way back in 2002 — a ten-year cycle of back-and-forthing between artist and editors and at least four sets of dummies revealing very different plots, artistic styles, and approaches (although that gorgeous green-striped sofa seemed to be a mainstay in all the versions). Their descriptions of the process was a reminder of the hard work and thought and care and attention to detail (not to mention the occasionally difficult conversations) that go into the making of a book — on both the creative and editing sides.
The conversation between Jerry Pinkney and his art director was bookended by two glorious presentation videos of art from Pinkney’s books, both accompanied by room-filling music — perfect for that right-after-lunch slot. Again, the takeaway was the degree of care and devotion that goes into every single book. For Lion and the Mouse, we heard about the choice of uncoated rather than coated paper; the daring decision to forego the title and author’s name on the cover; even the painstaking detail of having the book’s paper tinted to the exact shade of Jerry’s original sketchpad in order to maximize the art’s effect. And the audience was delighted to have the resemblance between the lion on the jacket and Jerry himself pointed out.
Consummate interviewer Leonard S. Marcus led a panel honoring Caldecott Honor books (which I was glad to see, since honor books don’t always get the attention they deserve). The panel consisted of Peter Brown, creator of this year’s honor book Creepy Carrots; Kadir Nelson, who has won Caldecott honors twice, in 2007 for Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom and again in 2008 for Henry’s Freedom Box; Melissa Sweet, Caldecott honoree in 2009 for A River of Words: The Story of William Carlos Williams; and Pamela Zagarensky, illustrator of this year’s honor book Sleep like a Tiger. Leonard asked questions that really drew each illustrator out, so that by the end of the panel the audience got both a strong sense of individual identities and a feel for what they have in common: the consensus seemed to be that after much procrastination (sometimes productive, sometimes not) each one pours his or her heart and soul into the work. (One light moment arrived when in answer to the question, “Is there something you avoid drawing whenever possible?”, Pamela Zagarensky said hair, and Kadir Nelson, referencing his own bald head, gave her a high five.)
The day concluded with a talk by Paul O. Zelinsky on “The Caldecott Medal in the Twenty-First Century.” He had a lot of fun (as did the audience) imagining what reading will look like in the social media–barraged future (i.e. cute YouTube-video kittens replacing the Sendak’s Wild Things). But he came back to books’ essence: “Stories are us; we are stories.” I loved what he had to say about what makes a Caldecott-winning book. Answer: the committee. There is no winning formula for a Caldecott book — if there were, everyone would follow it. He then took us through his own Caldecott books, describing his meticulous searches for, say, the best way to draw straw in Rumpelstiltskin, the right wood grain for the paper in Swamp Angel, and the best model for the prince in Rapunzel — and suddenly, hilariously, through the slide bursts… the Moose from Z Is for Moose, doing what he does best. Paul chided him for interrupting, telling the Moose to get lost, since he didn’t win a Caldecott. Much laughter from the audience.
As I hope you can tell, the whole day was jam-packed with energy, humor, insight, and information. It was the best possible introduction to an Annual conference celebrating the Caldecott Medal’s 75th anniversary.