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How to read a picture book, the Caldecott edition

1. Look at the cover. Feel the cover. Imagine the sticker.

2. Take the paper jacket off and check out the inside cover. I am sure there is a word for this part of the book, but I only have my non-librarian training to fall back on. Note whether the inside cover is is different from the paper jacket or the same. (I am looking at Frog Song right now, and the enormous frog on the inside cover made me burst out laughing. Such a contrast from the serious red jacket frog.)

3. Now, examine the end pages. Those are the pages that are glued onto the hard cover. Sometimes the endpapers are illustrated or decorated, sometimes they are simply solid heavy paper. Note that. Are the back endpapers the same as the front? Do the choices make sense? Is anything important going to be covered when the book is processed in the library? (If so, this book is in Serious Jeopardy. A moment of silence for one of my favorites during MY year.)

4. Title page is usually next for me. Decorated? Plain? I am never sure who decides on endpapers and title page design, but these are important decisions. If it’s dull, I take note. Since the title page often has a lot of white space, this is when I usually notice if the paper choice works for the book.

5. Read the book all the way through without reading the words. I know. But this has to be essentially a visual experience. Does it hold up with no words? (This is NOT to say the words don’t matter, it’s just important — at least to me — to see how the book works without words.) LOOK AT THE PICTURES VERY SLOWLY. This was the hardest part for me when I started reading and evaluating picture books. You just don’t want to miss any detail. Read from left to right, paying very close attention to the page turns. Pay attention to white space and pacing.

6. Read the book with the words. Do the pictures play well with the words? Do the illustrations extend the text? How does the illustrator tell her story? (I know, I know, most Caldecott winners are men, but maybe the feminine pronoun will subliminally influence the committee.) How does line, color, texture, white space, etc. tell the story? Is the art consistent from page to page? Always notice the page turns.

7. Go back and check every single gutter. The Caldecott committee members take a pinky swear to examine every damn one of them. Does the art match up across the gutter? Is a main character sliced in half by one? If something “gets lost in the gutter,” murmurs of disappointment will cause the chair to sigh deeply. The nominator of the book might wipe away a tear.

8. Caldecott committee members get seven nominations each. That’s all. (Look at our fun and fabulous preliminary list. Only seven could remain for our mythical committee member when December rolls around.) So, for a book to move forward in an individual committee member’s mind, it has to “beat out” all the others that have been submitted and suggested. So, things get serious at step 8. It’s here that a reader has to look at that part of the criteria that talks about things that detract from the illustrations: “Such other components might include the written text, the overall design of the book, etc.” I refer you to my rant last year.

9. At this point, the initial reading is over and the real fun begins.

Robin Smith About Robin Smith

Robin Smith is a second-grade teacher at the Ensworth School in Nashville, Tennessee. She is a reviewer for Kirkus and The Horn Book Magazine and has served on multiple award committees.



  1. You’re talking about printing technology – matching up gutters, and title page illustration, and and pages. I hope they are looking at the art inside, and not these things!! Please!

  2. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    All of it, Diana!

  3. I hope they are looking at all those things. There is a book from this year that I love — great line work, use of color, and shape — but some of the most dramatic moments are interrupted by the gutter. I found myself shaking my head over that one.

  4. Katie Bircher Katie Bircher says:

    Hi Robin,
    At the library where I worked we called the inner cover the “case,” but I don’t know if that’s universal. 🙂

  5. I really should learn these terms so I don’t look like a such a bumpkin, Kate. Perhaps I will do a posting about words like “verso” that folks love to toss about.

  6. Lesley Colabucci says:

    I think I call the inside cover the cloth cover, but I have no idea if I learned that or just made it up. I love this post and will be using it in class tomorrow. Thanks Robin.

  7. Lesley, whenever I call the inside cover a cloth cover, it moves right to the top of the stack for me. I have a weakness for cloth covers and deckled edges. Sometimes one or the other will be the deciding factor for me when it comes to buying a personal copy of a book.

    Everything Robin described about the binding, gutters, title page etc. are part of the overall book-making and are fair game for an award committee. But, man, I hate it when librarians get obsessed about what the library processing department will do to the overall aesthetic of a book — and then lay the blame on the book, and not on the library. There’s a reason rare book dealers rate “x-library” copies below “poor” when it comes to condition. Even if no one has ever handled the book since it was first put on the shelf, and it’s in otherwise pristine condition, the library itself has destroyed its beauty with those damned pockets, date-due slips, bar codes, spine labels,and gruesome mylar covers gracelessly applied with strapping tape.

    Sigh. Can we go back to talking about cloth covers and deckled edges?

  8. Although, I must say, one of my favorite library moments came from observing a toddler look under the date due slip when he was reading “Where’s Spot?”

  9. Eric Carpenter says:

    Yeah what KT said. The committee is made up primarily of librarians, which is awesome! But they are not tasked with finding the most distinguished potential library book. What may or may not be covered during processing should have zero bearing on the book’s chances for Caldecott. This does not jive with praising the under jacket cover design (which will be hidden during processing). Taking this point a step further, would you have the committee consider how a shiny gold or silver sticker will affect the cover design or “cover anything important”?

    RE: learning the terms, firstsecond did a blog post back in February with examples and definitions of a number of book design terms. Very informative:

  10. Robin Smith Robin Smith says:

    Oh, Danyelle, do tell!
    I have one in mind too.

  11. Robin Smith Robin Smith says:

    Eric–thanks for that link. I learned a lot. Now I can use the term “blind stamp” with abandon!

  12. Robin Smith Robin Smith says:

    And, Eric, I can’t imagine anyone thinks about the sticker placement until the committee places it on the book. But, that placement can take a while–another thing the committee has to agree on.
    I cannot speak for the publishers and art directors though–I wonder if they plan covers with space for awards?

  13. I suspect some jackets are designed with a medal in mind.

    Kevin Henkes’s young daughter was disappointed that Kitten’s First Full Moon didn’t win a Caldecott honor because she thought a silver medal would have looked better on the book.

  14. I hate to ruin someone’s experience with a book if it hasn’t bothered them . . . but why split the titular character (might be a squirrel) and her antagonists right down the center? What was he thinking?

  15. #3 Endpapers. Printed endpapers can be great fun. (Brian Floca’s are among my most favorite.) What is so interesting to me is that they are closely tied to page count, and to the pacing of the storytelling. Picture books are printed in signatures, multiples of eight pages. In order to have printed endpapers, there has to be pages set aside: paste down (the side of the endpaper that is pasted to the case binding) endpaper, endpaper – then at the end of the book, endpaper, endpaper, pastedown. Whatever the total count of pages for a picture book, it has to be a multiple of eight… It is always a bit of a puzzle, figuring out how to tell the story, where to put the page turns, and subsequently how to juggle the title page(s), half title (maybe, maybe not), copyright and dedications, and printed ends (maybe, maybe not). All must add up to a multiple of eight.

  16. Robin Smith Robin Smith says:

    I was just heading up to bed when your comment came through. I did not know this–what happens when the endpapers are not printed? Does that go into the page count? (In my other life, I work on the school yearbook. Of course we work with signatures and page counts, but the whether the pages are printed or not, does not make any difference. )
    I love thinking about the little details–when a committee looks at a nonfiction picture book, a lot of attention is paid to the back matter–author’s notes, bibliography, etc. All of that information takes up space and has to be part of the puzzle. So fascinating.

  17. Let’s take two of last years winners as examples. This Is Not My Hat has printed ends (and they are to-die-for gorgeous!) The page count is 40 pages (count the paste downs and the ends). Extra Yarn does not have printed ends. Well that’s not entirely accurate. They are printed a flat color on an uncoated stock. The color is chosen by the art director together with the illustrator. Interestingly, Extra Yarn is also a forty page book. It all comes down to storytelling. How many pages are needed to tell the story – then how to juggle the rest of the pages to hit that multiple of eight. It can be both fun and extremely frustrating!

  18. Laura Rogers says:

    I just did a book talk with elementary students about the use of the gutter. We looked at Raschka’s, “Yo! Yes”.
    Check out the use of the gutter as a part of the story in that one. 🙂

  19. Kudos to Baker & Taylor who does not tape the cover to library books when they process them if the end papers or “case” include design elements.

  20. writersideup says:

    I found this VERY interesting! Thank you 😀

  21. Love this post. It just makes me love Flora and the Flamingo even more.

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