Caldecott committee member Judy Freeman weighs in: A guest post

[Editors’ note: this post, a passionate defense of the awards committee process and an illuminating glimpse into the workings of this year’s Caldecott committee, specifically, originally appeared on Calling Caldecott in the comments. We thought it merited a post of its own. So, without further ado…here’s Judy!]

 

OK, I think I need to weigh in here at long last. I’ve been following all of your posts all year without commenting, but with great enjoyment, because, as a member of the Extremely Handsome, Lovely, Intelligent, and Talented 2014 Caldecott Committee, I couldn’t show my hand.

First off, we read all of the books you did–and many, many more that you didn’t mention. Hundreds. Every style and genre. We read them aloud to kids and adults; ran mock Caldecott elections with kids and adults; showed them to friends, family, and other artists; and read them and examined them over and over. We were immersed in art all year. It was exhilarating and exhausting. We looked at case covers, dust jackets, gate folds, gutters, flaps, and every medium imaginable. That was before we got to Midwinter. We took extensive notes  on each book, read reviews and blogs, and compared them with our own opinions. We went to museums and art galleries, read books about children’s book illustration, reflected on past Caldecotts, and thought deeply about our own tastes and preferences. We tried to evaluate books with an open mind. Are we artists? No. Do artist get ticked off that a committee of librarians and children’s literature fanatics pick a book for its art? Oh, yeah. And yet, we persevered.

Let me just review the process for you, especially Sam Juliano who seems to think we stiffed Mr. Tiger Goes Wild intentionally and for all of the folks who can’t figure out why we didn’t give 5 honors like they did last year. (That was a surprise last year, actually–usually, 4 honors causes gasps from folks, and 5 is a mighty big number for any awards committee.) Personally, I love it when a committee is able to give lots of honors–it means more books for kids to love. But that’s not how it works when you are voting for an award. And I do think Mr. Tiger Goes Wild is a beautiful book. We did not snub it or any other book in any way.

I had TWELVE favorite books this year–all exceptional and astonishing in my eyes. An embarrassment of picture book riches. I’ve been evaluating/speaking about/writing about children’s books for 30+ years now and I cannot think of a single year when I’ve had this many picture books with which I was so utterly besotted. Can 12 books win the Caldecott? No. Am I stamping my feet in anger over the ones that didn’t make it? No. Did I get all of my choices? I don’t think anyone ever gets all of their choices on a committee like this. But I admire and respect all of our choices and feel each book is distinguished. Did everyone adore the same books I did? Get real. There were 15 people on our committee. We all had our beloved favorites and we all wanted with all our hearts to see them take home the gold, but only one book gets to do that.

I get goosebumps every time I open Locomotive, and getting to discuss it at length and in detail with the rest of the 15-member Caldecott Committee was an honor I won’t soon forget. Brian Floca was a bit speechless when we called him Monday morning, and I was teary just hearing his voice on the speakerphone of the little room of the ALA Press Office where all of us were crammed in, listening intently. Indeed, we felt pretty “punch drunk,” too. We had been locked in our conference room at the Marriott since Friday at 8 a.m., and finished our deliberations late Saturday night, with time out for meals and sleep. Not to worry–there was an ample amount of chocolate on hand for us to stay awake and alert (not to mention birthday cake).

After discussing/analyzing/reevaluating/critiquing the art of the scores of picture books we had nominated, it was finally time to vote. Well before the ALA Midwinter meeting, each committee member gets to nominate his or her 7 top books of all the many hundreds we read. This could mean we had 105 titles on our final discussion list, but since some books are bound to get more than one nomination, the actual number will be less. At our meeting, we had all of those books on hand, and spent many, many hours presenting the strengths and concerns of each book. When we were all finished going over each one, we filled in our ballots with our top 3 books. First place is worth 4 points, second place is worth 3 points, and third place is worth 2 points.

“Why only three honors? What’s the matter with that committee? Why didn’t they just pick more books?” I’ve read in people’s many comments online. Here’s the deal. For a book to win the gold medal, it must have a total of 8 first place votes, plus score 8 points above any other book. If you don’t have this point spread on the first ballot, you go back to rediscuss the books, removing from consideration the ones that got no votes, and vote again. Mind you, I had WAY more than 3 favorite books, and I think it safe to assume the same went for the rest of the committee. When one book finally rises to the top, like cream, then you have to decide which books are going to be named Honor Books. The committee decides how many books to name, based on the support and points received for each of the remaining books. If a book doesn’t get enough votes–if it scores too far below the other books, well, then, it’s not going to win. That’s life, folks.

I  would have loved to have given Honor Medals to many more books, but it has to have the support and votes of the committee. That means many wonderful and worthy books are not going to win–the ones that gather the most support, consensus, and votes by committee members are the ones that will get those shiny silver medals.

“Why didn’t THIS book win?” people will cry about their favorites. Rest assured, some of us on the committee probably loved that book, too, and were just as sad it didn’t make the cut. I, for one, remain madly enamored of my stack of picture books that didn’t win but which I have been thrilled to present/read aloud/use with kids, teachers, librarians, and parents this year at all my school assemblies, speeches at conferences, and children’s book seminars (including those for BER.org and at my upcoming 30th Annual Winners! Workshop across NJ in spring). That doesn’t mean the books that didn’t win aren’t fabulous or that a whole different stack of books wouldn’t have been named with a different committee at the helm. But these are the books that stood out, after all of our discussion, with Locomotive rising higher than any of them, and I say Hooray!

On any Awards committee, it’s a group consensus and decision, and you never get all of your choices, but, if you’re lucky, you do get some of them. The others, from listening to the discussion and re-re-re-re-re-reading/evaluating/reconsidering, you do most definitely come to appreciate for their distinguished qualities. I’m so proud of our Caldecott Committee and the work we did and of the 4 books we chose. What we ended with, along with Locomotive, were three extraordinary titles.

Looking at our Honor winners, I am struck by how distinct and distinguished each one is: Mr. Wuffles! by the great David Wiesner, about a cat, some aliens, and some savvy insects (and, no, we were not allowed to discuss or mentioned any of his or anyone else’s’ other medal-winners; we only compared and contrasted books published in 2013–that’s the rules); Flora and the Flamingo by Molly Idle, a wordless story with pull-down flaps depicting the pas de deux ballet between a girl and a bird that makes you want to get up and dance; and Journey, a first book for Aaron Becker with luminous watercolors depicting a girl’s adventure thanks to a magical red crayon. Great stuff, this. I hope you have a ball sharing these titles with your children. There is no rule saying you have to love every book on any list. Pick and choose the ones that sing to you, but keep an open mind. Your kids may love (or not love) any of these books, too, and they may or may not agree with your opinion.

I think Locomotive is a real groundbreaker–there’s never been a Caldecott like it. There have been nonfiction books that won, but almost of them are biographical. Open it up and start turning pages, and I’m betting you will gasp in astonishment at the double-page illustrations of that glorious train and wish you could take that trip (the sparse bathroom facilities notwithstanding). If your third graders find the text too long, read it in installments. Sing train songs. Do train chants. Read and compare other train books. (Elisha Cooper’s fabulous Train and Jason Carter Eaton’s How to Train a Train are the ones I’ve been using with it all year. Too fun!) Look at footage of old trains online. Take a class train trip. Look up all the fascinating natural wonders cited in the text and illustrations. Celebrate a book that extends the children’s horizons and lets them travel vicariously across the U.S. in 1869.

I’ve been on Newbery (2000, Bud, Not Buddy) and Sibert (2008, The Wall) and those were fabulous experiences. And now the Caldecott, where we’ve selected books that we hope will give children and adults great joy for many years to come. I can’t wait to give copies to all the little kids (and big kids) in my own family. Whew. What a memorable week!

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Judy Freeman About Judy Freeman

Judy Freeman is a children's literature consultant and member of the 2014 Caldecott Award committee.

Comments

  1. Judy—
    As my name was mentioned in your post I thought I would again stop in. I will be brief, as later this evening my 17 year old daughter Melanie will be filming a you tube of me in my wife’s office discussing this year’s awards, their ramifications, the flaws in the process, but mostly why the awards mean so much to all of us, myself included. I will posting that presentation at my site, Wonders in the Dark this coming Thursday.

    There is no question that you and your fourteen colleagues on the Caldecott committee did a fantastic job. Each and every member poured their heart and soul into this process, and each used every bit of knowledge and expertise to ascertain what they truly believed was the best and most worthy books for this very important award. My argument would never attempt to lessen or to dishonor all the hard work and great enthusiasm that went into this process, nor did I ever think there was any specific agenda in their application. I love these awards, and have loved them going all the way back to the 70′s when I completed two undergraduate classes in children’s literature at the then Jersey City State College under the distinguished professorship of Dr. Katherine Smith. I talk about them, I collect them, I continually stress their importance.

    This is why I feel I am entitled to lament what I find are difficult issues that would always make any awards process a subjective endeavor. I have bemoaned the absence of Peter Brown’s Mr. TIGER GOES WILD in the winner’s circle. This was a book that basically finished in a tie with Aaron Becker’s JOURNEY for favorite picture book of 2013 with the Horn Book readers. It was embraced by book critics across America, and appeared on just about every ten best list published. In the previous discussion where your comment appeared, it was suggested by a few other posters that the book may have exhibited a fatal flaw or some artistic imperfection that could have precipitated it’s invalidation. I would much rather believe the proposition of another poster who claimed something along the lines that “MR TIGER just didn’t gather enough support from the fifteen members when honor books were discussed. I refuse to believe no nor forever, that fifteen appointed librarians could have found any fatal flaws that were found by all the book critics and fans across the nations. Besides, even if there were a “flaw” who is to say that such a flaw would indeed be a flaw with all the rest of us. We all have our own sense of aesthetic, and will determine ourselves what great art is. We don’t need a fifteen member committee to tell us this, we don’t lead legions of critics. Likewise the book community on these very pages have decried the non-mention of NINO WRESTLES THE WORLD, and have hinted that there is a general dearth of Latino books among the medal and honor book choices. The same could be said about books authored and illustrated by African Americans. There are issues with these awards, and not even the herculean effort you and your colleagues put into the process will and have eliminated them. Originally Roger (Sutton) posted the thread on MR. TIGER and he said that one of the other Horn Book writers suggested that your group simply liked LOCOMOTIVE, JOURNEY, FLORA and WUFFLES better. Roger stated at the time something to the effect of “why let common sense get in the way of a great theory.” I don’t think there ever was a theory here, in that the complaints basically revolved around what was left off, not what was chosen.

    I know it is hard to get a consensus around the Honor books Judy, I read your post carefully and more than once. I know the history of the awards has not been kind to the awarding of four or five Honor books. But I can at least hope that there will always be an eye on making some reforms to the process. There can never or will never be a “best book” or “best books.” That is in the eye of the beholder. But we can look to the ALA to make the decisions that we feel are in the best interest of art, the picture book community and the kids.

    I applaud you for your stupendous work, and look ahead to next year for another time of celebration. I continue to hope for more Honor Books, and do feel that a wider umbrella is really a win-win situation for everyone involved.

  2. again, typos. II am very sorry about this. Here is the way this passage should have read:

    I would much rather believe the proposition of another poster who claimed something along the lines that “MR TIGER just didn’t gather enough support from the fifteen members when honor books were discussed. I refuse to believe now nor forever, that fifteen appointed librarians could have found any fatal flaws that were NOT found by all the book critics and fans across the nations.

  3. Judy – you are awesome!
    Sam – at the risk of fanning the already white-hot burning flames, a “fatal flaw” is a standard that must be applied by committee members according to the judging criteria. A reviewer is free to not look for fatal flaws, or ignore them if they find them.

    To borrow a phrase from too many viewings of Law & Order, the “burden of proof” is completely different. Or, an analogy from from too many viewings of Top Chef:

    That pasta was amazing. It was far and away the best pasta any of the judges had ever had in their mouth. The local restaurant reviewer gave it five stars. Everyone I know loves it. But, the rules of the Best Pasta Ever competition is that the dish cannot contain cilantro. There was cilantro in that dish, therefore it’s disqualified. Doesn’t mean it can’t get a great review. Doesn’t mean thousands of people don’t love it, just means it didn’t meet the very specific criteria of this very specific contest. That Fans? They’re free to enjoy books (and pasta) with fatal flaws. Heck, they can even enjoy books (and pasta) that reviewers and committee members hate.

    • Lara, thanks for clarifying that. I am relieved though to hear that committee members are free to ignore them. All in all I’d say that is certainly fair enough. I do not believe that the committee found any fatal flaws in MR. TIGER (or in MATCHBOX or NINO for that matter) but rather that each of those three books and others just couldn’t gain enough numerical support in the latter stages of the honor book voting. I may be right or I may be dead wrong, but of course this is something none of us will ever know.

      Ha!!!! I love that pasta/cilantro example. Good one!!!

  4. Lara, I would add here that the matter of committee members opting to let some possible illustration blemishes go in the apparent interest of the overall beauty of the art may possibly have played out among the voters of the Sibert committee, who as everyone knows gave their top award to PARROTS OVER PUERTO RICO, which actually topped LOCOMOTIVE surprisingly. There had been talk on some of the threads here at Horn Book that there was a “talon” error. Still, there may not have been an error, as the discussion here was more of a speculative nature.

  5. http://wondersinthedark.wordpress.com/2014/02/05/the-caldecott-notion-sam-speaks-on-last-weeks-picture-books-awards-announced-by-the-ala/

    My you tube video on the Caldecott awards is now the lead post at my site WitD. I know some people have heard enough from me, and in a sense I can’t say I blame them. Still, my 17 year-old daughter Melanie, a high school senior, and an aspiring film major, suggested that she do a video of me discussing the awards, some of the history and the points of contention surrounding this past year’s announcement by the ALA. I do mention Judy and her wonderful report, and I discuss my own favorites for the year, and of course the matter of MR. TIGER GOES WILD and the Honor books. I do believe I have spoken with enthusiasm as a long time fan of the Caldecotts. As always I am thrilled with Melanie’s work.

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