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Caldecott Club

“How low can we go?”

That was the key question when I decided to create a monthly Caldecott Club at my public library a few years ago. I’d read about the in-depth discussions that happened during the Mock Caldecotts held at other public and school libraries, and was thrilled to think that we might be able to do something similar. I could just see us gathering a group of kids and adults to discuss the merits of particular endpapers, dealing with gutter issues, and debating whether an illustrator used the right art medium for the story.

And then I remembered something important. The most popular programs at my library are those where the majority of child participants are preschoolers and toddlers. Of course, we do have programs for older children, but the fact is that our core audience skews very young. Thus we posed the question of how low, in age, could we go with our Caldecott Club. Could we create a program that could be enjoyed by very young children and still have a robust discussion of whether books meet Caldecott criteria? The answer has turned out to be a resounding yes, with some caveats.

First, I had to jettison the concept that our Caldecott Club would be a detailed discussion of how a book does — or does not — meet the criteria as presented in the Caldecott manual. Instead, we crafted our own “kid-friendly” version of the Caldecott criteria. More about that in a minute. It was also important to get over the idea that we adults (including the grown-ups who participate) would be helping the kids learn how to look at picture books. On the contrary, we have found that these very young children often help us learn how to really see and appreciate picture book art — they already are experts in looking at pictures, even if they don’t know the definition of a full-bleed illustration or a double-page spread.

Most important was remembering our initial motivation for starting the Caldecott Club: to offer a family book club at our library. Many parents have told me how they wished they had more time to read with their kids and to discuss what they were reading, and this seemed like a great answer to that dilemma. In the midst of families’ crazy lives, here is an hour-long monthly program, usually held on a Monday evening, where there aren’t any books to read ahead of time; we read the books together on the spot and then discuss them. Plus there’s the added sweetener of lemonade and cookies (with the gluten-, nut-, and dairy-free options participants requested) that we serve at each club meeting. We usually have anywhere from 15 to 30 participants, and usually many more for our final meeting in early January when we choose “our” Caldecott winner.

Our goal is to offer a fun family program, but there’s still plenty of learning going on. To get everyone on the same page, so to speak, we took the official Caldecott criteria and re-worked them to come up with kid-friendly Caldecott definitions. Our version is meant to be less wordy, and we use more basic language, yet we tried hard to keep the key concepts of the formal criteria. We have copies of the kid-friendly criteria available at each Caldecott program, and we start each new year of Caldecott Club programs by discussing them.

This year, inspired by Megan Dowd Lambert’s Reading Picture Books with Children, I decided to use the first program of the year as an opportunity to further expand our shared visual and spoken vocabulary to include such things as gutters, trim size, and endpapers. I had shied away from such a specific discussion in previous years, worried that it would be too much information for our young participants. Although a few audience members eventually grew a bit restless, most seemed fascinated by the terms we discussed, as did the adults. For this program, we used past Caldecott Medal winners as examples and we kept it simple, asking for example, “What shape is this book and why do you think it is that shape?” and “Do you think that hand in the gutter is an issue?” Kids and parents especially enjoyed the idea of looking for “undies” (what’s under the book jacket on the case cover).

We presented this program in April, when we usually begin our year of Caldecott Club programs by reviewing our kid-friendly criteria. Starting in May, we meet monthly to read 4 to 5 books that I choose, based on reviews, “buzz,” and my own instincts as good possibilities for the next Caldecott Medal. To ensure that everyone can really pore over the details in the illustrations, we use an ELMO document camera — an updated version of an opaque projector that allows us to show the pages on a big screen. My colleague, library associate Dave Burbank, is an artist (he creates our summer reading program each year as well as the sign art for our programs), and he’s very facile at using the ELMO to zero in on particular details in the illustrations.


As people arrive for the Caldecott Club, they’re given a pencil and a “ballot” that lists the title, author, and illustrator of each book we’re reading that night, plus two basic questions to consider: “Do the pictures tell a story?” and “Does the art style match the story?” We then read and discuss each book through the lens of our kid-friendly Caldecott criteria. To give the discussion a bit of organization and inject some extra excitement, we also ask participants to rate each book from 1 to 5, with 1 the worst and 5 the best. Kids, in particular, love rating a book this way. Of course, we then try to tease out why someone gives a book a 3: what keeps it from being a 4 or even a 5? At the end of the evening, we vote for our favorite of the books we’ve read that night, and that book becomes one of the finalists when we ultimately vote for our Caldecott winner in January.

Because so many of our participants are quite young, the discussions can get rather wide-ranging, and sometimes it can be hard to keep the discussion focused on the illustrations and the interaction between the art and the text rather than on the story itself. Over the years, however, I’ve found that a little prompting can help: just by asking a child who likes a book “because the story is funny” how the illustrations may help convey that impression, you can learn a whole lot about the amazing ability of children to “read” illustrations. The fact that so many participants are preschoolers or younger also means that we can’t read as great a range of Caldecott possibilities. I do try to do at least one nonfiction program, which can be pushing it in terms of attention spans, depending on who shows up that night. But there are still some books that just wouldn’t work at all for this crowd, and we just decided to save those books for our annual Mock Caldecott for Adults program.

Our early-January meeting is longer than usual because we read each of the 8 finalists chosen from May through December, discuss all of them once more, and then vote. Just as in the “real” committee, the book with the most votes is our medalist, and then we determine how many honor books to choose. There’s great excitement at this meeting as kids and adults vie for their favorites of the year, and we always hope that we have chosen the book that will win the actual Caldecott Medal later that month. We’ve gotten close a couple of times, but never have chosen the “real” winner.

Our February meeting is devoted to reading and discussing the actual Caldecott Medal winner and Caldecott Honor books, and in March, we read “Calde-Nots,” those wonderful books that weren’t eligible because they didn’t meet the Caldecott criteria, often because the illustrator lives outside the United States. Then we start the cycle over again!


About Karen MacPherson

Karen MacPherson is the children’s & youth services coordinator for the Takoma Park, Maryland, Library.



  1. I’m thrilled to hear about your work and how my book has helped you expand this program to include younger children. My Whole Book Approach storytimes have shown me time and again that very little kids can and do engage critically with picture book art and design, and I love giving them book terminology as a tool to support their insights and questions. As I often say in workshops, if three-year-olds can rattle off a list of dinosaur names, they can surely master words like gutter, endpapers, jacket, and so on. I hope you’ll share more about kids’ observations and questions as you continue your Caldecott Club!

  2. Judy O'Sullivan says:

    I do a Caldecott Project with my 1st, 2nd and 3rd graders each year. We begin looking at some winners of past year’s Caldecott medal and runner ups. We discuss why they think these books won the medals. It is really interesting when we look at books from the early years and then compare them with winners from recent years. The children have a lot to say. They usually begin with “I don’t like that kind of art” but once they study it a little while, they learn to appreciate the work of the illustrators.
    I watch for all predictions of possible winners for the upcoming prize. I get (or borrow from the public library) as many of those titles as possible. I divide them the books and place them on our 4 large library tables. I divide the students in each class into equal groups. Each week for four weeks the groups go to a new table of books where they analyze the art work and only the art work. Then we discuss their favorites a little.
    After the fourth week, we have an election for our pick for the winner of the award. I report the results for our class, grade-level and school winners. Our students seldom pick the actual winner, but often get at least one of the Silver Medal winners correct. We do then read and enjoy several of their favorite books.
    The students learn to appreciate the art and it’s importance to the book. They LOVE this project and the 3rd graders are often very sad that they won’t be doing this in 4th grade!

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