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Speaking Out

by Nikki Grimes

I’ve met a good many people who have served on Caldecott committees over the years, all lovely men and women, to be sure. A few of them I’ve even had the pleasure to call friends. I appreciate their tireless service to the children’s book community. But I have one burning question for Caldecott committees, past and present: if this nation can manage to put a black man in the Oval Office, why can’t the Caldecott committee see its way clear to give the Caldecott medal to an individual artist of African descent?

Does the question surprise you? Perhaps it does, but let’s review. The Caldecott has been around since 1938, which makes it seventy-one years old. In all that time, no individual African American artist has been honored with the medal. Note, I specified individual. Interracial couple Leo and Diane Dillon (he’s black, she’s white) twice won the Caldecott as a pair of artists working as one. When it comes to single, individual African American artists, however, the win column is still blank.

It’s true that African American illustrators have been picked for the bridesmaid spot (read “honor book”). Some, in fact, have been honored over and over and over again (can you say Jerry Pinkney?). However, none has ever made it down the aisle in white. Why is that? I can think of half a dozen African American artists off the top of my head who deserve to have won: Ashley Bryan, Tom Feelings (for Middle Passage, among other books), E. B. Lewis, Bryan Collier (for Martin’s Big Words, among others), Brian Pinkney, Kadir Nelson (for Moses, among others), and Jerry Pinkney (for — well, take your pick!). That not one of these artists has been awarded the big prize is mystifying.

This year’s pass on Kadir Nelson’s We Are the Ship was particularly egregious. It brought me to my own personal tipping point. After thirty-two years in this business, I feel compelled to speak out.

The fact is, far too many extraordinary African American artists have been passed over for the medal. (I know I’m not the only one who has thought, “Give Jerry Pinkney the damn medal, already! He’s long overdue.”) Then there’s what seems to be the unintended effect of the Coretta Scott King Award. In small circles where the issue is discussed, some think a book that is likely to win the Coretta Scott King Award may be (quietly?) overlooked for the Caldecott. (Does the Belpré Award have the same unintended effect with regard to Latino artists? I wonder.) Of course, these awards should not be mutually exclusive. Yet, receiving the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award does seem to preclude winning the Caldecott. Why is that? After all, the same cannot be said of the Newbery, which has bestowed medals on Virginia Hamilton and other distinguished African American authors in the same year they’ve won the Coretta Scott King Author Award.

To be fair, serving on an awards committee is a tough job. I know. I served on a PEN award committee one year and pulled half of my hair out trying to whittle my choices down to three possible winners. In any given year, I know there are dozens of worthy books to consider, and not a few standouts. There are difficult choices to be made, and reaching a consensus is easier said than done. Even so, my hope is that sooner, rather than later, the Caldecott committee will find a way to help shatter the glass ceiling that seems to exist for illustrators of African descent. I will applaud that day. I wait for it with bated breath.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful for our first black president to be able to invite the first black Caldecott medalist to the White House? Yeah. I like the sound of that.

From the July/August 2009 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: Awards.

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