Subscribe to The Horn Book

Just the illustrations, ma’am

Hi everyone; Martha Parravano here. All the (much-appreciated) suggestions in the comments on Robin’s last post bring me to a question I’ve wanted to ask for a long time.

I have been evaluating and reviewing picture books for twenty-five years. But in doing so I consider the whole book — the interdependence of text and art; how the book works as a reading experience for a child; how the page turns pace the book; etc.

So when I read some of your suggestions over the weekend (and remember I am new to this game), I reacted like, well, myself — supporting some suggestions and scratching my head at others. Until it finally hit home: this award is NOT for the picture book. It’s for the ART in the picture book.

My question is — to those of you who have served on the Caldecott committee as well as to all you seasoned participants in mock Caldecott discussions: how do you step away from evaluating the book as a whole and look solely at the art? Or…do you?

Just as a reminder, here’s the link to the pertinent Caldecott terms and criteria.


Martha V. Parravano About Martha V. Parravano

Martha V. Parravano is book review editor of The Horn Book, Inc., and co-author of the Calling Caldecott blog.



  1. Hi Martha!

    We do a “mock” Caldecott in my class every semester and always wrestle with this question. I pull out the terms n’ criteria and highlight this last gem on the list…
    “3. Each book is to be considered as a picture book. The committee is to make its decision primarily on the illustration, but other components of a book are to be considered especially when they make a book less effective as a children’s picture book. Such other components might include the written text, the overall design of the book, etc.
    Note: The committee should keep in mind that the award is for distinguished illustrations in a picture book and for excellence of pictorial presentation for children. The award is not for didactic intent or for popularity.”

    I think you HAVE to consider the book as a whole – that’s what a picture book is.

  2. Eric Carpenter says:

    My reading of that same section of the criteria is completely different (though not necessarily any more valid). The way I read it, the “less effective as a picture book” is really the key phrase.
    I think you must first consider the illustrations (the art and how said art tells the story(page turns, interaction with text, appropriateness of style, etc)) and then only consider the book as a whole when it is apparent that the art doesn’t serve the book or the book is not an effective picture book.
    To put it another way, the story, plot, theme, or any other non-illustration aspects can be used to exclude a book from favor but should not be used to place books in favor in the first place (the art should be the only inclusive factor). We aren’t looking for distinguished picture books that happen to have great art, but great art in picture books.

  3. A very worthy and interesting discussion.

    I have always believed that one of the qualities that distinguishes great picture book art is how well that artwork embraces and extends the story. It is like a dance. Each shines but it is partly about how they dance together and make their partner sparkle with their moves that makes for a wonderful book.

    There is a snapshot in my head of an adult and child reading a picture book together. The adult is reading to the child, who is snuggled in close. The story unfolds, not entirely in words, but also in pictures. Those pictures allow the child to read along too – and share that which he/she sees that is not in the text.

    It is hard for me to see art and text as separate.

    Warm regards,
    Katherine Tillotson

  4. Robin Smith says:

    I love that description of picture book art being like a dance, Katherine. I am sitting on my hands right now, but I think the book has to be looked at as a whole. More on that later.

  5. Based on experiences on 2 Caldecott Committees, I’d say that when you have several exceptionally illustrated picture books (as many years have), those other components (text, design, etc) have to come into play in order for the committee to come to consensus in selecting a “winner.”

  6. As someone who received a BFA in illustration and then found herself in Children’s Literature graduate program, I must say that in my experience, those without an arts background are not very good at separating the text from the art. Anyone without basic art history or studio art lacks the proper language used to discuss artwork. While I think the balance between text and words must come into consideration (as others have said, perhaps during a second look) the illustration should be considered first, and those who consider it should have some very basic knowledge of art. I agree with Grace’s statement of considering design and textual components as a part of the holistic book, but only after at least a basic consideration of the illustrations alone. The basic question in this discussion is: Is this an award for illustration, or for a picturebook? (I use the compounded picturebook to indicate a book in which the words and pictures are perfectly balanced and one cannot exist without the other.) If we consider the wordless picture book, the answer is that this is an award for narrative illustration. There are even two great examples of the wordless picture book this year: Bluebird and Journey. (Daisy Gets Lost is almost there…)

    A point Barry Moser once brought up is that the Caldecott is an award for illustration awarded by people with no background in illustration or the visual arts. If a literary award was chosen by a jury with no education in literature and composition, might not those in literary fields have issue with it?

  7. It’s a bit disingenuous to believe that literary prizes are first and foremost awarded by committees of people with an education in literature and composition. There are lots of librarians, writers, good friends of publishers, in-laws, celebrities, donors, etc. making the decisions about those awards. As a writer, I say without rancor that writers can be clueless when it comes to the whys and wherefores of how a book actually works. Ditto librarians, much as I love them and much as they are schooled in the traditions of literature. Does that mean no writers should be allowed to sit on award committees? Awards in the adult literature world are also muddied slightly – if you take that perspective – by the non-specialist. I, for one, like the voices of the untrained and the non-specialists entering into the conversation – not dominating it, but contributing to it. Sometimes the most intense of professional vocabularies about the creative arts can leave people in the dust, people without access to that sometimes painfully exclusive way of talking about art and literature (we all know what happens to the conversation in graduate school when lit-crit terms get tossed around – the buzz words are designed to leave people out, and I assume that happens in art programs as well.) Just want to say that I think excluding the non-expert is not always the key when hunting for a treasure. A good mix of professionals and amateurs makes for a livelier discussion and – I bet – is more likely to result in honoring a book that is not just beautiful but “distinguished,” as per the Caldecott’s mandate.

  8. Dean Schneider says:

    It’s great to see Calling Caldecott back in business!! So many fun and important issues to discuss, and so many picture books to celebrate. The first issue that caught my eye was Jane’s–repeating Barry Moser’s concern. The way I see it, the Caldecott is not for the best art of the year necessarily. There are plenty of books containing great art, but they don’t always work as picture books, but as illustrated books, a distinction I know Robin and Martha will discuss later on. The art in picture books is not a series of static fine art, but art with a narrative quality. As stated in the Caldecott guidelines, illustrations work “with a unity of story-line, theme, or concept developed through the series of pictures.” No, the Caldecott Committee does not normally include professional artists in its ranks to enlighten everyone else, but it does include librarians and teachers and editors who are experts in the field of picture books, who have been trained or who have trained themselves to look carefully at the books before them. And they learn from such great conferences and workshops as the recent Caldecott preconference celebrating 75 years of the Caldecott, where professional illustrators gave very useful (and often quite humorous) talks about their work. Who can read the Horn Book magazine and other excellent review journals over the years and not come away with a better understanding of the proper language with which to discuss illustrations? Or KT Horning’s wonderful FROM COVER TO COVER, an essential guide to reviewing and analyzing books of all sorts, a book used in many university classes. I’ve been on several committees, including the Newbery with Martha (but not the Caldecott), and I am always impressed by the level of expertise and commitment on the committees. There are knowledgeable children’s literature experts making these important decisions! Anyway, I’m looking forward to the coming months of discussions on Calling Caldecott and encourage everyone out there to get involved. Don’t be lurkers; whatever your level of involvement in the world of children’s literature, be part of the fun and speak up.

  9. Martha V. Parravano Martha V. Parravano says:

    Thanks so much, everyone — I’m getting a better picture now of the very fine line Caldecott committee members walk when evaluating picture books. I’m still perplexed, though, as to why Melcher and co. chose to establish an award specifically for the art when, I assume, they could just as easily have created an award for the picture book as a whole. Any scholars out there want to enlighten me?

  10. My mission in life used to be to get ALSC to change the criteria for Caldecott so the award would be for the Whole Book, which is what a picture book is. A Whole Book, not just art or text or design. When I attended ALA (as I used to do), I would nag (pounce upon) people at random, but also ALSC Presidents and Vice-Presidents. Everyone has always told me it’s impossible. But it is equally impossible to separate out the art in the picture book from the text and –indeed–the design (more and more true). I am still tearing my hair out–what little hair I have left– in vain. I swear to you that this is not just because I write, but because it’s right!

  11. Robin Smith Robin Smith says:

    Leda, have you ever served on a Caldecott Committee? I felt a lot more peace about this issue AFTER I served. Just wondering.

  12. I have had that great good fortune, Robin, and it was one of the highlights of my professional life. But I still think the criteria should be changed for the reasons I mentioned. What do you think? Of course I do realize Randolph Caldecott was primarily and illustrator—

  13. An illustrator, not and illustrator.

  14. Susan Golden says:

    I served on the Caldecott Committee the year Owl Moon won. There are so many worthy picture books that considerations than just the illustrations necessarily come into play. We discussed whether the text was strong enough to support the text, variety of compositions, the use of the medium employed, etc. We were lucky enough to have an artist/librarian on the committee and that helped a great deal. Most of us were definitely more comfortable words than pictures, no matter how experienced we were with art or illustration. As I said, there are so many fine books each year it is obviously very difficult. It got a bit extreme for me, however, when some members got to the detail of whether anything was lost in the way the illustrations folded into the spine.

  15. Julie Corsaro says:

    I think that the criteria is written in such a way that it is subject to interpretation and that each criterion has to be considered as part of the whole. Committee members are asked to make judgments, and the committee chair can go a long way in supporting them by providing the time and opportunity to examine and discuss the terms, conditions and criteria of the award before talking about the books. I think a picture book is just that, a book, which for me means looking at the design, illustrations and writing, both separately and in relationship to each another. BTW: I had the great pleasure of serving with the brilliant and talented Leda on the 1999 Caldecott!

  16. Brilliant and talented Julie Corsaro, the pleasure was all mine!

  17. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    I think the award is for the most distinguished picture book and it goes to the illustrator of that book, at least, that’s how the first sentence of the award’s terms have it: “to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children.” But there is another sentence further down the list which both complicates that first one and doesn’t seem to make much syntactical sense even on its own: “In identifying a “distinguished American picture book for children,” defined as illustration, committee members need to consider . . .” Can someone explain to me how the clause “defined as illustration” is meant to modify “a distinguished American picture book for children”?

    I don’t have a problem with the lack of illustrators on the Caldecott committee or writers on the Newbery. Other awards with such juries exist. The ALA Awards hinge upon the premise that librarians are doing the choosing.

  18. Robin Smith Robin Smith says:

    Waiting and wondering myself.

  19. Barbara Scotto says:

    Like Roger, I am clear that the Caldecott is intended to honor the illustrator of the picture book that the committee considers the most distinguished of the year. I do think the founders of the award intended the focus to be largely on the art . However, the “defined by illustration” phrase seems to me to be simply awkward writing that doesn’t completely make sense in the context in which it is used. I think what they were trying to say is “In identifying a “distinguished American picture book for children,” committee members need to consider the following aspects of the illustration:

  20. Just to clarify (since Roger S. felt my response sounded like something expressed at an interesting AA meeting) that I didn’t mean to say the intentions of the originators of the Caldecott were unclear – it’s obvious they wanted to honor only the illustrator each year, not illustrator and writer, who knows why? Leda, in a perfect world, your efforts would prevail. My argument was only with the suggestion made in an earlier comment that trained artists would be better qualified to judge book art than the non-artists on the award committee, and that other literary awards were always and only judged by literary experts. I took issue with that because it is patently not the case. Librarians on the Caldecott committee are, after all, judging art as it is expressed in a book, and I think their opinions should not be dissed just because they aren’t artists. It’s a side issue to the main issue here about honoring illustrators vs. writers, but I thought it needed saying, in defense of the committee members who do the hard work and have intelligent, informed conversations about the art.

Comment Policy:
  1. Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  2. Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  3. Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through (though some comments with links to multiple URLs are held for spam-check moderation by the system). If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.

We accept clean XHTML in comments, but don't overdo it and please limit the number of links submitted in your comment. For more info, see the full Terms of Use.

Speak Your Mind