Subscribe to The Horn Book

Who’s on the Committee, or, “The Barry Moser Question”

I have heard about Barry Moser’s thoughts on the Caldecott, but had never actually read them before. Mrs. Google found me this 1999 interview between Moser and Anna Olswanger, part of which appeared in Book Links.

Olswanger: Are you disappointed that you’ve never won the Caldecott Award?

Moser: The only thing the Caldecott would do is make my publisher more money, and make me a little more money too. My editors will kill me if I say this and you write it, but I don’t care. My problem with awards, not specifically the Caldecott, is that they are given by a committee, which means at best, they are a dilution. I was giving a talk one time to a group of librarians in New Jersey, and they were talking about the Caldecott now and the Caldecott twenty years ago, the books that had not proven to be great classics, and the ones that had. And they asked me my opinion. I said, “You don’t want my opinion. I should stay out of this.” I had given my speech and I was sitting having coffee–they didn’t have the manners to have a bottle of whiskey on hand–and I said, “Let me put it to you this way. How many of you in this room know what a metaphor is?” All hands went up. “How many of you know what a simile is?” All hands went up. “How many know what a sonnet is?” All hands went up. “How many of you know what simultaneous contrast is?” Not one hand went up. “How many of you can define a double-split complementary color scheme?” Again, not one hand went up. I said, “But it’s librarians that give out the Caldecott.” So people are giving awards for subject matter, not for illustrations. To me it’s a nagging thing. It would be like a bunch of museum directors giving out literary awards. How many writers would sit still for that?

Though I am not sure this is what Mr. Moser thinks today, it is a question that comes up whenever the Caldecott is discussed. Is a committee the best way to determine the most distinguished picture book of the year? Should the committee be made up of librarians or should illustrators sit on the committee? Some folks think the membership of ALSC should determine the winners (like the Oscars). Occasionally, people think the committee should be smaller.
As a non-librarian and non-illustrator, I am probably not the best person to defend the history and structure of the way things are done. However, as a former member of a Caldecott committee and someone who has studied the long list of medal and honor books, I like things the way they are.
Here are a few reasons why:
1.  Librarians (and other ALSC members including teachers and book reviewers) are trained to evaluate picture books.  They may or may not know what simultaneous contrast means, but will learn. All committee members are given reading lists and homework to help them prepare.
2. They know the intended audience well.
3. The committee process, with its nomination process and face-to-face discussion time, allows for thorough consideration of all nominated books.
4. Librarians have the broader view of what picture books are supposed to be.
5. There are other awards like the Society of Illustrators Award and the Golden Kite Award for Picture Book Illustration that are judged by  professionals artists.
That should get y’all thinking. What do you think? Should the committee be made up of illustrators or artists? Why or why not? Should the committee be smaller? Larger?
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. It makes sense for librarians to judge picture books, just as it makes sense for illustrators to judge illustration. What doesn’t make sense, to me, is that the Caldecott is an award for illustrators. If the committee is judging the book as a whole, both the writer and the illustrator (if they are different) should be able to claim the honor.

    Also, I would like to think that one criteria for appointment to the committee is some degree of fluency in the language and processes of art.

  2. I think that Mr Moser makes a number of reasonable points, but I’m not sure that I agree with his conclusion. Indeed, I’m not sure that I agree that we’re asking the right question.
    There are lots of different ways to structure an awards decision process. There can be different numbers of folks on the committee. The Boston Globe Horn Book Award jury is three. The Caldecott is 15. Children’s Choice awards can be thousands. Each comes up with a different result, sure, but I don’t think we can say that any one is better than another. They’re just different. The same holds true for the committee membership. The Society of Illustrators has its own picture book illustration award, chosen by a jury of picture book professionals, most of them illustrators. Will illustrators examine and consider and choose differently from librarians? Probably. But, again, for me that’s different, not better.
    So, I think the real question is why is the award with arguably the most prestige and economic benefit the one chosen by librarians? And I think the answer is that we thought of it first and have been doing it the longest. Librarians have a legitimate stake in picture book celebration. We can claim to have made a contribution to a vibrant and sustained market for picture books. We can claim some picture book expertise. Many constituencies have valuable opinions about picture book illustration. Librarians shouldn’t have to apologize for theirs. The Caldecott Medal is the picture book award chosen by librarians (or at least by members of the Association for Library Service to Children, which is a semantic distinction perhaps best left for another day). I see no problem qualifying it as such. Indeed, I would hope that our expertise as librarians would play a fundamental role in the process and the outcome.
    As far as a committee diluting the decision, I’m not sure I totally agree. Committee decision making is not perfect, to be sure. But the very point is to collect perspective in the aggregate to shine as bright and broad a light as possible on the books in contention. That kind of work takes some real and powerful listening. In my experience experts are not always the best listeners. But a strong chair can minimize competition and work to establish comprehensive understanding of each book built of the many members’ disparate opinions. When you do that right, it’s a pretty powerful approach. And the only alternatives, as far as I can see, are to have an individual do the choosing, which is already happening on blogs all over the place, or have everyone do the choosing, which seems difficult to manage.
    So, we’re left with 15 librarians, just where we started, which works for me.

  3. Ohhh–this is one of my favorite questions of all!
    One of the MANY blessings of serving on the Geisel Committee and the Boston Globe Horn Book Committee is that those awards are given to the book as a whole and to both illustrator and author.

    Having served on the Nominating Committee, I can say that we look at all sorts of things when trying to put together a strong slate for election to the committees.

  4. I’m on the Cybils Picture Book judging panel this year and we recognize all contributors too. Caldecott is so strange that way.

  5. Peter McCleery says:

    I think an important question that needs to be asked, especially by the judges, is: Why is the award given out? What is the point? What is the mission statement of each award?

    Some awards make this intention more clear than others. For many people, especially the average consumer at the bookstore, it’s not totally clear what the Caldecott award is acknowledging. I would bet that most think it’s for the book as a whole, not just for the illustration. So then the question is: is this fair to the author of the book if it’s written by someone other than the illustrator?

    A related question is: what kind of award is the Caldecott? To borrow examples from the entertainment world, is the award intended to be peer- peer acknowledgment, like the Oscars? In this case Illustrators should be judging illustrators. Is it a popular vote like The People’s Choice Awards? Or is it like The Golden Globes, where critics or journalists judge the works?
    Since the Caldecott is judged by librarians I think it puts it more into the Golden Globes category. Librarians are book selectors and advocates which in many ways makes them critics.

    I believe this nuanced difference is lost on many of the average book browsers in the store. They see the sticker on the cover and assume it’s an endorsement of the book as a whole, not just the illustrations.

    Is it a matter of the committee changing the criteria to meet perception or should they do a better job explaining or marketing what the award is given for?

  6. Sam Bloom says:

    Nicely said, Thom. I think Mr. Moser may have been on a bit of a role when he said, “So people are giving awards for subject matter, not for illustrations.” Um, I don’t think that’s quite accurate – in fact, it’s pretty insulting. I see his point, I just don’t agree.

    I do think it would be interesting to involve the WHOLE book somehow, just as I think it would be interesting for the opposite to hold true in the Newbery criteria. Not that any of that will ever happen, mind you.

  7. The committee could take time to actually paint a picture book dummy and see what they learn. Thinking about illustration and actually illustrating are two very different things.

  8. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Moser here sounds like the movie stars who get up at the SAG awards and proclaim that THIS is the award they secretly wanted all along because “it’s given by the ACTORS.” There are plenty of awards for illustration given by illustrators; the reason they don’t have the impact of the Caldecott is because they are given purely for aesthetic craft, which is a different charge from the Caldecott’s “most distinguished.” I’ve served as a judge for the NYT Best Illustrated Books several times, and there’s always an illustrator on that jury of three. I noticed each time that the illustrator judge focused on the pictures as discrete images divorced from the text and frequently from each other. That’s why that list usually contains oddball books that look sensational but aren’t always the best examples of what a great picture book can be.

    P.S. What IS a double-split complementary color scheme?

  9. Thanks Melanie (or is it Melanie Hope?) for an interesting thought!

    I think you would be surprised at the length the committee members go to understand the construction of picture books, especially how signatures work. A fair number of librarians, I have found, have taken books on bookmaking before. The actual drawing and painting? There were people on my committee with skills in that area, too. (Not me!) It might be interesting to see what could be learned from making a dummy and illustrating it.

    Most opera admirers do not sing opera. I love baseball and understand it better than almost anyone, but I have never thrown a baseball in my whole life.

  10. Mrs. Google says:
    “Double split complementary color is the fact of using two complementary colors For example, in the color wheel red and green are opposite, so they are called complementary colors Therefore, if we use these two colors it is called ‘double split complementary color’.”
    Elissa found the graphic we used at the top of this post, which explains the idea well!

  11. Put me in the “whole book” camp. I had some of the same doubts as Moser about whether librarians were qualified to evaluate art, but those doubts have been put to rest several times over (at the Morris Seminar, hearing Dilys Evans speak to the 2010 committee, etc.) I think we know how to evaluate illustrations.

    What we’re even better at, though, is evaluating picture books as a whole – effective page turns, the way text and illustration play off each other, and so on. Since an effective picture book depends on both pieces, I say both creators should receive the medal.

  12. Melanie or Melanie Hope or mermel are fine. My love of a sport is not the same as judging the team so that only one member becomes the MVP. I remember sitting in on a committee and the critique was how “stiff” the art was. I did not think so. I was empathetic to the book’s illustrator (not there in person) knowing how much they broke their back to create that art which was dismissed so easily by an opinion. Even if the committee’s dummies stink it could be an exercise to understand the mastery of paint and paper or how that mastery can transcend a mediocre text. It is an art award after all.

  13. Robin Smith says:

    I often feel that way when I listen in on public book discussions at ALA. Because of their time constraints, the commentary can seem rough, especially after serving on committees where the discussion is nuanced and deep and, well, lengthy. We could never have said “stiff” without explaining what that meant, for instance.

  14. I always think it odd when the same person receives the Caldecott multiple years when the art they create is the same style and process year after year after year. I love to see a new technique, an unusual palette, a medium used successfully or in a new way. I do not understand that repetition is noteworthy or award worthy. Sometimes clever? yes. But are those books being judged on the art or the book in it’s entirety? I think that line is blurred. I would like to see technique and innovation noticed and I do not think it takes an artist to know that. Surely librarians see enough art to understand when someone’s work is new. Or executed wonderfully!

  15. On the topic of who should receive the Caldecott and what it should be for: I do wish the ALSC would reconsider, because it is absolutely true that parents, teachers, booksellers, and even librarians assume that Caldecott winners are the most outstanding picture books overall. There are a number of wonderful awards specifically for picture book text (such as the Golden Kite, the Ezra Jack Keats, and the Charlotte Zolotow) but none are as high-profile as the Caldecott. For writers winning these awards, it’s discouraging to know that virtually everybody will assume that if a book was REALLY good, it would have won a Caldecott.

  16. (Of course, conversely, writers whose books receive Caldecotts do benefit from the increased sales and some of the prestige. Still, the real issue is whether it makes sense to have an award for “the most distinguished picture book for children” given only to the artist. Organizations can give awards for anything they choose, of course, but does this best serve America’s children?)

  17. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Remember, though, the award is for “the most distinguished picture book,” not “the most distinguished pictures in a picture book.” So, nominally anyway, it is an award for the most outstanding picture book overall.

  18. Sam Bloom says:

    Hard to argue with new techniques and innovation being worth recognizing, but remember that the committee is judging the books vs other books from that year. So, even if someone is basically operating in the same style they did in previous books, if it is excellently executed (try saying THAT 5 times fast) and among that particular year’s best, why shouldn’t they be recognized?

  19. If the Caldecott is an “overall” award but when a wordless picture book wins it’s an “art” award, which is it? Are the goal posts changing?

  20. A wordless picture book that wins the Caldecott, for example The Lion and the Mouse, is more than a portfolio of terrific illustrations – it must work as a book and tell its story. Jerry pinkney’s book did not win an art award, it won a book award.

  21. My apologies if I sound contradictory but I’m still confused. If the Caldecott is a book award where text and art are married why doesn’t the author share the gold (when there is a separate author)? If just the artist wins the award the Caldecott comes across to me, and I am sure most folks, as an art award.

  22. Robin Smith says:

    Melanie (and wordpress does not allow me to reply to a reply)–

    I am not really sure how to answer. It seems clear to me:
    “The Caldecott Medal was named in honor of nineteenth-century English illustrator Randolph Caldecott. It is awarded annually by the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association, to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children. ”

    It is given to the artist for the whole picture book.
    I have never thought of it as an art award, but as an award for the most distinguished picture book for children. It just so happens to go to the illustrator. I am not an expert on the history of why it is only given to the illustrator and not the writer and illustrator, but that’s just the way this award is given.

  23. “That’s just the way this award is given” doesn’t really seem adequate, considering the importance of the award. It probably seemed sensible initially (Newbery for writers, Caldecott for illustrators) but basically it means a picture book writer can never win either of the two biggest and best-known American awards for children’s books. It also means that an award for “the most distinguished picture book” gives all the credit for that distinction to the illustrator. There may be good reasons not to make a change, but “we don’t know why we’re doing it this way, it’s just the way we’ve always done it” makes me think of the old story about cutting the ends off the ham.

  24. MR,
    I am not trying to be cavalier at all. I simply do not know why the award is not given to both the author and the illustrator, especially since many other awards awards have made a different choice. (The Boston Globe Horn Book Award and Charlotte Zolotow and Geisel, for instance, are given to the creators of the picture book.)

    Perhaps others know the why of that decision. Has ALSC ever tried to change that part of the Caldecott? Let me see if I can find out for you, MR. I am just not the right person to address this as I am not an expert on the history of the Caldecott. Where is Leonard Marcus or KT Horning on a Saturday night, especially when I am out of town and away from my resources?

  25. Oh, sorry, didn’t mean to accuse you of being cavalier (or anything else)! I just meant that while every award has the right to be given out as the creators of the award choose, this is a highly influential award with odd parameters that puzzle many people in the children’s book community,. So it would be reasonable for the ALSC’s website (for instance) to explain.

  26. Robin Smith Robin Smith says:

    So–I called an expert who said,

    “Technically, it’s [“it” being the decision to award the award to the illustrator] not ALSC’s call. They administer the award on behalf of ALA but the award itself was conceived — and funded — by Frederic Melcher. I’m sure there are legal documents involved that would make a quick change to the terms impossible.”

  27. I completely agree with your point, MR, that the award should go to the books creators and not just the illustrator. But I also wanted to point out that it IS possible for a picture book writer to win a Newbery – it’s just unlikely.

  28. Sheila Welch says:

    This discussion has been fun to read. I always thought the Caldecott was intended to acknowledge that the art in picture books has tremendous value. Illustrations can extend as well as enhance the text, and quite often, the text by itself would have no meaning. So I’m content with the award being for the illustrator alone. I think almost any author of a picture book (text only) would be thrilled to have the illustrator of his book win the Caldecott.

    As far as the judging by committee, I have muttered a few complaints over the years. It does seem important that some members of the committee have an understanding of how the art work in books is done. I don’t think a librarian who has never written a review or discussed the books she’s read would be chosen for the Newbery committee. Yet , how many members of the Caldecott committee have ever drawn from a model, made a dummy book, or know what’s opposite green on the color wheel. (Don’t cheat and look above.) One time, I read a review of a picture book that described the “pen and ink” drawings. But the illustrations were done as etchings. There’s a huge difference between a pen and ink drawing and an etching — not just in the way they appear in a book, but in the process. I’m sure there are librarians with art training and experience, and I would hope that each year one of them is invited to serve on the Caldecott committee.

    For some sense of the process, try this link:

  29. Bina Williams says:

    When I was on the Caldecott Committee, I did a lot of brushing up on art, art history and art technique. In fact, I was chair of our state library association children’s division so I planned a day long pre-conference all about art in picture books. (I wanted to learn all about picture book art and figured the assoc. would not pay for all these people to visit me at my house…) A number of our committee members were artists as well as teachers or librarians. We all worked hard to be as well versed on the art of these books. In response to Barry Moser’s comments, why don’t illustrators make up their own awards…oh, wait, the Society of Illustrators has Dilys Evans’s wonderful Original Art show every year with the gold medal and silver medals.
    I also have been on the Newbery Committee which had me reading out of my comfort zone….not that the books made me uncomfortable…it was more outside of my same old/same old zone of reading the types of books I know I would like. I read genres that I didn’t care for or didn’t understand as well as others. And I came to adore the non-fiction being written for children….as a child, I was not so keen on non-fiction….
    The hope of any nominating committee and the ALSC president who appoints the rest of a committee is that each person brings a different set of skills, tastes, and intelligences to the table to discuss the books. It is lots of fun!!!! And it is fun to have the “What WERE They Thinking” discussions around afterwards!

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