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Can We Get These Folks a Sticker, Please?

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ROBIN SMITH: Over the years, I have heard people moaning that certain illustrators had never won the Caldecott award and would never win. To my innocent ears, that seemed unfair. As I learned more about picture books, one thing did become clear to me: certain very good illustrators never seemed to win the Medal. I am talking about folks like Wendell Minor, Steven Kellogg, Jan Brett, William Joyce, Tomie dePaola, Ashley Bryan, Eric Carle, Elisa Kleven, James Marshall, and Brian Karas. What do they all have in common? They are all artists whose style is easily recognizable. And: they are all prolific.

I went back to the criteria, and when I read the part about “distinguished,” I had to dig deeper.

“Distinguished” is defined as:

  1. Marked by eminence and distinction; noted for significant achievement.
  2. Marked by excellence in quality.
  3. Marked by conspicuous excellence or eminence.
  4. Individually distinct. [bold added by Robin]

The rules of the committee say that each book is considered by itself, in its year, stacked up against others of that year. Period. Each book is NOT stacked up against previous books by the same illustrator. And yet … when we look at what wins from year to year, the committee certainly seems to love new styles and new artists. (Full disclosure: my Caldecott year was Erin Stead’s first book. And David Ezra Stein’s first honor. Only Bryan Collier had won an honor before.)

Is there some subtle thing that happens in the eyes and memories of the committee members when the art they are seeing this year is a lot like the art they saw in another year? Are there so many new and talented artists with cool new styles that the newness is too much to ignore? I don’t know. I do know that I breathed a sigh of relief when Peter Brown and Lauren Castillo won honors early in their careers, because their styles are clearly identifiable now. And Jon Klassen — will his style seem new and individually distinct if it continues to be instantly recognizable? I dunno.

K.T. HORNING: Well, that certainly hasn’t happened with David Wiesner, who has now won three Caldecott Medals and two honors for essentially the same type of elaborately illustrated wordless book, all done in pen and ink with watercolors. He has a very distinctive style that is pretty easy to recognize. And yet, even so, three different Caldecott Committees found his book to be the most distinguished of the year. They obviously weren’t thinking, “Oh, yeah, another excellent book by David Wiesner. Next!”

But then when you look at the only other person to have won three Caldecotts to date — Marcia Brown — her three Caldecott winners were all so different from one another. She didn’t even use the same medium for any of them. It’s almost as if they were illustrated by three different artists.

And then there’s the artist with a distinctive, recognizable style who finally gets the Caldecott for something different. Look at Kevin Henkes, for example. After years of illustrating books about funny little mice in a cartoon style using pen and ink with watercolor washes, he got the Caldecott for something completely different — a cat book, for God’s sake! — done in a more realistic style in black and white. And I think everyone expected Kitten’s First Full Moon to win that year, so it was really no surprise. Still, I think we were all pleased to see him win.

Robin: All I know is no one screamed louder than I did when Jerry Pinkney FINALLY got the big prize for The Lion & the Mouse, familiar style or not.

KT: Yeah, I was there. I remember.

Robin: Do you think it’s possible to look at every new book with completely fresh eyes? I mean, is that even possible? We want smart people with lots of experience who have studied picture books for a while, at least. And that means that some of the older artists are going to look familiar to their eyes, right? Will the art still look distinguished to them? Or, will it look familiar and — dare I say it — boring?

KT: I think it’s human nature to think of all the other books that have been done by the artist, and to think, “Same old, same old from Artist X” or “Oh, this is so different for Artist X” or “This is Artist X’s best book yet.” But when it comes down to the committee discussion, you can only compare the books of Artist X to the books of Artist Q and all the other eligible books published in the same year. So while I may have those thoughts in the back of my mind, I can’t say them in the discussion or use them as part of my argument. It all comes down to the books on the table. Individually distinct means individually distinct among the books under consideration. And I think as the committee gets closer and closer to the final decision, that focus gets sharper and sharper, and the individually distinct books begin to stand out as such.

Robin: The other mindset that people have is that an artist is “due a Caldecott.” Have you heard people say things like that? Do you think that the committee worries about things like that? How does that fit into the awarding of the Caldecott?

KT: Yes, indeed. I have heard that a lot. And I don’t think it figures into the discussion at all because of the rule that the committee can only discuss the books on the table. What that actually does is level the playing field so that new artists have as much chance to win as artists who’ve been around a long time. It must have been a very interesting discussion in 2012 when Jon Klassen won both a Caldecott and Caldecott Honor for two books that look pretty different from each other. It’s a rare occasion when the committee gets to compare an artist to himself.

If there is someone on the Caldecott committee who is new the process, that person may go into it thinking, “I’m going to make sure my favorite artist finally wins because after all these years he deserves really to.” But that member will soon learn that there are fourteen other people there and that one individual on the committee doesn’t have that much power. Eventually the committee will need to reach a consensus, and that only works when they approach the books on the table with open minds and a clear focus on the task at hand.

For the Calling Caldecott readership: which artists do YOU want to see honored who have been, for lack of a better term, passed over? Some of them might have books out this year…




  1. What about Barbara McClintock? She is one of my favorites, and I think several of her books should have received more love from the Caldecott committee. Most notably “Adèle & Simon”, “Dahlia” and “The Fantastic Drawings of Danielle”, all of which I thought were overlooked, and more than meet the criteria of being “Distinguished”.

  2. Eric Carpenter says:

    I have a question about Individually Distinct.
    In the post above, KT writes: “Individually distinct means individually distinct among the books under consideration.”
    What does under consideration mean exactly? Does it simply mean eligible or does it mean that the book has been nominated by a committee member during the nomination process?
    When an illustrator produces two or more picture books in a single year, for instance Sophie Blackwell this year or Dan Santat last year, do both (or all) titles need to be nominated by committee members in order to discuss them at the table?
    For example, say someone on last year’s committee wanted to make the case that Adventures of Beekle was not visually distinct from Ninja Red Riding Hood (also a 2014 title), would NRRH need to be on the table to make that comparison? (please note, I haven’t looked a NRRH so I don’t know how visually similar or different from Beekle it may be). Obviously in the Klassen example above both books were on the table (under consideration) and deemed by the committee to be individually distinct.

  3. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Has ALSC or anyone (like you CC bloggers?) ever parsed that definition of “distinguished”? It sounds like four ways of saying that same thing without saying very much in the first place.

  4. Tomie dePaola for sure. His work has always been wonderful, but these past few books seem to me to have distilled his style down to a luminous, gorgeous simplicity.
    Kinuko Craft. Is it because her work is so beautiful that it has been overlooked?
    Demi. Also, miniature perfection. Or are neither of them US-based?

  5. Julie Paschkis, hands down, should have a Caldecott by now.

  6. Susan Dailey says:

    Bagram Ibatoulline, Floyd Cooper, Chris Soentpiet and although Kadir Nelson has won 2 honors, he hasn’t won the “gold” sticker yet.

  7. Will Hillenbrand, Jim LaMarche, Loren Long, Deborah Kogan Ray, Raul Colon and although he hasn’t as many books – Jason Chin.

  8. KT Horning says:

    Eric — it means the books that have been nominated by members of the Caldecott Committee and that are up for discussion (i.e. on the table) during the few days of discussion leading up to the final decision. During balloting, any books that get no votes are taken off the table, and would no longer be under consideration.

    In terms of your example with Beekle and Ninja Read Riding Hood — yes. You would need to have NRRR on the table in order to make the comparison.

    Roger: Heh. You noticed that, too, eh?

  9. I have to agree with Jill Swanson as well on Julie Paschkis. I thought “Summer Birds: The Butterflies of Maria Merian”, “Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People” and “Where Is Catkin?” were all amazingly beautiful, and certainly “distinguished” enough to merit selection.

  10. Great to see this discussion here! Am oh how heartened I am to see Robin (Smith) mention WENDELL MINOR first up on her lists of illustrators who have yet to land in the Caldecott winner’s circle. And like Robin I too was exasperated over many years that Jerry Pinkney wasn’t winning the gold. But in retrospect, the string of silvers allowed him to become one of the most awarded illustrators ever (Sendak leads in total number) leading up to the gold for LION AND THE MOUSE.

    Last week Roger (Sutton) lamented the uncountable absence of THE FARMER AND THE CLOWN in the Caldecott picture after it won the Boston Horn Book, but frankly though I love that book and fully understand Roger’s passion for it, I’d counter to assert that there were several other books whose absence was even more disappointing:

    Galapagos George (Minor)
    A Letter For Leo (Ruzzier)
    My Grandfather’s Coat (McClintock)
    Draw! (Colon)
    Winter Bees (Allen)
    Iridescence of Birds (Hadley)

    and several others…….If I were to lodge a formal complaint to the 16 person Caldcott committe for last year’s results it would (personally) be for the omission for one of the above titles. But as Thom Barthelmess rightly contended last year “not every great book can win” so I remain grateful to the 2015 committee for the superlative job they did all around!!

    But for me it comes down mainly to these:

    Wendell Minor (what an amazing hat trick he accomplished last year!!)
    Barbara McClintock
    Douglas Florian
    Floyd Cooper
    Raul Colon

    Yes there are more, but these FIVE stick out like a sore thumb. I did not include Tomie dePaola like someone above did, as he did win a silver for the masterpiece STREGA NONA. Several illustrators like Melissa Sweet, Pamela Zagerenski and others have won multiple silvers. No Caldecott win is having no gold or silver the way I am interpreting this. Otherwise I’d beat a dead horse and complain how and why a book like “A Ball For Daisy” could have ever emerged victorious over Lane Smith’s GRANDPA GREEN, one of the most beautiful and moving picture books of all time. Lane Smith was robbed that year, even though he did snare an Honor.

    In any case I do appreciate this post, and do hope some of our most valued illustrators win some recognition in the future. Minor and Florian are the Alfred Hitchcocks/Cary Grants of picture books. They have had prolific careers, yet somehow has eluded the radar of the voters, partially because of bad timing and competition, but mainly because of bad luck.

    And I’d put in a good word here for Carin Berger, and Frane Lessac, and am praying all the time that Floyd Cooper hits it real big. His work is just so beautiful and heartfelt. True enough I already mentioned him above.

  11. My bad, I accidentally left off Floyd’s Cooper’s magnificent A DANCE LIKE STARLIGHT as one of last year’s sadly left off titles in the Caldecott race.

    And like everyone else on these pages I am pulling for the brilliant Christian Robinson to win some medals in his sure-to-be illustrious career. Same for Sophie Blackall.

    And talking about prolific veterans who haven’t yet won Caldecott recognition, I also pose Bob Staake. Don’t know how I forgot to mention him in my initial comment. He has done some sublime work for sure.

  12. Sam Bloom says:

    *cough* KADIR NELSON *cough cough*

  13. Robin Smith Robin Smith says:

    There are so many parts of the criteria that are incomprehensible to me, a bear of very little brain, that it would be impossible to list all of the confusing parts. When I was on The Committee, I had to ask many questions and hope I knew the most distinguished book when I saw it.

    I do love seeing everyone’s lists of favorite unrecognized-by-the-Caldecott-Committee-illustrators. The list is very long indeed and should make everyone realize how few folks have won these stickers–especially the gold sticker–out of all the wonderful books published each year. That’s why I am so grateful for the other lists: the state lists, the ones given by colleges, the lists from illustrators, from bloggers, from our own Horn Book…

    I always have such mixed feeling on that Monday morning at Midwinter–I know someone is going to be ecstatic and many many more folks are going to be miserable.

  14. Sam Juliano says:

    Sam, I am 100% with you on Nelson and fondly remember what Ms Horn in said jokingly once about his failure to win the gold along the lines that he could paint the Sist in e Chapel as an option!! Gotta love it!! I know Nelson won a few Caldecott Honors so I didn’t mention him, but you are right he should win the Medal.

  15. Carol Plummer says:

    Long overlooked, “due a Caldecott”. How can Eric Carle’s iconic work not have won? How about this year’s entry?

  16. It makes me feel so good to be included on the coulda-shoulda list in the comments here.Thank you! I too would like to see Douglas Florian win, and I would add Calef Brown to the list.

  17. Thom Barthelmess says:

    I agree with Robin as to how interesting it is to see the different names folks put on their deserve-to-be-recognized lists. Mine begins with Elisha Cooper and includes Byron Barton, R. Gregory Christie, LeUyen Pham, and Sean Qualls.

    I also find it interesting to think beyond style when we think of “individually distinct.” Perhaps we’re not looking for art that is distinct, so much as distinction in the ways that art is employed to tell a story. Consider someone like Peter Sís. While his style is always recognizable as his (to me, at least), his three honor citations went to books that were distinguished in the way the illustrations convey meaning beyond the things they represent. The layers of marginalia in Starry Messenger, the optical tricks in Tibet Through the Red Box, the color and paneling in The Wall, these elements all contribute to the reader’s knowledge about their subjects with real sophistication.

    How the committee examines those elements without holding them up against the canon is another matter. If we’re really only looking at the other books still on the table, “individually distinct” becomes more or less meaningless when we’re down to the final dozen or so (and when, arguably, the job is at its hardest). So, we’re back to excellence, which is, maybe, not a bad place to be.

    Thanks for the conversation (and the opportunity to sing the praises of our overlooked favorites).

  18. sue corbett says:

    I completely concur with Kadir Nelson on the “due” list. Never really could buy the argument that WE ARE THE SHIP didn’t meet the criteria. And I’m with the crew that says FARMER AND THE CLOWN should’ve elevated the incomparable Frazee to gold status. But here’s an artist whose work I adore whose name I never see mentioned in these discussions: David McPhail. Has there ever been anyone better at depicting the quotidian lives of boys and bears?

  19. KT Horning says:

    I’m going to go with an oldie — Tana Hoban. If anyone ever deserved recognition for photography as an art form, it was her.

  20. Actually it was my understanding that one of the reasons the Laura Ingalls Wilder award was created was to honor those people — such as LIW whose books, each year somehow missed receiving the big awards but eventually became so popular that they did not stand out… I think Eric Carle lands in that category, as does Steven Kellogg, Barbara McClintock and so forth. The LIW award was a second chance if you will to honor those whose work was worthy but not given the award.
    Who remembers the book that won the Newbery while Charlotte’s Web rested on its laurels?
    One reason why I would like to see a Caldecott LIST — not just the award books themselves.

  21. Sharon Verbeten says:

    Great and insightful commentary all around! My list would include Kadir Nelson, of course, Wililam Joyce and Jason Chin, who illustrated the amazing Water is Water this year!

  22. Edwin Fotheringham has illustrated some amazing nonfiction picture books. I don’t think he has anything in contention for this year, but maybe another year…

  23. Jeanne Ragonese says:

    Tomie De Paola at least won a Caldecott Honor for the first Strega Nona years ago, though he’s illustrated so many other stunning books, and definitely deserves the gold for at least one of them. But seriously, who did Jan Brett get on the wrong side of that her beautiful, detailed illustrations have NEVER won any kind of Caldecott??? Kind of boggles the mind, especially when there are other illustrators who have won several. Now I think that Paul Zelinksy’s illustrations are gorgeous, but why did he win several times, as has Chris Van Allsburg(who I also think is fantastic), when their styles are very similar in all their books too?

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