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Silver medals

Radiant ChildHello, everyone. I’m back from ALA’s annual conference, which began (for me) with the devastatingly sad news that Robin Smith, co-author of this blog, had died, and ended (for me) with the Newbery/Caldecott/Wilder banquet. I will be using this space to remember our beloved Robin in the near future — oh, let’s face it, I’ll probably be using this space to remember her forever. And over the next few weeks I will be re-upping some earlier Robin Calling Caldecott posts full of her wit and wisdom.

But today I asked myself (a la Julie Danielson), What Would Robin Do? I think she would be using this platform to call attention to something Javaka Steptoe, winner of the 2017 Caldecott Medal for Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, said in his Caldecott acceptance speech at that N/C/W banquet. He thanked Jerry Pinkney and Leo (and Diane) Dillon — the only African Americans to receive the Caldecott Medal before him — then thanked his father, John Steptoe, and all the African Americans who’d received Caldecott Honors: “It is on your shoulders I stand.” Then, in an extemporaneous addition to his prepared remarks, he said that because of our history of racism, he considers those silver medals — those Caldecott Honors — to be gold medals.

I thought I’d back Javaka Steptoe up with some facts.

The first year in the history of the award that an African American illustrator won Caldecott recognition was 1972, when Tom Feelings won an Honor for Moja Means One. And we all remember that the Caldecott was established in 1938. So that’s a solid thirty-three years with no recognition whatsoever.

Just so we get the whole picture, here’s the complete list of pertinent Caldecott years, illustrators, and titles of the honor books and winners. (If I’ve made any errors of omission or commission, I apologize in advance, and please correct me in the comments.)


1972 Tom Feelings: Honor for Moja Means One: A Swahili Counting Book (Medal winner: One Fine Day)

1975 Tom Feelings: Honor for Jambo Means Hello: A Swahili Alphabet Book (Medal winner: Arrow to the Sun)

1976 Leo and Diane Dillon: Medal for Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears

1977 Leo and Diane Dillon: Medal for Ashanti to Zulu: African Traditions

1979 Donald Crews: Honor for Freight Train (Medal winner: The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses)

1981 Donald Crews: Honor for Truck (Medal winner: Fables)

1985 John Steptoe: Honor for The Story of Jumping Mouse (Medal winner: Saint George and the Dragon)

1988 John Steptoe: Honor for Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters (Medal winner: Owl Moon)

1989 Jerry Pinkney: Honor for Mirandy and Brother Wind (Medal winner: Song and Dance Man)

1990 Jerry Pinkney: Honor for The Talking Eggs (Medal winner: Lon Po Po)

1992 Faith Ringgold: Honor for Tar Beach (Medal winner: Tuesday)

1993 Carole Byard: Honor for Working Cotton (Medal winner: Mirette on the High Wire)

1995 Jerry Pinkney: Honor for John Henry (Medal winner: Smoky Night)

1996 Brian Pinkney: Honor for The Faithful Friend (Medal winner: Officer Buckle and Gloria)

1998 Christopher Myers: Honor for Harlem (Medal winner: Rapunzel)

1999 Brian Pinkney: Honor for Duke Ellington (Medal winner: Snowflake Bentley)

2000 Jerry Pinkney: Honor for The Ugly Duckling (Medal winner: Joseph Had a Little Overcoat)

2002 Bryan Collier: Honor for Martin’s Big Words (Medal winner: The Three Pigs)

2003 Jerry Pinkney: Honor for Noah’s Ark (Medal winner: My Friend Rabbit)

2005 E. B. Lewis: for Coming On Home Soon (Medal winner: Kitten’s First Full Moon)

2006 Bryan Collier: Honor for Rosa (Medal winner: The Hello, Goodbye Window)

2007 Kadir Nelson: Honor for MosesWhen Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom (Medal winner: Flotsam)

2008 Kadir Nelson: Honor for Henry’s Freedom Box (Medal winner: The Invention of Hugo Cabret)

2010 Jerry Pinkney: Medal for Lion and the Mouse

2011 Bryan Collier: Honor for Dave the Potter (Medal winner: A Sick Day for Amos McGee)

2016 Bryan Collier: Honor for Trombone Shorty (Medal winner: Finding Winnie)

2106 Ekua Holmes: Honor for Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement

2016 Christian Robinson: Honor for Last Stop on Market Street

2017 Javaka Steptoe: Winner for Radiant Child

2017 R. Gregory Christie: Honor for Freedom in Congo Square

“Silver medals” that just as easily could have been gold? I’m sure we all see them. Thank you, Javaka Steptoe, for bringing them to our attention; and for elevating them.

And while we’re here: count the number of books. In eighty years of the award’s existence, a total of thirty books illustrated by African Americans have been recognized. And if we look at the number of distinct individuals, that number is even lower: just sixteen different illustrators have won those 30 Medals and Honors. But look at the last two years: four new names (including a woman — one of only three in the history of the award).

We’re making progress, I hope. Radiant Child winning Caldecott gold instead of silver is only part of that progress, though. Radiant Child is absolutely spectacular, a work of genius, and in any universe and by any measure deserved to win the Caldecott Medal. True progress will have been made when illustrators of color don’t have to go up against both institutionalized white privilege and accusations that award committees are now promoting diversity for diversity’s sake.

Personally, I’ll be celebrating Radiant Child‘s radiant gold medal all year, and also those past silver medals, the “shoulders” its creator stood on.



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. Therese Bigelow says:

    Thank you for putting this together.

  2. Connie Rockman says:

    1996 – Brian Pinkney: Honor for The Faithful Friend (Medal Winner: Officer Buckle and Gloria)

  3. Martha V. Parravano Martha V. Parravano says:

    Ack! Thank you, Connie. List updated. And again, my apologies for the error!

  4. Shirley Wayland says:

    Yes, thanks for your work explaining who won what and when–all very deserving. I think the committees really try to pick the best of the best, regardless of race, and that’s the way it should be. I am sorry if there are resentments about “not enough”. People are more aware all the time so eventually (why not now? “) everyone can realize the best was chosen without having to think “remember diversity”.

  5. Thanks for pulling all this information together Martha. I’d love to see a distillation of Asian American, First Nations and Hispanic American illustrators as well. And the curious scarcity of female winners is also worth pondering. And I would hope not so much as a stick to beat the committee with, but more as a data point going forward. I’m finish it fascinating how some awarded titles really stand the test of time and actively circulate in the bookstore where I work, and some just don’t move at all in spite of their excellence.

  6. Allison Grover Khoury says:

    Thank you for your words of insight and the careful tracking of African American artist silver wins for astounding art and creation. I look forward to even more beautiful work, racial justice, inclusiveness, equality, social action, inspiration in children’s publishing.
    And thank you for honoring Robin.

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