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Why the Hell Hasn’t Photography Won the Caldecott?!?

Today on Calling Caldecott, a conversation between Elisa Gall and Jonathan Hunt about photography as a medium. Say cheese. –J.D.

ELISA GALL: So, last I checked with ALSC Youth Media Awards aficionado K.T. Horning, a photographic picture book has yet to receive Caldecott recognition. There have been books with photographic elements, like Knuffle Bunny (2005 Honor) and Smoky Night (1995 Medal), in which photographs are used for backgrounds. There have been books like Trombone Shorty (2016 Honor), which contain photographs as part of mixed-media collage art. There are also books where the illustrations are photographs of 3D art, like Golem (1997 Medal), Viva Frida (2015 Honor), and Radiant Child (2017 Medal). But a picture book illustrated with straight-up photographs has yet to win. Do you have any thoughts on why that might be the case?

JONATHAN HUNT: My Caldecott committee actually picked two books that fall in that last category — Viva Frida (illustrated by Yuyi Morales) and The Right Word (illustrated by Melissa Sweet). Anyway, as to reasons for not having a “pure” photography book, I think there are several. First, there really isn’t a big pool of books that use photography as the exclusive medium. With the advent of digital technology, we are seeing more and more of them, but we are also seeing lines blurred. People are using that digital technology to manipulate images. Peter Brown, Jon Klassen, and Dan Santat, for example, have been known to scan textures and colors as files and then digitally manipulate them to appear as if they used a hand-crafted medium. Second, I think people don’t realize the award isn’t for the best art; it’s for the best picture book — and that means the words are important, too. You may have a small pool of photography books to begin with, and then you have to narrow it down to those which are also good picture books. Finally, I think there is a perception or a bias that photography does not require as much skill; draftsmanship in various mediums is seen as inherently more artistic. So that’s my theory. Does any of that resonate with you?

ELISA: You’re right that there isn’t a big pool of books that use photography as the exclusive medium. The recent example that always comes to mind for me is My People, for which photographer Charles R. Smith Jr. won the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award in 2010. And we both know that just because a book hasn’t received Caldecott recognition doesn’t mean that it wasn’t part of closed-door deliberations. I’m interested in your idea that draftsmanship in various mediums is seen (even if subconsciously) as inherently more artistic. This is likely true (although I consciously reject the idea that assumed difficulty is a factor necessary for a finished book’s excellence), but I also think part of the reason we haven’t seen a lot of photography books recognized is that many books illustrated with photographs contain “previously published” images and are determined ineligible.

JONATHAN: Meet Cindy Sherman is probably a good book to examine in order to deconstruct the complexity of some of these issues. I think the photography is stunning, but the text-to-picture ratio is such that it doesn’t “feel” like a picture book; it feels like an illustrated book. But here is the Caldecott definition of a picture book:

“A ‘picture book for children’ as distinguished from other books with illustrations, is one that essentially provides the child with a visual experience. A picture book has a collective unity of story-line, theme, or concept, developed through the series of pictures of which the book is comprised.”

Is Meet Cindy Sherman a visual experience? Undoubtedly. Does it have a collective unity of story-line, theme, or concept? Absolutely. The book describes her work as an artist, and the pictures include various portraits of herself in a myriad of guises. If this book were to win — and I don’t think it will; this is more of an intellectual exercise — it would be interesting, because there is no indication that Sherman collaborated on the book with Jordan and Greenberg. I’m not sure that artistic control of the book is explicitly mentioned in the criteria, but isn’t it sort of implied?

I’m also going to push back a bit on your “previously published” comment, because the back of the manual expands on and clarifies this. The intent is to ensure that a book is a new creation and not a re-creation from some other work. This does not mean that some minor portion of the work cannot have appeared elsewhere. It does mean, however, that no significant part of the book under consideration was originally part of another work. Not all cases are clear-cut, and each committee must make its own judgments about originality. Where consensus is not easily reached, the chair should discuss the issue with the priority consultant, who may also consult the ALSC president, the executive director, the board, or previous chairs.

Sherman’s photographs have always been a part of exhibits. They have been published, after the fact, in various books. Some of these photographs may have appeared in other books, but I do think this is essentially a new creation. Others will obviously disagree. This book has so much working against it, but the photography is wonderful, head and shoulders above most of the stuff we’ve seen in children’s books. Perhaps Neal Porter should recruit Cindy Sherman to do an original picture book, so it can become our first “pure” Caldecott photography book?

ELISA: Thanks for sharing those pieces from the manual. It’s fair for you to push back, but I agree with you!  I was making an assumption about how some of the roadblocks to photography you mentioned, mixed with stock photography or images that also appear in art books or elsewhere, might lead a committee to determine a book is ineligible. Unless we are on the committee making the decision, we’ll never know for sure.  The more I think about it, the more I agree with you that there is a bias against photography. Two big ideas are coming to the surface for me:

  1. Photos are everywhere. They are part of our everyday life, so we start to view them as ordinary (read: not fine art), and many of us lack practice and training in evaluating photography critically.
  2. We all can take photos, and it is possible (even if unlikely) for an unskilled person to fortuitously take an amazing photo. It is much more difficult for someone to accidentally create a genius watercolor.

You joke about Neal Porter recruiting Cindy Sherman to do an original picture book, but I can’t think of a photographic picture book with a stronger “visual experience” than Meet Cindy Sherman. Sherman is the illustrator here (you are right that it is implied). Her name is even on the title page (because it is in the title).

This is the Sherman picture book we need, with stand-out visuals coupled with excellent research that spotlights her work and simultaneously scaffolds readers’ understandings, putting the photographs in context. It’s a picture book about a photographer and her photography which uses said photography. (Excellence of execution in technique employed, check. Excellence of pictorial interpretation of theme or concept, check. Appropriateness of style, check. Delineation of theme, mood, or information, check. Excellence of presentation in recognition of a child audience, check.) What else could we ASK FOR?!

The text-to-picture ratio discussion often perplexes me, especially since we can always find examples of text-heavy Caldecotts. I noticed that in trim size and length, April Pulley Sayre’s Full of Fall, which is also illustrated through photography, looks more like a “traditional” picture book. Have you had a chance to take a look at it?

JONATHAN: Yes, I think Full of Fall is another great book to discuss this bias. I think the assumption is that we could have all clicked the button that took those photos; all you have to do is wander outside in New England in the fall. And while that may be true, can’t we all draw the Pigeon, too? I know, I know: there aren’t many books like Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, either. But I definitely think there is an unconscious hierarchy of which mediums require more skill. And this is a poetry book with a light focus on science, neither of which are heavily favored by Caldecott committees over the years, so I think it’s complicated because there are actually multiple biases that are potentially in play.

But laying all that aside for the moment, here’s what I notice about Full of Fall: there’s a great use of color and light; the various textures of the leaves are captured wonderfully; there is a great sense of composition in the full-page spreads and use of frames to present close-up pictures of leaves in contrast to full landscape views, incorporating the surroundings — birds, sky, animals, other plants, water. This provides nice context. I’d love to share this with children!

But here’s the thing: as much as I can appreciate this book, Wolf in the Snow is the high-water mark for me. That book elicits such a strong emotional response, and while I know photography can do that, we don’t see it in picture books. Nor do we see the same degree of narrative storytelling.

ELISA: I completely agree with your assessment of Full of Fall.  Everything you pointed out — from the use of color and light to the alternation between close-ups and views from afar — demonstrates excellence. I love the build-up with smaller frames leading to page turns revealing full-page spreads, not to mention the simple but ever-on-theme orange endpapers. The only downside to this book for me is the typeface, which is light and skinny and can sometimes be hard to find on the page, even when you’re looking for it.

You are right that the triple threat of science, photography, and poetry themes make this book a bit of an oddball. I do think your points about Wolf in the Snow, “strong emotional response,” and “same degree of narrative storytelling” are interesting. This book doesn’t have a strong story per se, and it might feel more workhorse-like than others, but to me that does not make it any less successful in its “collective unity of … concept, developed through the series of pictures of which the book is comprised.” Full of Fall elicits, through its images and to the right reader, a huge emotional response. What better way to evoke the sights, sounds, feels (to your point of texture), and smells of the season? The last one might be a stretch, but to me, this book is like the scent/flavor of pumpkin spice: It’s not for everyone, but those who love it, LOOOOOOOOOOVE it.

I love Wolf in the Snow too, though!

JONATHAN: While I’m not sure that Full of Fall lives up to that Wolf in the Snow standard (or After the Fall), at least for me, I think it compares more favorably to something like In the Middle of the Fall, which also presents a visual narrative of the changing of the seasons.

ELISA: You’ve included the titles of so many other excellent 2017 picture books! While I’m compelled to echo your cheers for After the Fall and list a few of my not-yet-mentioned favorites, due to space limitations I think our support for additional books will have to continue elsewhere. I’ve enjoyed this conversation on photography and believe it’s a great reminder of the challenge and thrill of comparing each book with the next — and how many different kinds of books there are that fit the definition of “picture book” as presented in the Caldecott manual. I trust this year’s committee will have fun learning from each other as they discuss and decide on this year’s most distinguished. I can’t wait to see what they choose!

Do you have a good title idea for this post, other than one that doesn’t use the low hanging fruit of photography puns?

JONATHAN: What about–





About Elisa Gall and Jonathan Hunt

Elisa Gall is the youth collection development librarian at the Deerfield Public Library in Illinois. Jonathan Hunt is the coordinator of library media services at the San Diego County Office of Education.



  1. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    There is at least one children’s book illustrated by Cindy Sherman, Fitcher’s Bird, published in 1992. It got a 5 in the Guide.

  2. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Interesting. You can find images from the book online. It’s a retelling of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale, with text on one page and her illustrations on the other. It reminds me of the Shaun Tan book, THE SINGING BONES.

  3. The other stupendous photography book of 2017 that I feel deserves Caldecott recognition is the most recent collaboration of Helen Frost and Rick Lieder, WAKE UP!, which I wrote a full review of in my annual series. I mentioned and lamented that photography in the purist sense has not yet been awarded. I also absolutely adore FULL OF FALL and I did BEST IN SNOW and will similarly review it,. Like the Frost/Lieder book consider it one of the best picture books of the year, no matter what sub-category it falls into.

    Like others here I am hog wild for WOLF IN THE SNOW, which at least four days of the week I am having as my #1 picture book of 2017, and do understand Mr. Hunt’s comparative point between the forms.

    I am GREATLY looking forward to the planned Calling Caldecott post on FULL OF FALL. I was a big fan of VIVA FRIDA and THE RIGHT WORD too, and saw that they employed photographic methods as well, though of course they were illustrative hybrids.

  4. Elisa Gall says:

    Now I’m going to try to locate an old copy of Fletcher’s Bird. I also need to reread the Sherman book, because a friend of mine, who is an artist, shared this with me today:
    It brings about a whole new set of questions – not about photography as a medium but about what the book creators’ responsibilities are with issues like this. I personally feel misled. I was not given the whole story. No book has to do everything, but to me, the omission feels irresponsible. I’m not sure what contextualizing it might have looked like, or if they DO speak to it in the text and I missed it (hence needing to reread), but I’m interested to know everybody’s thoughts.

  5. Eric Carpenter says:

    Great discussion! I would point out CLAYMATES as another photographic 2017 picture book worth thinking about through the caldecott lens.

    As for MEET CINDY SHERMAN having any chance for a caldecott, I’d have trouble with “no significant part of the book under consideration was originally part of another work”. I would consider the Sherman’s photos part of another work. Untitled Film Stills is a “work” the individual photos that make up the series are there for originally part of another work. I’m not sure how you can get around this.
    Also, you’d think the authors and designer would have found a way to include Untitled Film Still #13 in this book if they wanted to get a room full of librarians on board.

  6. Katie Bircher Katie Bircher says:

    I always think of Sarah Moon’s Little Red Riding Hood adaptation when I think of photography-as-illustration. *shudder*

  7. Ha — you want Creepy-Photography-Kid-Book-That-Didn’t-Get-A-Caldecott? Dare Wright’s The Lonely Doll. I rest my case.

  8. Jonathan Hunt says:

    1. Sam, this *is* the planned FULL OF FALL post. It morphed into a general discussion of photography and a particular discussion of MEET CINDY SHERMAN and FULL OF FALL.

    2. Elisa, thanks for that link. I’ve gone down quite a few rabbit holes looking for information about the Bus Riders series–most, if not all, of the photos can be seen online with a simple Google search. It’s been fascinating reading (and viewing) and much of it mirrors that conversations that we’ve been having in our field the past several years. I think it’s worth unpacking this in greater depth. Any takers?

    3. Eric, to be sure, most people will get hung up on the photographs as “original” material, but I do find that section from the back illuminating. CARVER by Marilyn Nelson, one of my favorite Newbery Honor books ever, is comprised of many poems that were previously published. I don’t remember the exact number, but I think it’s at least half the book, if not more. Each of those poems was published in a different place and for an audience that did not ostensibly include children. So bringing them all together in that context and adding new poems really did make it a new creation. Is not MEET CINDY SHERMAN the same exact situation? This year’s Caldecott committee need not view CARVER as a precedent; they are free to determine what the criteria mean independent from how past committees have defined them.

  9. Katie Bircher Katie Bircher says:

    Monica: I think I blocked that one from my memory! UGH!

  10. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Are their certain types of stories that you simply cannot tell with photography? Can you develop plot and character? Can you do a wordless book? Can you do a fantasy? I’m wondering . . .

    The following picture books received five starred reviews–


    When I ask myself whether I think any of them could have been easily illustrated with photography with little or no changes, I think maybe BIG CAT, LITTLE CAT; GRAND CANYON; and IN THE MIDDLE OF THE FALL fit in that category.

    Despite being nonfiction, I don’t think RIVERS OF SUNLIGHT would translate at all and similarly THE SECRET PROJECT could be probably be illustrated with archival photographs, but that would take it out of consideration. THE THREE BILLY GOATS GRUFF might work until you got the the troll. I just cannot fathom AFTER THE FALL; THE LEGEND OF ROCK, PAPER, SCISSORS; and WOLF IN THE SNOW being illustrated with “pure” photography.

    Does the medium of photography limit your storytelling ability in the conventional picture book idiom?

  11. Elissa Gershowitz Elissa Gershowitz says:

    Monica and Katie: The Lonely Doll is one I can now see as kinda creepy, but as I child I found utterly enchanting! That funny thing about perspective 😉

  12. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    We regularly see, from regional and self-publishers mostly, picture story books illustrated with photos and the effect is generally amateurish. But I can’t see ruling the medium out–if Cindy Sherman can photograph Bluebeard, why couldn’t Jerry Pinkney photograph a troll?

    I’m remembering a discussion I had with a librarian who regularly ran a mock Caldecott whose winners were routinely the most photorealistic of books. She blamed the teachers in the group, who felt that the best pictures were those most like “real life.”

  13. Thanks for the clarification Jonathan.

    I just went through my picture book collection at school and found two other rather creative and unique books by Rebecca Dudley that serve the medium exceptionally well. Both are quite beautiful. HACK FINDS AN EGG and the sequel HANK HAS A DREAM. I point to them because that are wildly popular with the first grade classes in every instance I’ve used them. As to how they compare or relate to this discussion I’d group them with Yuyi Morales and Melisaa Sweet’s treasures, which won well-deserved Caldecott winners.

    Getting on to FULL OF FALL, it is one of my absolute favorite books of the year. I agree with Jonathan and Elissa on the precision of light, composition and texture, and the book is especially elegiac when one considers that the New England and mid Atlantic autumns (I live in northern NJ right across from Manhattan) we grew up with have been seriously compromised with the environmental havoc caused by global warming that has nearly eliminated the fall season, or at least has shortened that glorious kaleidoscopic window. The word triggers/metaphors are extraordinary, and really succeed in descriptively delineating this glorious process. The “Meet the Trees/Their shapes emerge” double page canvas is wholly ravishing, caught as it is in such burnished hues that it looks more like a photographic/painting hybrid. The “Tree of Life” overhead capture (“Leaves frame trunks light and dark”) brings a metaphysical aura and rarely has photograph brought a kind fo animated “in motion” quality as it does with the duck (“Ripples Reflections”) and the squirrel “”Bark”). With “Limbs and Layers” and “Leafy Lanes” Sayre hails the deciduous quality as passionately as Joyce Kilmer once did, and closes in on their tenuous life span with pristine clarity. (“Margins, Midribs, Sunlit Veins”) The entire process of leaves falling -breaking, landing in pubbles -everything is here aside from people with rakes and after a few lovely lead ins Sayre captures the autumn canvas extraordinaire (“Fall is Ending”) in phantasmogoric splendor, and roof parcel has this medium is closest to heart of the matter. I didn’t have the minor issue Kirkus did with allowing winter to intrude for two reasons. One the aforementioned crowding of the seasons and the other because it a resplendent entry worthy of Frost. This is one instance where a reader is brought to terms physically, emotionally and psychologically with its subject in a practically interactive way that largely would have it in my opinion more in tune with A.E. Housman when he famously asserted “I love no leafless land.”

    Oh how I so adore FULL OF FALL and I hope the committee will be seeing it is some of the same terms. The book is a masterpiece. Thank you so much for the facinating discussion and comment section.

  14. Monica as a doll lover, I liked the Lonly Doll.

  15. Brenda Martin says:

    I thought STRANGER IN THE WOODS (and its follow-ups), while regional and self-published, was hardly “amateurish” in terms of Carl Sams’ photography. Pamela Kirby’s WHAT BLUEBIRDS DO came from Boyds Mills and it was also well-reviewed and an award winner.

  16. I’d like to ask for more clarification on something: Jonathan Hunt says, “I think people don’t realize the award isn’t for the best art; it’s for the best picture book.” But according to the Terms and Criteria on the ALA website, the Caldecott is awarded to the “artist,” not the writer. Is there any information on how these criteria have changed over time? I feel like with many older winners and honored books, the words were almost disregarded in favor of the quality of the art. But maybe that’s just what picture books were like back then.

    Also, the Terms and Criteria define the “artist” as “the illustrator or co-illustrators.” To me, an “illustrator” is one who creates “illustrations”, i.e. drawings or paintings. Are photography books eligible for the Caldecott medal?

    I wonder if, in future years, the terms will need to be amended to define “book” as well.

  17. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I’m not sure how the Caldecott criteria have changed from long ago, but here is the current phrase from the criteria that we are both pointing to: “The Medal shall be awarded annually to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children published by an American publisher in the United States in English during the preceding year.” While the art is obviously an important part of a picture book, even the *most* important part, it’s not the only thing that makes a good picture book. Excellent artwork is called for in the criteria, but so, too, are presentation for a child audience and how suited the illustrations are to the text or narrative of the book.

    Moreover, these phrases–There are no limitations as to the character of the picture book except that the illustrations be original work–and–The only limitation to graphic form is that the form must be one which may be used in a picture book–imply photography is eligible so long as it is included in a picture book.

    And, finally, not to worry: We’ve already defined what a book is for you in the Expanded Criteria and Definitions in the back of the Caldecott Manual–

    BOOK – means that the work was published in book format (pages between covers). Electronic books (e- books) and technological additions (including, but not limited to, CDs, DVDs, or accompanying websites) are specifically excluded from consideration of the book itself. A book published only in electronic format (e-book) is not eligible.

  18. Thanks for making it clearer for me!

  19. Elisa Gall says:

    Something I keep coming back to: “A picture book has a collective unity of story-line, theme, OR concept, developed through the series of pictures of which the book is comprised.” I’m hearing a lot of people say that narrative is more difficult with photography – and maybe it is – but that’s just one type of picture book.
    So much depends on the book itself. MY PEOPLE could have been illustrated in a different medium, but it is successful with photography and it would not be the same book without it. I imagine the challenge for committees in these photographic instances is (among other things) coming to a decision about what is an illustrated book vs. picture book, what contains work that is previously published, and what is a stand-out picture book. I also want to mention that a lot of nonfiction (Nic Bishop much?!) for readers on the older edge of the 0-14 age range use photography, but there’s an obvious age bias on top of the other biases (photography, nonfiction, etc.) we discussed.

    Regarding #CindyGate: a simple Google image search for ‘Cindy Sherman Bus Riders’ shows the photos. I believe that people can grow and change. I know Sherman does not show those images in current shows, and she speaks of being “naive” in her youth, but that’s all I know. I understand not wanting to re-inforce the negative images by featuring them, but I think the choice to not acknowledge and contextualize them looks like brushing it under the rug. I have a lot of maybes in my head about what might have happened in the process… but those are just guesses. The book, as is, is what we have. A lot of picture book biographies leave personal flaws out – BUT this isn’t a personality flaw, it is the work itself. Sherman’s work raises serious concerns, and that requires a serious response.

  20. Elisa Gall says:

    Eric, Untitled Film Still #13 is in there – right at the beginning.

  21. Hello, Roger.
    Yesterday I read your statements: “I’m remembering a discussion I had with a librarian who regularly ran a mock Caldecott whose winners were routinely the most photorealistic of books. She blamed the teachers in the group, who felt that the best pictures were those most like ‘real life.’ ” As a teacher, a children’s librarian in public libraries, a media specialist in public schools, and now an independent publisher and author, your words stayed with me. This evening I read and reposted a blog post by Mark Condon, VP at Unite for Literacy. I underlined three points he makes that directly relate to this topic. To Be a Reader or Not: Children Ultimately Have to Choose In her poem “Night,” Sara Teasdale says, “Look for a lovely thing and you will find it. It is not far— It never will be far.” This is how our youngest children look at our lovely world. Mark Condon writes: “If collaborating teachers and parents can connect each child with books that are solid matches to their home lives, languages and aspirations, then there is a higher likelihood they will recognize the personal benefits to be derived from choosing to read. Otherwise, for kids who are required to read books with content irrelevant to their lives, there is much more work to be done than for their classmates whose lives and language experiences more completely parallel that found in their books…. Then it’s time to celebrate. Lifelong reading and learning begin.” Thank you for your years of devoted work for children’s books.

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