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All A-Board: Why the Hell Hasn’t a Board Book Won the Caldecott!?

Today on Calling Caldecott, a conversation between Elisa Gall and Jonathan Hunt about board books and the Caldecott Award. (If you missed it, last year they asked a similar question: Why the hell hasn’t photography won the Caldecott?!?) —J.D.

ELISA GALL: Thanks to Allison Kaplan’s 2012 Children and Libraries article “From Board to Cloth and Back Again,” I know that the board book format has been around since the 1800s. Dorothy Kunhardt’s classic board book Pat the Bunny dates back to 1940 (just a few years after the first Caldecott was awarded). It seems like board books getting overlooked by Caldecott committees is a tradition as old as the Medal itself. So what’s going on here? To me, there are SO MANY reasons we could say the Medal has not gone to a board book creator — the most obvious in recent years being that of eligibility.

JONATHAN HUNT: I am ready to pin a Caldecott Medal or Honor on Llamaphones by Janik Coat, but she is French and lives in Paris. It’s every bit as delightful as her previous wordplay board books, Hippopposites and RhymocerosLlamaphones has three starred reviews (which is like a regular book getting six starred reviews).

To my mind, there are three things that elevate this book (if it were, in fact, eligible). First, the bold, graphic, green llama is featured in every homophone pair, creating a comforting pattern for young readers, yet the variations and permutations to the llama in every spread keep it interesting — and funny. Second, the tactile elements (such as the hands on the clock, a peek-a-boo flap, and the fairy glitter) reinforce this theme of stability and change; we don’t see the same tactile variation that we see in the full range of picture books when it comes to paper stock, so these kind of elements are especially appreciated in a board book. And finally, did I mention the book is funny? Hilarious, in fact. The wordplay, coupled with the surprising twists and the llama’s deadpan stare, create a book that will appeal to the youngest of readers — and to older children as well. Some people may think that a concept book on homophones is beyond this age group, and I was sympathetic to this argument until I read it (and reread it endlessly) with my then four-year-old, who has proceeded to generate homophone pairs with spontaneity and relative ease in the ensuing months. (“Eight like the number; Ate like eating food — those are llamaphones!”)

I’m not going to belabor these points, but I think this book also provides ample evidence that the Caldecott drought is probably not simply a single bias against board books. It’s the interplay of multiple biases: a bias against books for young children (babies and toddlers), a bias against books in a series (Leslie Patricelli, anyone?), a bias against concept books (once you get past Green and First the Egg by Laura Vaccaro Seeger, it’s pretty sparse Caldecott terrain), and, yes, a preference for the elegance of paper over the practicality of board.

ELISA: I think the bias against books for children at both ends of the 0-14 age range is always an issue, and that bias against books for babies and toddlers is so real. Board books are typically small and short. Individual copies do not last long, on account of how they are often chewed up when being enjoyed by small readers. All of this must influence (even subconscious) perceptions that these books are less than literary. (Some folks even call them “throw-away” books.) Gosh, I love Llamaphones too. So many of the board books we see are ineligible by being international or adaptations of previously published picture books. Throw those biases you described in with a microscopic pool of eligible contenders, and it’s no wonder we haven’t seen a board book win the Caldecott just yet.

I do have one book from this year that I would nominate if I were on this year’s committee, though: Black Bird Yellow Sun by Steve Light. Black Bird and its ever-present (yet unnamed) worm friend spend a day together, surrounded by the colors and objects of their natural environment. The text of the story is straightforward: eight couplets each starting with “Black Bird” and followed by color – object. In the accompanying visual spreads, every hue and item is celebrated through spongey, textured illustrations. A collage approach results in cut-out paper characters (Black Bird and worm) resting flat above, beside, and on top of textured printed forms (leaves, grapes, grass, and more). This invites exploration and offers contrast, creating a protagonist that is easily recognized on each page. The stylized, simplified representations of objects allow their colors to shine, with layered paint showing different shades of the same color. Because the characters are ever-moving, they are seen in varying positions, and their settings are shown from different perspectives. On the book’s final spread, readers see a mirror of the first. Instead of a bright yellow morning sun, blues signify nighttime. Black Bird’s eye is closed (instead of open), and the tree branch is now facing in the opposite direction. The worm, once outstretched and wiggly, is now curling up. All of this offers closure and serenity, as well as a reminder that this book about colors is also about one day, which is now over. The design of this book, with smart placement of objects and text alike, contributes to a steady pacing and clarity of concept. In short, this is the best of visual storytelling for the youngest of readers. And if we’re looking at stars, this book only got two. But like you say, that’s a lot for a board book!

JONATHAN: Certainly, ages 5-8 seems to be the sweet spot for the Caldecott (unlike the Newbery and Printz awards, which consistently flirt with the upper end of their age ranges). There is actually a section in the back of the manual that addresses how and when you might award a book for a 13- or 14-year-old; there is no corresponding section for the other end of the spectrum. Here’s some of that relevant language:

“If a book is challenging, and suitable for 13-14-year-olds but not for younger readers, is it eligible? Yes; but it can be given an award only if it does what it sets out to do as well as or better than other, younger books that are also eligible.” 

Now this seems more relevant to Newbery than Caldecott, but couldn’t we propose a similar guideline for picture books — that is, picture books for ages 5-8 can only be given recognition if they set out to do as well or better than those books for ages 0-4? This line implies that there is a moving target for each picture book, based on the needs and demands of the audience, and that’s also written into the definitions (“The book displays respect for children’s understandings, abilities, and appreciations”) and the terms (“Excellence of presentation in recognition of a child audience”). It’s easy to dismiss books for the very young, but we really need to fight that impulse.

I have long been a fan of Steve Light’s work; Planes Go with its three starred reviews was published during my Caldecott year (as was his picture book Have You Seen My Dragon?). Like you, I can get behind Black Bird Yellow Sun for a Caldecott nomination. For me, Light’s use of color, texture, and medium in service of the theme or concept is unparalleled. We see the same stability-versus-change theme that we saw in Llamaphones — that is, that something stays the same (the characters), while something else (the setting) changes. I also love that you get not one concept, but two: not only is this a color book, but it’s an “I spy” kind of book, as the young child must locate the worm on every spread. While Llamaphones has a wider audience range, Black Bird Yellow Sun with its 16 pages and “ages 0-3” label is short and sweet and simple. But I’m convinced that if the committee members will actually share this book with babies and toddlers, they will become just as enamored of this book as we are.

ELISA: From what I can tell, it’s the only board book (besides Llamaphones) that was mentioned in the comments of the “Taking a Peek at 2018” post Jules Danielson shared earlier this year. Betsy Bird seems to agree with us on it too. I love that you remember Planes Go as a past (perhaps overlooked) favorite. (In 2015, I felt strongly about Whose Tools? by Toni Buzzeo and Jim Datz, but alas…) Your thoughts about hoping the committee shares this book with young children makes me think of something Louise Seaman Bechtel wrote (for the Horn Book) in 1941: that “very few publishers or authors seem to know babies, or be willing to take the time for trying out material on them.” That’s quite a statement. I think things have changed since then, yet there are always strong and weak picture books for all age ranges. That quote focuses on publishers, but I also hope that librarians continue to advocate for excellence in visual storytelling for all youth. While I don’t know if Bechtel considered board books a type of picture book (under the Caldecott definition), I do believe that she’d agree with us that grownups need to take board books and the children who engage with them seriously. Can you imagine how people would respond if a book with cardboard pages won the Medal this year?!

JONATHAN: Julie Roach also mentioned Black Bird Yellow Sun in her recent Horn Book board book roundup, “Treasure Hunting in the Public Library.” I feel like we cast our net fairly wide, and while there are another handful of board books that I admire for their own merits, I find that when I stack them up against Yuyi Morales’s Dreamers, Grace Lin’s A Big Mooncake for Little Star, and other picture books that are clustered at the top of my starred review list, I can’t help but feel like Black Bird Yellow Sun (and Llamaphones; I just cannot let it go!) are the cream of the board book crop that could compete head-to-head with those kinds of books.

ELISA: Yep. While there is certainly no rule limiting how many board books could potentially receive Calde-recognition, I agree that Light’s is a sure-fire stand-out. Let’s hope this year’s committee does too!

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.

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Comments

  1. Nancy Oliviero says:

    I agree Steve Light, has captured the baby market, with Black Bird, and should indeed win the Caldecott

  2. Rachel Payne says:

    Thank you for writing this piece! I have often wondered when a board book might win and you all make some wonderful points. If anyone could pull off winning a Caldecott for a board book it is Steve Light (and he’s American!). I think another issue is that good board books are deceptively simple and people don’t often see their artistry. Will committee members recognize the brilliance of a black bird in various settings, a study in contrast and tension? I think some confuse sophistication with excellence. And as you note some of the masters of the board book form are not American, like Taro Gomi for instance.

    As someone who reviews board books, there are also fewer board books released each year in comparison to picture books. Also more than I would like admit, many board books are quite formulaic and developmentally inappropriate (there is even one on Schrödinger’s cat!). Publishing houses are beginning to recognize the possibilities of the format, but many are still dismissive of it. I have been at publisher previews and editors are surprised I am interested in what they are publishing in board book! And board books can’t escape the association with “novelty books.” I have had librarians tell they don’t consider board books “real” books. Prejudice abounds!

    Thanks again for a thoughtful piece!

  3. Black Bird Yellow Sun is fantastic. It ticks all the boxes. Steve uses a similar collage/printing technique in a 2019 release called Mama Tiger Tiger Cub.

  4. Remember that the Printz was invented so the Newbery could remain as a book for elementary through middle school books and YA could have its own prize so false argument there if you want (as I do) board books to win the Big C.

    Jane

  5. Meggan Conway says:

    I think that for a long time board books were not Caldecott worthy. They were often no more than photos of household items or animals or the alphabet. Not that they weren’t good books, but they seemed just utilitarian to me. Then I began to see picture books re-imagined as board books. This led to the board book coming into its own as a literary work of art. I agree that it’s now time to recognize that. I also believe that board book versions of previously released picture books should not be eligible. There are so many beautiful original board books that are worthy of an award.

  6. Count me as another Llamaphan! I’ve just returned from PNBA with a bunch of new picture books and board books to admire. I’ll have to sort through them to see if any are that look like they belong in the Caldecott conversation. I’m becoming a bigger fan of Richard Van Camp with every passing year and he has a photo illustrated book counting kisses that is a joyful celebration of brown babies. Absolutely heart melting. Tragically ineligible.

    I have another eligibility question. I’ve been looking at the picture books from Sealaska Heritage Institute which have been published by tribes of Alaska and only available by grant to those tribes. But recently they have become available for sale outside of that community. They have a collection of a dozen picture books with more on the way–all written, illustrated, edited and produced by the Tlingit, Haida, & Tsimshian. Their picture book Shanyaak’utlaax Salmon Boy, won the 2018 American Indian Youth Lit. Pic. Book Award. So how would you calculate the year of eligibility for these books, the year they were first made for their own tribe or the year they were publicly available?

    If they have to be created this year, please keep an eye out for This trio of Raven tales published in Dec of 2018. Raven and the Tide Lady illustrates. by Michaela Goade (Tlingit Raven), Raven Loses His Nose illus. by David Lang (Tsimshian), and Raven Makes the Aleutians by Janine Gibbons (Haida Raven). All three are gorgeous!

  7. Rosanne, I have seen many (if not all) of these Sealaska books, and you’re right: they’re impressive. I don’t know the answer to your question about eligibility. I wonder how we can find out. I would think eligibility would depend on the copyright date, as in the year they became publicly available.

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