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The 2019 Robin Smith Picture Book Prize

Perched on her rocking chair (brightly painted by her students with Alabama outsider artist Chris Clark), teacher Robin Smith would launch with glee and gusto into a beloved picture book, her second graders in a semicircle at her feet. Every day for 24 years she would read to her students — hundreds of picture books every year and plenty of chapter books, too.

Robin knew children’s literature well. She served on the Caldecott, Geisel, and Boston Globe–Horn Book Award committees as well as the Coretta Scott King jury. She co-founded the Calling Caldecott blog, and she reviewed for The Horn Book Magazine and Kirkus Reviews.

Robin was my wife, and she died of cancer on June 22, 2017, at age 57. Her legacy was reflected at her memorial service, held at the school where she taught (and where I still teach). The auditorium was full, and her students, some now adults, came wearing scarves and hats and sweaters knitted when they were in Ms. Smith’s class. (Every single student learned to knit from Ms. Smith.) Some took turns reading Alice McLerran’s and Barbara Cooney’s Roxaboxen aloud. Others told stories of her class and of how they became readers with her. Many had visited her at Alive Hospice — including a young girl standing by Robin’s hospice bed, reading aloud her original poem inspired by a poem read in Ms. Smith’s class a few years before. (I believe it was Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Recuerdo.”)

I am grateful to the Horn Book for inaugurating the Robin Smith Picture Book Prize last year, when Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen’s The Wolf, the Duck, and the Mouse won and established the criterion I will use for this year’s winner, which is: Which book can I most vividly imagine Robin reading from her rocking chair, the book that is so beautiful and so good for reading aloud that I can see that gleam in her eyes and that infectious smile I miss so much? This year the Robin Smith Picture Book Prize goes to Sophie Blackall’s Hello Lighthouse. It won the Caldecott Medal this week, and I am thrilled, but I already knew quite a while ago that this was the book for this year’s Robin Smith Picture Book Prize.

There is so much Robin would have loved about this book (and would have found distinguished based on all of the Caldecott criteria): the portrait orientation; the glowing Chinese ink and watercolor illustrations; the gatefolds that make the ocean appear even more expansive, balanced by the human stories enclosed within circles; and, of course, the steadfast lighthouse. Robin would have loved involving students in the sound effects of the story — “HELLO! HELLO! HELLO!”

Last summer, my family and friends returned to Robin’s beloved Little Cranberry Island in Maine, where she wished to have her ashes scattered. We scattered ashes all over Robin’s favorite spots on the island and even in the wind from the back of the mailboat. Our return to the island where we had vacationed each summer with family and friends — including our friend Ashley Bryan, who first invited us to “his island” — was our way of saying to Robin, “Hello, hello, hello.”

 

About Dean Schneider

Dean Schneider teaches seventh and eighth grades at the Ensworth School in Nashville, Tennessee.

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Comments

  1. I too would have concluded this book would be Robin’s special cup of tea, and I know only a tiny fraction about her. I applaud her perceived choice, this great picture book masterpiece, and this wonderful award, which I wish will go on forever. This is such a beautiful and deeply moving post.

  2. What a tribute. So many lives touched by the beauty of the book, the prize, Robin, and your words, Dean.

  3. Thanks, Dean. I also wish she were still here to read it to her students. I miss that smile you write about.

  4. K.K. Wynn says:

    I just read this beautiful book aloud, and the students and I were hanging on to every word. Robin would have read it with such eloquence and emphasis. This award is the perfect match for an exemplary educator and a spectacular book.

  5. Martha V. Parravano Martha V. Parravano says:

    Dean, thank you for writing this brave and heart-breaking and ultimately uplifting post. You are so right: I can just hear Robin reading this book aloud and saying “hello, hello, hello” 🙂
    Thank you for making that connection. And I love the idea of continuing to say “hello, hello, hello” to Robin. That’s so important. I’m going to say it, often. xoxo

  6. Sara pullen says:

    Dean, what a beautiful piece of writing. I miss Robin every day, and I can’t wait to read this book with our 3 kids – they sleep every night beneath her quilts, and love stories about “Ms. Robin” making them before they were born. oxoxo Sara

  7. This made me cry and walk away for a little while. It’s so poignant that Robin is gone, and yet as you illuminate, she left her mark on so many of us that we can vividly imagine her now. I loved talking Notables with her as she sat and knit.

  8. Allison Grover Khoury says:

    Thank you, Dean, for sharing your heart and your vision of Robin. What a lovely choice for this year’s award. Although I only knew Robin through this blog. I looked forward to, and savored, each post and review she wrote. Her spirit is very much felt here and is ably honored and carried forward by Martha and Jules.

  9. Deborah Hopkinson says:

    Thank you so much for this. I was at midwinter this weekend, my first time since 2013, also in Seattle and a special year for me. And this weekend I kept thinking of how much I miss
    running into Robin in the aisles and hearing about her favorite books, or maybe even grabbing lunch. Our last lunch turned out to be smoothies in Anaheim because the lines were so long but she was worried you needed more sustenance. Robin and you opened your hearts to so many, many people. We are ever grateful.

  10. Sylvia Vardell says:

    What a brave and beautiful post. Thanks so much for sharing this, Dean. I wish I had known Robin more, but her impact clearly continues to ripple across time. What better legacy than sharing her love of good books for children?

  11. This is such a wonderful and perfect way to honor Robin. I think of her often and miss that great hostess who (along with you, Dean,) welcomed everyone into her home and her heart.

  12. Like the lighthouse, Robin was steadfast. She loved her students, friends, and dear family with a steadfast and intentional love. Whenever I spent time with Robin, I came away feeling wiser, inspired, known, and oh so loved. As Dean writes, “her infectious smile” had the power to turn a day around. I type this with the “Be A Robin Reader” poster and Robin’s colorful rocking chair in clear view. They are my touchstones. They are my lighthouse. They are Robin “guiding {me} on my way.”

  13. Kathleen F Odean says:

    Wonderful choice. Great to have this book award to honor Robin.

  14. Molly Sloan says:

    What a beautiful legacy for a teacher who loved picture books. This award will be an annual reminder of the lasting gifts of good teachers and beloved books. I will add a book plate to the front of the books in my library you choose in Robin’s honor. Even though I only knew her through her thoughtful posts here, I will be glad to remember her each year as I place the book plate in her special book.

  15. sophie blackall says:

    Oh, Dean, what an achingly beautiful description of Robin’s legacy. The image of all her students coming in their knitted hats and scarves made me blurry-eyed.
    And now I want to visit Robin’s island.
    This award means more to me than you can possibly imagine.
    Thank you, all, so much.

  16. Georgeanne Chapman says:

    Can’t you just see Robin sitting on her favorite island reading to the school children there and then settling in with her knitting. The continual motion of the light – a beacon of care. That was Robin.

  17. Allison Hammond says:

    This is the perfect book to shine its beacon light to young readers in Robin’s name. Imagine a child beginning a lifelong journey here on this rock. To whom it may concern: Please know that Dean’s home team has been uplifted peripherally by the support that buoyed him up in Seattle.

  18. Jessica Pasley says:

    Well said Dean. Absolutely on the mark!
    Miss her in so many ways. But when I look over at Gigi – she shines right through 🙂
    Congrats on the second prized named in her honor.
    Hugs,
    Jessica

  19. Gregory Lum says:

    Dean,
    What a wonderful tribute to your dear wife, Robin. Although I left Ensworth a year or two before the two of you arrived, I seemed to always run into you or Robin at annual or midwinter. I enjoyed our brief conversations together to get the Ensworth “gossip.” May our professional paths continue to cross.
    God Bless,
    Gregory

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