Editorial: Bordering on the Absurd (January/February 2020)

This past November we put out a call on the Calling Caldecott blog for mock “nominations,” asking readers to name a few 2019 books they considered top contenders for the Caldecott Medal. Horn Book Editor in Chief Roger Sutton cheekily touted Small in the City — knowing full well that because its illustrator, Sydney Smith, is a Canadian citizen and lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia, that book isn’t eligible. As the Caldecott manual says: “The award is restricted to artists who are citizens or residents of the United States.”

Picture books as expertly illustrated as Smith’s bring into sharp focus how antiquated and risible that rule is. Yes, I know that when the Newbery (1922) and Caldecott (1937) awards were founded, it was hugely important to encourage American writers and illustrators to create books for children; the children’s literature field in the U.S. was in its infancy, and in need of nurturing. But that’s no longer true. Our industry — the whole linked chain of creators, publishers, librarians, and consumers — is not only all grown up and thriving but, on the world stage, dominant.

Outside the sphere of the Association for Library Service to Children, as new children’s book awards are established, few have residency or citizenship requirements. ALA’s Stonewall, Printz, Schneider, William C. Morris: nope. The Boston Globe–Horn Book Awards (which this year chose The Patchwork Bike, created by Australians, as picture book winner; see Maxine Beneba Clarke and Van Thanh Rudd's acceptance speeches): nope. Sydney Taylor, Orbis Pictus, Zolotow…you get the idea. Even Britain’s venerable Carnegie Medal (established back in 1936) changed its rules to open the award to non-British children’s book creators in 1969. Fifty years ago, people! Its companion, the Kate Greenaway Medal — which, sounding very similar to the Caldecott, is awarded for “distinguished illustration in a book for children” — apparently never had official residency or citizenship requirements.

I noted that the industry has changed; so, conceptually, has the world. It’s smaller. People move around; come and go — or are prevented from doing so. I’m willing to bet that ALSC’s priority chairs (who advise the award committees) have a lot more work to do these days checking on creators’ residency and citizenship statuses; both seem much more fungible than they used to be. And what does it matter? Seriously. Let’s consider a hypothetical non-American illustrator living in the United States whose 2018 picture book is published to great acclaim and receives Caldecott recognition. Let’s say that in 2019 she creates a book that presses even more of those Caldecott buttons — but by now she’s relocated to [name any other country]. What makes the new book any less worthy of consideration and recognition? Back to Small in the City: if Sydney Smith created the book while living in Halifax but then drove some 350 miles to the state of Maine and established residency for the year — how would that possibly affect the essence, the quality, of the book? But really, I don’t need to explore all these scenarios. If a book is published in the United States and “essentially provides the child with a visual experience,” it should be eligible for the Caldecott, even if its creator isn’t American, or lives on the other side of the globe. [Ed. note: Others agree! On the same day this issue went to press, Leonard Marcus raised the issue in the New York Times.]

At this point, the Caldecott’s residency/citizenship requirement borders — pun intended — on the absurd. (And of course everything I’ve said here applies to the Newbery as well.) Please, ALSC powers-that-be, reconsider this outdated, irrelevant, and punitive rule. We should be celebrating — and recognizing — the whole glorious world of children’s books published in the United States in 2019, not an arbitrary and exclusionary subset.

From the January/February 2020 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Martha V. Parravano
Martha V. Parravano
Martha V. Parravano is book review editor of The Horn Book, Inc., and co-author of the Calling Caldecott blog.
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Jeff Gottesfeld

Thank you for this important editorial. True story: the artist for my upcoming non-fiction picture book NO STEPS BEHIND: BEATE SIROTA GORDON'S BATTLE FOR WOMEN'S RIGHTS IN JAPAN (Creston, March 3, 2020) is Shiella Witanto. Shiella -- an Indonesian national -- was a permanent resident of the United States, living in San Francisco with a Green Card. She did the artwork for the book while she had that status. However, after six years in the United States, when she applied in 2019 to have her permanent residency renewed, the application was denied by the current American administration. She was ordered to depart the United States or face deportation. She is in Indonesia now. Shiella deserves eligibility for her absolutely dazzling work. So do so many other illustrators.

Posted : Jan 13, 2020 08:15


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