A Refresher on Caldecott Criteria

Every Caldecott season, I get super excited about a picture book and think it’s Caldecott-worthy only to realize that it’s not eligible for the award for one reason or another (usually it’s because the illustrator is not a resident or citizen of the US), so let’s take a minute to do a quick overview of the award criteria. 

I’m going to try to distill this as much as I can here, because it can get pretty detailed. If you’re up for nerding out on that granular level, check out the Caldecott Terms and Criteria here or even download the Caldecott committee manual here, which puts each facet of the award under a microscope. 

In its most basic definition, the Caldecott is “given annually to the illustrator of the most distinguished American picture book for children, in English, from among those published during the preceding year.”

That’s pretty dense. Let’s dissect this into a few points that we can keep in mind while reading: 

  •  The Caldecott is awarded to an artist for their illustration work. Sometimes the artist and author are the same person, but that’s not always so. 

  • The award is restricted to artists who are citizens or residents of the United States.  Books published in a U.S. territory or U.S. commonwealth are eligible.

  • A picture book provides a child with a “visual experience,” has a “collective unity of story-line, theme, or concept, developed through the series of pictures that comprise the book

  • The book’s intended audience is children and respects a child’s “understandings, abilities, and appreciations.” For the Caldecott, a child is ranged up to 14 years and picture books within this entire range can be considered. 

  • The Caldecott defines “Distinguished” as: 

    • Marked by eminence and distinction; noted for significant achievement.

    • Marked by excellence in quality.

    • Marked by conspicuous excellence or eminence. 

    • Individually distinct.

That’s all great, you are probably thinking, but it’s...kinda vague. 

That’s part of the beauty of it, because it allows space for argument, novelty, and unique interpretation of the criteria. It’s what allows for books demonstrating such diverse illustration work — and books that might even stretch the definition of picture book--to encompass exciting new forms. 

If you made it this far in such a dense, definition-heavy post, congratulations! You read all of the words and earned the Serious Reader award! 

In the comments below, let us know which Caldecott criteria you find the most helpful, the most confusing, or the most useful when discussing Caldecott contenders.

Julie Hakim Azzam

Calling Caldecott co-author Julie Hakim Azzam is the assistant director of the MFA program in the School of Art at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She holds a PhD in literary and cultrual studies, with a specialization in comparative contemporary postcolonial literature from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and Southeast Asia. Her most recent work focuses on children's literature, stories about immigrants and refugees, and youth coping with disability.

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Thanks so much, Julie! I have to admit that trying to get my head around a hard and fast definition of the word "distinguished" is impossible, so I tend to rely on the (to my mind) clearer criteria:

In identifying a “distinguished American picture book for children,” defined as illustration, committee members need to consider: Excellence of execution in the artistic technique employed; Excellence of pictorial interpretation of story, theme, or concept; Appropriateness of style of illustration to the story, theme or concept; Delineation of plot, theme, characters, setting, mood or information through the pictures; Excellence of presentation in recognition of a child audience."

They feel more concrete and workable to me.

Posted : Sep 12, 2023 07:04

Julie Azzam

This is really helpful- thank you! It gives more concrete examples of how a work can manifest its "distinguished" qualities in the illustrations.

Posted : Sep 12, 2023 07:04

KT Horning

Thanks for opening up this discussion, Julie. In reading over these terms, it seems to me that they would apply just as easily to graphic novels as they would to traditional picture books. Why do you (or other readers here) think graphic novels are so rarely awarded by the Caldecott Committee? They are more often cited by the Newbery Committee but it seems to me it’d be easier to make a case for Caldecott than Newbery when it comes to graphic novels.

Posted : Sep 12, 2023 04:40

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Such a great question, KT. I have to think it's partially unfamiliarity with the form (although that is surely changing as comics literacy among librarians and readers in general improves) as well as a certain discomfort in comparing traditional picture books to graphic novels. But they surely qualify as a "visual experience for a child!

Posted : Sep 12, 2023 04:40

Julie Azzam

Thanks for posing this question, KT! It's something I continually grapple with, myself. I find myself being caught between the phrase that specifies the award goes to a "distinguished American picture book," which seems specific and limited to a traditional picture book and a work that presents a “visual experience” that has a “collective unity of story-line" suitable for someone up to the age of 14, which would absolutely open the door to graphic novels. I think ultimately there is a space for some crossover here, as an exceptionally rendered graphic novel could fit the parameters of both the Caldecott and the Newberry. Wouldn't that be exciting!? What do others think about this issue? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Posted : Sep 12, 2023 04:40



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