The 2021 Robin Smith Picture Book Prize

It’s hard to believe this is the fourth annual selection for the Robin Smith Picture Book Prize, four years since my wife, Robin Smith, died of cancer at age 57. Robin co-founded Calling Caldecott, reviewed for the Horn Book Magazine and Kirkus Reviews, served on the Caldecott committee and several others, and taught second grade for 24 years.

While it makes me sad to think four years have passed without Robin, it makes me proud of the picture books  chosen, by this prize, to honor her work: Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen’s The Wolf, the Duck, and the Mouse; Sophie Blackall’s Hello Lighthouse; and Elisha Cooper’s River.

When I think of Robin in her classroom, she’s sitting in her rocking chair, her second graders in a semicircle on the floor in front of her, and she’s launching into a favorite picture book, a glint in her eyes and a big smile welcoming children into the world of a beloved book. When I decide on the choices for this prize, I always think of which book would be in Robin’s hands. It must be beautifully illustrated and so beautifully written that I can see that smile and hear that voice I miss so much.

Robin would have loved Phoebe Wahl’s The Blue House. That cover! A scruffy blue house surrounded by beauty. Open the book: a scruffy interior, too. But there is art on the walls, books on shelves, and a real life going on. It’s a loving twosome of a family, as Leo’s father reads to him, cooks with him, and dances with him. They may not have much, but there’s a real life going on in that old house with the peeling paint, leaking roof, and creaky walls.

Robin would have loved the illustrations, rendered in watercolor, gouache, collage, and colored pencil. She was a knitter and quilter and, thus, loved color, texture, and pattern. She would have zeroed in on that quilt on the clothesline, the fishy shower curtain, even the mossy roof so textured and touchable.

Most great children’s picture books have an effective interplay of illustrations and text, and Wahl’s writing is vigorous and great for reading aloud: “The paint was peeling and the roof was mossy. There were leaks and creaks. And when the wind blew, the whole thing shook. But it was theirs.” The antepenultimate spread is a good example of art and text working together: the illustration shows Leo and his father painting a picture of the blue house on the walls of their new house. The text simply says, “And it made them both feel a little more at home.”

I don’t need to point out every good thing about Phoebe Wahl’s picture-book gift to us; Megan Dowd Lambert’s Calling Caldecott post and Horn Book review do that for us. (In mentioning that, I am remembering how Robin and Megan became friends on the 2011 Caldecott Committee that selected A Sick Day for Amos McGee.)

Finally, the themes of the book. There’s a lot going on here—home, family, love, loss. Leo and his father have lost something they loved. And, though they keep going, they also remember and honor what they have lost. That resonates with me, as I keep going while thinking of Robin every single day. Leo and his father paint the blue house on the wall; I select this book to honor Robin’s legacy in children’s literature.


Dean Schneider

Dean Schneider teaches eighth grade English at the Ensworth School in Nashville, Tennessee.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.

Mary Louise Wagner

Thank you for this beautiful tribute to Robin. Reading what you wrote brought back for me images of reading to my children ... and especially with the perfect beloved book.

Posted : May 04, 2021 02:14

Stephanie Calmenson

Thank you for introducing me to your beloved Robin....and to this wonderful book. I'll join you keeping each in my heart.

Posted : Feb 10, 2021 09:11

Carol Ekster

What a lovely tribute to your wife. What a perfect picture book to choose for this honor.

Posted : Jan 30, 2021 09:54

Martha Parravano

Thank you for this, Dean. Every year you choose the perfect book to honor Robin, and every year you talk about the book in a way that brings Robin closer. Thank you. We will always remember what we have lost, and honor her.

Posted : Jan 29, 2021 07:23

Allison Khoury

What a lovely choice! I look forward to your choice every year and enjoy your thoughts on the book as well as why Robin would love the book. I never met Robin, but like so many of us who read her writing, admired her love for children's literature and children, I feel as if I knew her. Thank you for continuing to share Robin with us all.

Posted : Jan 28, 2021 05:05

View More Comments



We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing.