Profile of 2023 Caldecott Medal winner Doug Salati

Doug Salati. Photo: Erin V. Carr.

To be perfectly honest, I don’t really know how he did it. For the past four years I’ve sat roughly six feet from Doug Salati, inadvertently (and sometimes intentionally) listening to and watching him work on Hot Dog, from its foggiest beginnings to its brilliant present, and to this day I am still not entirely sure how he managed to breathe so much life and wisdom into this breathtaking, mind-scrubbing, and now Caldecott-winning book.

There are two loamy bookshelves that divide Doug’s tidy space from mine, and through which it is impossible not to snoop. I can “lit’rally” (as Doug would say) hear the man crinkling something to my left, right now, and see his tan shirt dancing between book spines out of the corner of my eye. This, mind you, is while I am actively trying to ignore him, because I am in the muddled midst of trying to write this profile about…well…him.

It is only because Doug moved into the studio about a year after me, and because Sophie Blackall (yes…that Sophie Blackall) and Brian Floca (yes…that Brian Floca) have been here since the beginning of recorded history, that my desk is the one closest to Doug’s. But it is lit’rally impossible to walk into or out of the studio without passing directly by Doug’s space. So while it is true that I may have inadvertently spied on Doug more than anyone else over these past four years, there isn’t a one of us who isn’t equally guilty of ogling everything Doug has been working on from day one. And oohing and aahing with audible glee.

Ah yes, paper-crinkling Doug Salati, the humble everyman from Oneida, New York, with a foxlike smile, and frequently too little lunch. That lanky guy with two hats (one green, one blue), and two shirts (one tan, one blue), and one winter coat (which is NOT warm enough!), who is more than happy to tell you he loves condors and perennials almost as much as he adores Bernadette Peters. It’s the perfect cover for someone who doesn’t want anyone to know he’s equal parts Hume and Houdini, philosopher and magician.

Quietly infiltrate a studio full of unwitting children’s book makers. Assume a plausible level of cluelessness when you first arrive. Win everyone’s trust and friendship. Write the seemingly simplest story humanly possible. Give it a title so disarming no one will ever suspect they are about to audit a graduate seminar in empathy. For best effect, consider revising your dummy more times than might seem necessary…or advisable. Remember to rework sketches that already seem done, in spite of what everyone else is telling you. Simmer and sigh as needed. Croon direly at least twice a week.

Then make stunning final illustrations that look so effortless they seem to materialize on the page before our very eyes. And futz with some of them a teensy bit more…after they’ve already been approved. Your editor and designer will love this last bit! It is a master class in modesty and misdirection. But the only person who was ever fooled by all of this brilliant sleight-of-hand was…well…Doug. Because the rest of us knew he was a genius from the get-go.

This, I confess, is not where I thought Doug’s profile would run when I decided to drop its leash. But there is always risk involved when you let go of whatever you’ve been clutching, and there is only so much pointless pulling you can do before you finally need to ask, “Why aren’t we moving?” This is what the nameless woman at the beating heart of Hot Dog must be wondering when her nameless dachshund suddenly lies down in the middle of a crosswalk that stretches across pages ten and eleven, and refuses to budge. Up to now, we have been watching her walk her dog while she runs errands. It’s how everyday life works. There is never enough time to do what needs doing, so sometimes you need to tie your dog up outside the post office. Or dry cleaners. But dogs, like children, don’t like errands, and this overheated dachshund has had enough.

What happens next is so central to the book’s arc and pulse, it actually happens twice. On page twelve the nameless woman gets down on her hands and knees and stares sweetly and deeply into her dog’s eyes, while the world honks hurriedly around them. There is a wider view of this very same moment hidden under the book’s beautiful blue jacket, on the case cover. Where the street is so hot it’s glowing orange. What’s wrong? What do you need? What can I do?

Doug made earlier sketches of this very same moment where the woman’s eyes look annoyed. Or irked. Or at least furrowed. And there are even earlier versions of the story where there is no crosswalk moment at all. Because in these versions, when the book was called Hot Dog Lou, Lou simply leaves his owner in the park one hot afternoon and hightails it to the beach by himself. And in the very earliest version of the book, before it even had a title, there is no woman at all. It’s just a wordless story about a dachshund who lives alone in an apartment and who decides to go to the beach. Which is all to say that books, like dogs and children (or profiles about Caldecott-winning authors), don’t always start or go where you thought they would.

But thank heaven for hat-wearing heroines in practical clothes who know when it’s time to hail a taxi. Because it is the taxi which inches us toward the train, which whisks us to the ferry, which brings us to the dock, which becomes the wooden walk that leads to the beach. It’s the exact same route Doug took ten summers before, when he and his then-partner were visiting friends on Fire Island. And it was during this weekend that Doug watched his friends’ dachshund, Charlie, romp and roll and dig and collect pebbles beside the ocean.

To watch Doug draw is like watching a dog dance and dart along that fringe where the tide shimmies, and where life seems to bubble everywhere just beneath the surface. Doug looks more like a borzoi than a dachshund, but from my side of the bookcase it’s hard not to see him as the dashing dog at the heart of his book: overwhelmed by life’s constant bustle; often wishing he were somewhere wilder and wider; and sometimes not having the words to ask for what he hoped you already knew he needed. It is how the child in each of us sees ourself in a nameless (pronounless) dachshund who is done with errands, and dreams of diving with seals.

But it never dawned on me until now that Doug is also, of course, the hat-wearing heroine of his own book. Because however harried he might have felt along the way from there to here over these past four years, he had the emotional wherewithal to take off his book’s leash and to follow it wherever it needed to lead him. It is this same gift for being able to look deep into someone’s eyes that makes Doug such a generous teacher, and such a beloved studiomate and friend.

From the July/August 2023 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: ALA Awards. For more speeches, profiles, and articles, click the tag ALA 2023.

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Rowboat Watkins

Rowboat Watkins is a recipient of the Sendak Fellowship and an Ezra Jack Keats New Illustrator Honor Award. He lives with his family in Brooklyn, and his newest book, Go-Go Guys (Chronicle), hurtles onto shelves this fall.

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