Can We Get These Folks a Sticker, Please?

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ROBIN SMITH: Over the years, I have heard people moaning that certain illustrators had never won the Caldecott award and would never win. To my innocent ears, that seemed unfair. As I learned more about picture books, one thing did become clear to me: certain very good illustrators never seemed to win the Medal. I am talking about folks like Wendell Minor, Steven Kellogg, Jan Brett, William Joyce, Tomie dePaola, Ashley Bryan, Eric Carle, Elisa Kleven, James Marshall, and Brian Karas. What do they all have in common? They are all artists whose style is easily recognizable. And: they are all prolific.

I went back to the criteria, and when I read the part about "distinguished," I had to dig deeper.

“Distinguished” is defined as:

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

  2. Marked by excellence in quality.

  3. Marked by conspicuous excellence or eminence.

  4. Individually distinct. [bold added by Robin]

The rules of the committee say that each book is considered by itself, in its year, stacked up against others of that year. Period. Each book is NOT stacked up against previous books by the same illustrator. And yet … when we look at what wins from year to year, the committee certainly seems to love new styles and new artists. (Full disclosure: my Caldecott year was Erin Stead’s first book. And David Ezra Stein’s first honor. Only Bryan Collier had won an honor before.)

Is there some subtle thing that happens in the eyes and memories of the committee members when the art they are seeing this year is a lot like the art they saw in another year? Are there so many new and talented artists with cool new styles that the newness is too much to ignore? I don’t know. I do know that I breathed a sigh of relief when Peter Brown and Lauren Castillo won honors early in their careers, because their styles are clearly identifiable now. And Jon Klassen — will his style seem new and individually distinct if it continues to be instantly recognizable? I dunno.

K.T. HORNING: Well, that certainly hasn't happened with David Wiesner, who has now won three Caldecott Medals and two honors for essentially the same type of elaborately illustrated wordless book, all done in pen and ink with watercolors. He has a very distinctive style that is pretty easy to recognize. And yet, even so, three different Caldecott Committees found his book to be the most distinguished of the year. They obviously weren’t thinking, "Oh, yeah, another excellent book by David Wiesner. Next!"

But then when you look at the only other person to have won three Caldecotts to date — Marcia Brown — her three Caldecott winners were all so different from one another. She didn’t even use the same medium for any of them. It’s almost as if they were illustrated by three different artists.

And then there's the artist with a distinctive, recognizable style who finally gets the Caldecott for something different. Look at Kevin Henkes, for example. After years of illustrating books about funny little mice in a cartoon style using pen and ink with watercolor washes, he got the Caldecott for something completely different — a cat book, for God's sake! — done in a more realistic style in black and white. And I think everyone expected Kitten’s First Full Moon to win that year, so it was really no surprise. Still, I think we were all pleased to see him win.

Robin: All I know is no one screamed louder than I did when Jerry Pinkney FINALLY got the big prize for The Lion & the Mouse, familiar style or not.

KT: Yeah, I was there. I remember.

Robin: Do you think it's possible to look at every new book with completely fresh eyes? I mean, is that even possible? We want smart people with lots of experience who have studied picture books for a while, at least. And that means that some of the older artists are going to look familiar to their eyes, right? Will the art still look distinguished to them? Or, will it look familiar and — dare I say it — boring?

KT: I think it's human nature to think of all the other books that have been done by the artist, and to think, "Same old, same old from Artist X" or "Oh, this is so different for Artist X" or "This is Artist X's best book yet." But when it comes down to the committee discussion, you can only compare the books of Artist X to the books of Artist Q and all the other eligible books published in the same year. So while I may have those thoughts in the back of my mind, I can't say them in the discussion or use them as part of my argument. It all comes down to the books on the table. Individually distinct means individually distinct among the books under consideration. And I think as the committee gets closer and closer to the final decision, that focus gets sharper and sharper, and the individually distinct books begin to stand out as such.

Robin: The other mindset that people have is that an artist is "due a Caldecott." Have you heard people say things like that? Do you think that the committee worries about things like that? How does that fit into the awarding of the Caldecott?

KT: Yes, indeed. I have heard that a lot. And I don't think it figures into the discussion at all because of the rule that the committee can only discuss the books on the table. What that actually does is level the playing field so that new artists have as much chance to win as artists who've been around a long time. It must have been a very interesting discussion in 2012 when Jon Klassen won both a Caldecott and Caldecott Honor for two books that look pretty different from each other. It's a rare occasion when the committee gets to compare an artist to himself.

If there is someone on the Caldecott committee who is new the process, that person may go into it thinking, "I’m going to make sure my favorite artist finally wins because after all these years he deserves really to." But that member will soon learn that there are fourteen other people there and that one individual on the committee doesn't have that much power. Eventually the committee will need to reach a consensus, and that only works when they approach the books on the table with open minds and a clear focus on the task at hand.

For the Calling Caldecott readership: which artists do YOU want to see honored who have been, for lack of a better term, passed over? Some of them might have books out this year…


Robin Smith and Kathleen T. Horning
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Jeanne Ragonese

Tomie De Paola at least won a Caldecott Honor for the first Strega Nona years ago, though he's illustrated so many other stunning books, and definitely deserves the gold for at least one of them. But seriously, who did Jan Brett get on the wrong side of that her beautiful, detailed illustrations have NEVER won any kind of Caldecott??? Kind of boggles the mind, especially when there are other illustrators who have won several. Now I think that Paul Zelinksy's illustrations are gorgeous, but why did he win several times, as has Chris Van Allsburg(who I also think is fantastic), when their styles are very similar in all their books too?

Posted : Mar 12, 2018 04:31

Annette Pimentel

Edwin Fotheringham has illustrated some amazing nonfiction picture books. I don't think he has anything in contention for this year, but maybe another year...

Posted : Oct 28, 2015 04:38

Sharon Verbeten

Great and insightful commentary all around! My list would include Kadir Nelson, of course, Wililam Joyce and Jason Chin, who illustrated the amazing Water is Water this year!

Posted : Oct 23, 2015 01:01

Sharron McElmeel

Actually it was my understanding that one of the reasons the Laura Ingalls Wilder award was created was to honor those people -- such as LIW whose books, each year somehow missed receiving the big awards but eventually became so popular that they did not stand out... I think Eric Carle lands in that category, as does Steven Kellogg, Barbara McClintock and so forth. The LIW award was a second chance if you will to honor those whose work was worthy but not given the award. Who remembers the book that won the Newbery while Charlotte's Web rested on its laurels? One reason why I would like to see a Caldecott LIST -- not just the award books themselves.

Posted : Oct 16, 2015 11:10

KT Horning

I'm going to go with an oldie -- Tana Hoban. If anyone ever deserved recognition for photography as an art form, it was her.

Posted : Oct 16, 2015 02:38

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