Caldecott at Eighty-Five: A Decade in Review

In 2013, in commemoration of the Caldecott Medal's seventy-fifth anniversary (first awarded in 1938), the Horn Book ran a series of articles by the venerable Kathleen T. Horning looking back at the award decade by decade. Our May/June 2022 issue celebrated the Newbery's centennial, and Linda Sue Park's article "From Trend to Norm: How the Last Twenty Years of the Newbery Can Guide Us" looks specifically at the increase in diverse books representation among that award's winners and honorees. Here, two members of the 2023 Caldecott committee look back on "the ways in which the last decade of Caldecott winners and honor books reflect larger changes in the field in the last ten years and shift the landscape of the award."

Left to right: 2014–2023 Caldecott Medal winners.

From 2014 to 2023 (inclusive), ten books received the Caldecott Medal, with forty named as honor books. Of the medal-winning illustrators, five identify as BIPOC and four are white (Sophie Blackall won twice). Twenty-two BIPOC creators received Caldecott Honors, with Michaela Goade and Jason Chin each receiving an honor and a medal during that time, while eighteen honor recipients were by white creators. During the past decade, 2014 was the last year in which all the Caldecott recipients were white.

Building on decades of advocacy for greater inclusion in children’s books, We Need Diverse Books (WNDB) launched in April 2014 as a Twitter exchange and then hashtag before becoming a nonprofit organization. 2015 marked the first awards season after the launch of WNDB, and the influence of this organization’s work (and others) to highlight children’s books by and about historically marginalized people can be seen as a reflection of the increased recognition of BIPOC creators by award committees.

In addition to an increase in number, the books also explored a wide range of subjects. Picture-book biographies, such as Choosing Brave: How Mamie Till-Mobley and Emmett Till Sparked the Civil Rights Movement (2023 Caldecott Honor for Janelle Washington) and Viva Frida (2015 Caldecott Honor for Yuyi Morales), provide rich portrayals of influential BIPOC individuals. Historical accounts, including The Undefeated (2020 Medal for Kadir Nelson) and Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre (2022 Honor for Floyd Cooper), offer stunning glimpses into a past that is too little taught. Watercress (2022 Medal for Jason Chin) and A Different Pond (2018 Honor for Thi Bui) are both rooted in their authors’ childhood experiences; Chin’s 2018 Honor for Grand Canyon touches on STEM and the environment. Thank You, Omu! (2019 Honor for Oge Mora) and Last Stop on Market Street (2016 Honor for Christian Robinson) present vibrant, inclusive, contemporary communities. Bear Came Along (2020 Honor for LeUyen Pham) is a laugh-out-loud-silly picture-book romp. We Are Water Protectors (2021 Medal for Michaela Goade) draws attention to environmental destruction, and A Place Inside of Me: A Poem to Heal the Heart (2021 Honor for Noa Denmon) is about police violence against Black people, two ongoing social issues that must be actively resisted and overcome.

As the identities of Caldecott winners have become more diverse and the books themselves have become more varied in genres and subjects, we’ve seen more overlap with other ALA awards. In the past ten years, there have been thirty instances of Caldecott recipients also receiving other ALA or ALA affiliate awards, with some receiving multiple other awards. Sixteen Caldecott Medalists and honorees were recognized by other awards that promote outstanding books by diverse creators. Coretta Scott King Book Award juries bestowed thirteen awards (including John Steptoe New Talent Awards) on eleven Caldecott books, with Unspeakable (2022 CSK winner for author and illustrator) and Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut (2018 Caldecott Honor for Gordon C. James; 2018 CSK Honor for author and illustrator) each being recognized twice. Two Caldecott books, Watercress and A Different Pond, also won awards from the Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association (APALA), and Viva Frida earned both a Caldecott Honor and a Pura Belpré Award for Illustration.

In 2018, the ALA announced that beginning in 2019 the books honored by APALA, the American Indian Library Association (AILA), and the Association of Jewish Libraries (AJL), all ALA affiliates, would be presented as part of the ALA Youth Media Awards. Jim Neal, then ALA president, said, “The addition of professional affiliate awards can only assist with our efforts to encourage understanding and abolish cultural invisibility.” While this addition did not increase the overlap between Caldecott books and culturally based awards between 2019 and 2023, compared to 2014 through 2018, it did show a commitment to the value of diversity to the Youth Media Awards.

In addition, six Caldecott books received a Sibert Award or Honor for their contributions to informational literature. This One Summer (2015 Caldecott Honor for Jillian Tamaki) was also a Printz Honor Book for excellence in young adult literature. Waiting (2016 Caldecott Honor for Kevin Henkes) was named a Geisel Honor Book for beginning readers. Two Caldecott Honor Books were adapted into audiobooks that received Odyssey Honors. And, finally, four Caldecott books — Last Stop on Market Street, Crown, The Undefeated, and Watercress, all by BIPOC creators — also received Newbery recognition.

When The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick won the 2008 Medal, it marked a turning point in what was considered possible for a Caldecott book. Traditional picture-book formats still make up the majority of titles honored by Caldecott committees, but two books in particular, and both on the upper end of the eligible age range, have shown within the last ten years that there is opportunity to look beyond: This One Summer, a graphic novel, and Ain’t Burned All the Bright (2023 Honor for Jason Griffin). A genre- and format-defying title, Jason Reynolds’s striking work in collaboration with illustrator Griffin, Reynolds’s longtime friend, further opens up the definition of a picture book and expands what the Caldecott Award can recognize and celebrate.

The Caldecott and its recipients experienced some important growth and milestones in the past decade. Michaela Goade became the first Indigenous artist and BIPOC woman to receive the Caldecott Medal. More BIPOC creators received Caldecott Medals and Honors than ever before. The definition of a Caldecott book expanded to include a graphic novel and another book that defies easy categorization. In the next ten years and beyond, we hope committees will celebrate more diversity from and among picture book creators, both on and off the page.

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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Ramona Caponegro

Ramona Caponegro is curator of the Baldwin Library of Historical Children's Literature.

Rob Bittner

Rob Bittner is a grants and awards specialist at Simon Fraser University and was recently elected the 2023 ALSC vice president/president-elect.

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