Why the Hell Don't More Holiday Books Win the Caldecott?

Today on Calling Caldecott, a conversation between Elisa Gall and Jonathan Hunt about holiday books and the Caldecott Award. (This is an entry in their why-the-hell Calling Caldecott series. Previous posts include discussions about the Caldecott and photography; board books; the Newbery Award; and "didactic intent.") – J.D. and M.V.P. 

ELISA GALL: When you think about holiday-related Caldecott books, which titles pop into your mind? For me, it’s The Polar Express (Chris Van Allsburg, 1986 medal) and Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins (Trina Schart Hyman, 1990 honor). But that just might be because Hanukkah is here and Christmas is soon approaching.

JONATHAN HUNT: Yes, I think those are the ones that I immediately think of. Going back further in the canon, I see that The Christmas Anna Angel, written by Ruth Sawyer and illustrated by Kate Seredy, won back in 1945. (I've never seen the book, but both Sawyer and Seredy won Newbery Medals, Sawyer for Roller Skates and Seredy for The White Stag.) Given the abundance of holiday-themed picture books published every year, it makes you wonder why more of them haven't been recognized. What do you think could be the reasons for that? And do you see anything published this past year that might break through?

ELISA: I think it depends on which holidays we’re talking about, too. Many readers struggle to find any books published about holidays and traditions that are important to them. Other holidays — especially those observed by mainstream America — have so many titles published each year that it can feel difficult to keep up (hashtag We Need Diverse Books!). I think that for many commercial holidays in the United States, holiday books are ephemeral. The stories can be shallow and the art can often be predictable. It’s almost as if nobody expects a mainstream holiday book to be great — or cares if it isn’t. But that doesn’t mean excellent, Caldecott-worthy picture books celebrating lots of different holidays don’t exist.

One book I’m drawn to this year is The Passover Guest by Susan Kusel and Sean Rubin. This retelling of I.L. Peretz’s "Der Kunzen-Macher" ("The Magician") is set in 1933 Washington D.C. and tells the story of the prophet Elijah granting a miracle for a struggling but generous family during their Passover seder. Especially notable is Rubin’s use of color and light. Immersive pinks and golds enhance the springtime D.C. setting, while vibrant jewel tones contrast with darker shadows, emphasizing mood and the somber realities of the Great Depression. The suggested panels and thoughtful use of perspectives pace visual (and textual) surprises that appear at page-turns, eliciting feelings of magic and wonder. There are lots of visual elements — including energetic crowd scenes, Chagall-inspired chickens, and hidden afikomen — that add layers of interest and complexity.

JONATHAN: Oh, I love The Passover Guest! Here's what I would say pushes this book into the conversation of most distinguished for me. I agree with you one hundred percent about (a) Rubin's use of vibrant color and (b) the compositions of the illustrations, which are varied and interesting enough that you hardly realize the book comprises a series of double-page spreads. I'm also in love with the cross-hatching technique that Rubin employs, adding a layer of texture of the illustrations.

It's also quite refreshing to see a historical Jewish picture book set in America outside of New York City and the Lower East Side. Kudos to Rubin for making Washington D.C. such an integral part of the story, above and beyond what Kusel has written in the text. Ultimately, it's a book about the things that sustain us during times of adversity: faith, hope, family, traditions, and generosity. So I'd argue for high marks in terms of theme. On the technical side, it excels in color, line, composition, and medium, while on the storytelling side, the setting and theme of the book really stand out to me as extremely distinguished, perhaps even most distinguished.

ELISA: I wonder if there is an unconscious assumption among committee members that Caldecott books need to be “timeless” and if there is something about books often read during a particular time of year (and not all year long) that presents a challenge. Committee bias must show up when jurors are examining books with holidays they don’t observe — or about which they’re ignorant. Do you think that the Caldecott committee’s timeline for fall nominations and winter deliberations has an impact on the consideration of holiday books?

JONATHAN: You pose great questions — but I'm not sure I have the answer. I will say, however, that The Passover Guest will undoubtedly have a deeper emotional resonance for those intimately familiar with the Jewish observance of Passover. Hopefully, the committee will have such people. If not, they really need to do their homework and become familiar with a range of responses from Jewish readers. I also imagine some committee members may compare this to earlier versions of this story, especially since several of them are picture books.

ELISA: Definitely.

Another book I’d want to get lots of different people’s opinions on is Red and Green and Blue and White, written by Lee Wind and illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky. 

JONATHAN: Another good one! It's the story of a Jewish family who places a blue and white Hanukkah menorah in their window amidst all their neighbors celebrating Christmas with red and green lights. Then someone throws a rock through their window, and one by one, in a show of solidarity, people put up pictures of a menorah on the windows of their homes until they populate the entire town. Based on real events that happened in Billings, Montana, in 1993, it’s very relevant today.

Some illustrators have a recognizable style, and I often wonder if that hurts them in the Caldecott process in a been-there-done-that kind of way. Zelinksy, on the other hand, is a bit of a chameleon, working in different styles and mediums. The use of color here is striking, such as the contrast between light and dark, and the art is — for lack of a better word —  smudgy. And perhaps with good reason. A brief illustrator's note states, "The illustrations for this book were drawn on a Wacom tablet, in images of up to 150 layers, using brushes of the artist's own creation." Sounds complicated — and interesting!

ELISA: Interesting, indeed. That smudgy quality you describe offers texture, which makes the color contrast pop even more.This book is all about light in darkness, literally and figuratively! The expressive, dynamic colors glow boldly and brightly, capturing the strength of the community members, united against injustice after the hateful antisemitic attack.

It’s also so important that the children use their skills and interests to stand up against hate. And that these interests are poetry and art — or words and pictures? You can’t get more picturebook-y than that. On the final pages, fully illustrated text swirls across the spread in a flurry of colors and styles alongside a variety of images, including menorahs, zigzags, stars, and the two children. To me, this is a perfectly appropriate “style of illustrations to the story, theme, or concept,” because it affirms pluralism and captures the power and joy that can come from collective action.

Because the attack is never delved into too deeply in the text, color and shadow do a lot of heavy lifting. I’m sure there will be a lot of opinions on this choice when it comes to “recognition of a child audience.” I just looked over the book without reading the text and was impressed at how much of the story shines through the art alone.

JONATHAN: Another winter holiday is Kwanzaa, and there happens to be an excellent book about it this year, The People Remember, written by Ibi Zoboi and illustrated by Loveis Wise. Well, I'd say it's really about Black history, but Kwanzaa is a secondary theme, and there's lots of information about it in the back matter. I do like the illustrations, but in this extended picture book, it feels like the text is really the driver.

ELISA: It’s interesting to hear you say that the text is really the driver. This brings us back to one of everybody’s favorite Calling Caldecott questions: is it a picture book or an “illustrated book”? I think another factor here is the length. At 64 pages, that’s double the 32 pages many readers expect for their picture books. Audience age comes up here, too, because readers of this book might be on the older side of the 0-14 age range, and I think it’s safe to say that librarians everywhere have yet to reach consensus around what “excellence in presentation in recognition of a child audience” looks like for older picture-book readers.

Looking at Wise’s digital creations, I’m drawn to their color contrasts, stylized forms, and how much the principles of Kwanzaa are embedded into the art. The illustrations neither suffocate or shrink alongside Zoboi’s powerful writing. Both are given space to shine together, each elevating the effectiveness of the other. The quilt squares that bookend and weave throughout the narrative also reinforce the theme of collective identity.

Accurate history — including trauma — is directly confronted, but oppression is not the whole story. Whether it is through images of a child holding flowers, a couple jumping the broom, portraits of remarkable individuals, or a crowd marching — in the 1960s or the present day — the emphasis remains on the people. Their humanity, complexity, resistance, grief, contemplation, and joy are centered. Or, I could list the principles of Kwanzaa, which all show up: umoja (unity), kujichagulia (self-determination), ujima (collective work and responsibility), ujamaa (cooperative economics), nia (purpose), kuumba (creativity), and imani (faith).

The design of this book is superb. The solid color fills, used as backdrops, accentuate Wise’s illustrations. In many instances. this draws readers even closer into the art, delineating mood and information in a spectacular fashion.

JONATHAN: Oh, I come down firmly on the side that this is a picture book. No hairsplitting for me! I admire and appreciate all the artistic qualities you mentioned. Zoboi's longer text extends this picture book to 64 pages, but it's still an extremely succinct summary of Black history. And because of that epic sweep, the illustrations don't really carry the story, serving more in an editorial role. I don't think that makes them inferior in any sense, but I do worry about bias. Picture book texts have become increasingly brief over the past several decades, and certainly that trend is reflected in the Caldecott canon. So, again, I just wonder about possible bias against a longer text. I also worry about it with The Passover Guest a little bit, too.

I think there were several other books we considered, but we agreed these three — The People Remember, Red and Green and Blue and White, and The Passover Guest — were the strongest and probably have the best chance at Caldecott recognition. Any final comments?

ELISA: Yes! I'm noticing that each of these three books solidly marks its holiday and also has the potential to be read at other times of year (and appreciated for themes outside of their holidays), too. While a book that is super specific to its holiday and centered on that alone has the potential to be no less excellent, that these three titles have accomplished multiple themes so well is a sign of how distinguished they are. I hope this year’s committee takes note.

JONATHAN: I’m just now — this very moment — remembering Reem Faruqi's Amira's Picture Day and can’t believe we didn’t pitch this to each other earlier, as it got three starred reviews. A young Muslim girl notices the new moon’s crescent, signifying that Eid is the following day. She is elated until she remembers she will skip school the next day, which happens to be Picture Day, and she really wants to be included. In the end, she’s able to find a way to satisfy both of her desires.

Fahmida Azim’s illustrations were digitally created with a Wacom Cintiq Pro tablet and Clip Studio Paint EX software. The illustrations perfectly suit the text, and both of them together really home in on a child’s viewpoint, capturing the magic, wonder, and excitement of the holiday celebration — but also the disappointment of being excluded from a class activity. The illustrations are slightly cartoony (in a way which reminds me of Dan Santat) and I think that will only further boost the child appeal here. The colorful traditional holiday clothing draws the eye, as do the mehndi (henna) design motifs that appear throughout the book. I find the layouts varied and interesting and, together with the text, I think this would make for a great storytime book. I know I’ve mentioned a couple of things — child appeal, utility of the book in a storytime setting — that really aren’t explicitly part of the Caldecott criteria, but I think it’s worth checking out.

Finally, isn’t it wonderful to see an array of holidays being celebrated in books this year, ones that value and validate the lived experiences of many children? With ALSC’s continued commitment to respecting all children, it provides an environment where more holiday books might win Caldecott recognition.

ELISA: Let’s hope so.

I haven’t read Amira's Picture Day yet and appreciate the recommendation. This goes to show that there’s so much to celebrate and look for, and it’s on committee members to think critically and make sure they are examining everything that is out there and eligible.

I wonder what other holiday-related books should be in this conversation. Fellow Calling Caldecott readers, what titles do you think we should be checking out? Please add your thoughts and suggestions in the comments!

[Read the Horn Book Magazine reviews of The Passover Guest, Red and Green and Blue and White, and The People Remember.]


Elisa Gall and Jonathan Hunt

Elisa Gall is a teacher-librarian at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. Jonathan Hunt is the coordinator of library media services at the San Diego County Office of Education.

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