How to read a picture book, the Caldecott edition

1. Look at the cover. Feel the cover. Imagine the sticker.

2. Take the paper jacket off and check out the inside cover. I am sure there is a word for this part of the book, but I only have my non-librarian training to fall back on. Note whether the inside cover is is different from the paper jacket or the same. (I am looking at Frog Song right now, and the enormous frog on the inside cover made me burst out laughing. Such a contrast from the serious red jacket frog.)

3. Now, examine the end pages. Those are the pages that are glued onto the hard cover. Sometimes the endpapers are illustrated or decorated, sometimes they are simply solid heavy paper. Note that. Are the back endpapers the same as the front? Do the choices make sense? Is anything important going to be covered when the book is processed in the library? (If so, this book is in Serious Jeopardy. A moment of silence for one of my favorites during MY year.)

4. Title page is usually next for me. Decorated? Plain? I am never sure who decides on endpapers and title page design, but these are important decisions. If it's dull, I take note. Since the title page often has a lot of white space, this is when I usually notice if the paper choice works for the book.

5. Read the book all the way through without reading the words. I know. But this has to be essentially a visual experience. Does it hold up with no words? (This is NOT to say the words don't matter, it's just important — at least to me — to see how the book works without words.) LOOK AT THE PICTURES VERY SLOWLY. This was the hardest part for me when I started reading and evaluating picture books. You just don't want to miss any detail. Read from left to right, paying very close attention to the page turns. Pay attention to white space and pacing.

6. Read the book with the words. Do the pictures play well with the words? Do the illustrations extend the text? How does the illustrator tell her story? (I know, I know, most Caldecott winners are men, but maybe the feminine pronoun will subliminally influence the committee.) How does line, color, texture, white space, etc. tell the story? Is the art consistent from page to page? Always notice the page turns.

7. Go back and check every single gutter. The Caldecott committee members take a pinky swear to examine every damn one of them. Does the art match up across the gutter? Is a main character sliced in half by one? If something "gets lost in the gutter," murmurs of disappointment will cause the chair to sigh deeply. The nominator of the book might wipe away a tear.

8. Caldecott committee members get seven nominations each. That's all. (Look at our fun and fabulous preliminary list. Only seven could remain for our mythical committee member when December rolls around.) So, for a book to move forward in an individual committee member's mind, it has to "beat out" all the others that have been submitted and suggested. So, things get serious at step 8. It's here that a reader has to look at that part of the criteria that talks about things that detract from the illustrations: "Such other components might include the written text, the overall design of the book, etc." I refer you to my rant last year.

9. At this point, the initial reading is over and the real fun begins.
Robin Smith
Robin Smith
Robin Smith is a second-grade teacher at the Ensworth School in Nashville, Tennessee. She is a reviewer for Kirkus and The Horn Book Magazine and has served on multiple award committees.
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Wendy Greenley

Love this post. It just makes me love Flora and the Flamingo even more.

Posted : Sep 27, 2013 04:08


I found this VERY interesting! Thank you :D

Posted : Sep 17, 2013 05:22

Laura Rogers

I just did a book talk with elementary students about the use of the gutter. We looked at Raschka's, "Yo! Yes". Check out the use of the gutter as a part of the story in that one. :)

Posted : Sep 12, 2013 03:49

Katherine Tillotson

Let's take two of last years winners as examples. This Is Not My Hat has printed ends (and they are to-die-for gorgeous!) The page count is 40 pages (count the paste downs and the ends). Extra Yarn does not have printed ends. Well that's not entirely accurate. They are printed a flat color on an uncoated stock. The color is chosen by the art director together with the illustrator. Interestingly, Extra Yarn is also a forty page book. It all comes down to storytelling. How many pages are needed to tell the story - then how to juggle the rest of the pages to hit that multiple of eight. It can be both fun and extremely frustrating!

Posted : Sep 12, 2013 04:30

Katherine Tillotson

#3 Endpapers. Printed endpapers can be great fun. (Brian Floca's are among my most favorite.) What is so interesting to me is that they are closely tied to page count, and to the pacing of the storytelling. Picture books are printed in signatures, multiples of eight pages. In order to have printed endpapers, there has to be pages set aside: paste down (the side of the endpaper that is pasted to the case binding) endpaper, endpaper - then at the end of the book, endpaper, endpaper, pastedown. Whatever the total count of pages for a picture book, it has to be a multiple of eight... It is always a bit of a puzzle, figuring out how to tell the story, where to put the page turns, and subsequently how to juggle the title page(s), half title (maybe, maybe not), copyright and dedications, and printed ends (maybe, maybe not). All must add up to a multiple of eight.

Posted : Sep 12, 2013 03:47

Robin Smith

Katherine-- I was just heading up to bed when your comment came through. I did not know this--what happens when the endpapers are not printed? Does that go into the page count? (In my other life, I work on the school yearbook. Of course we work with signatures and page counts, but the whether the pages are printed or not, does not make any difference. ) I love thinking about the little details--when a committee looks at a nonfiction picture book, a lot of attention is paid to the back matter--author's notes, bibliography, etc. All of that information takes up space and has to be part of the puzzle. So fascinating.

Posted : Sep 12, 2013 03:47

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