The 2020 Robin Smith Picture Book Prize

Cover of RiverMy wife, Robin Smith, knew children's literature well — she co-founded this blog, served on many book award committees, and reviewed for The Horn Book Magazine and Kirkus Reviews — and she taught second graders for 24 years. Daily, she read picture books to them. 

Robin died in 2017 at the age of 57, and I am grateful to the Horn Book for inaugurating the Robin Smith Picture Book Prize two years ago when Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen’s The Wolf, the Duck, and the Mouse won. That was when I established the single criterion I will use each year: Which book can I most vividly imagine Robin reading from her favorite classroom rocking chair, her students in a semicircle at her feet, the book that is so beautiful and so good for reading aloud that I can see that smile I miss so much?

Sophie Blackall’s Hello Lighthouse received the second annual Robin Smith Picture Book Prize. Now I am happy to announce that River by Elisha Cooper is the winner of the third annual Robin Smith Picture Book Prize. It will now join The Wolf, the Duck, and the Mouse and Hello Lighthouse on the narrow bookcase in my living room, built expressly for the winning titles.

There is so much to like about River, effectively limned by Julie Danielson in her November Calling Caldecott post. Robin would have loved this book: the big, expansive cover illustration that feels so welcoming to life and adventure; the hero’s journey, undertaken by a strong woman; the gorgeous design; the “by hand” feeling of the book, from the pencil-and-watercolor illustrations to the sketches on the casing taken from Cooper’s sketchbook; the vigorous writing, strong on action verbs; and the beautifully realized sense of place. I imagine Robin would have divided the reading-aloud times to three or four sessions with her second graders, and there are natural breaks in the woman’s journey to afford this.

For several summers, our family vacationed on the New York side of Lake Champlain, so we knew the Adirondack region and the vistas depicted in the book, and, like Elisha Cooper, we paddled around a lake in Maine when we spent time there. Robin would have loved feeling a part of the place Cooper celebrates.

This is the also kind of book Robin and I always looked for in designing our Young Writers creative writing camps each summer — picture books about special places so inviting that we could use them to inspire students to write and illustrate their own picture books about special places, people, and moments in their lives (books like Roxaboxen, Owl Moon, and When I Was Young in the Mountains). I know River would join their company and inspire students, too.

Other strong contenders for the prize this year include Isabel Quintero's My Papi Has a Motorcycle, illustrated by Zeke Peña; Oge Mora's Saturday; and Sergio Ruzzier's Fox & Chick: The Quiet Boat Ride and Other Stories. I think Robin would have loved sharing these books with her students, too, so perhaps they can serve as my "honor books" this year. 

Dean Schneider

Dean Schneider teaches eighth grade English at the Ensworth School in Nashville, Tennessee.

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Martha Parravano

Author's note says: "It was called Cahohatatea ('The River') by the Iroquois who canoed it, Noortrivier ('North River') by the Dutch who sailed it, and finally the Hudson River, for Henry Hudson, the English explorer who navigated up the river in 1609." In this case, at least, it seems that Cooper is an across-the-board past-tenser...

Posted : Jan 31, 2020 07:48

Mary Stevens

Bravo, Dean! I can hear Robin's voice when I read this gorgeous book, and imagine her pointing out all the detail in the illustrations.

Posted : Jan 31, 2020 06:18

Debbie Reese

I'm not keen on it. The Author's Note, in particular, with its past tense about Native peoples. Details at my blog:

Posted : Jan 31, 2020 05:03

Deborah Taylor

So delighted to see this continue! Robin had such a deep understanding of picture books and what would appeal to kids. A good one!

Posted : Jan 31, 2020 03:09



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