Why the Hell Haven't More Beginning Readers Won the Caldecott Medal?

Today on Calling Caldecott, a conversation between Patrick Gall and Jonathan Hunt about early readers and the Caldecott Award. (This is an entry in the Why-the-Hell Calling Caldecott conversations, conducted in previous years between Elisa Gall and Jonathan Hunt. Earlier posts include discussions about the Caldecott and photographyboard booksthe Newbery Award; "didactic intent"; and holiday books.) – M.V.P. 


PATRICK GALL: Hey Jonathan, thanks for inviting me to fill in on this year's "Why the Hell" post for Calling Caldecott. I absolutely love and value beginning readers — early readers, easy readers, whatever you want to call them. In 2017 I wrote a brief Calling Caldecott post called "Beginning Readers and the Caldecott." The gist was that besides Frog and Toad Are Friends (which won a Caldecott Honor in 1971), true-blue beginning readers don't win Caldecott Medals and Honors. This still seems to be the case. In the original post, I didn't really offer a compelling argument as to why beginning readers are generally snubbed by the Caldecott committee, but perhaps we could explore that idea now. Considering beginning readers and Caldecott recognition, what comes up for you?

JONATHAN HUNT: Beginning readers are often restrictive and formulaic: controlled vocabulary, short chapters, simple plot arcs, repetitive language, unambiguous relationships between text and pictures, and marketed them as books in a series and/or under an easy reader imprint. All of these can prejudice the adult reader — and yet the genre is capable of surpassing these petty constraints and generating pure magic. 

What are your thoughts about why more books haven't broken through to Caldecott recognition?

PATRICK: My initial thoughts are that beginning readers, especially more traditional leveled readers (think I Can Read!), have a stigma for all the reasons that you just listed. I feel that the illustrations in readers aren’t expected to be distinguished, or even all that decent, honestly. The tiny spot illustrations, large text, and unattractive front/back matter about reading strategies may feel too prescriptive for recognition. Also, there is a LOT of licensed content in the reader market — which probably doesn’t help.

Perhaps this is why picture books that also function as beginning readers tend to get more Caldecott recognition (recently, Harris’s Have You Ever Seen a Flower?, Morales’s Viva Frida, Henkes’s Waiting, Klassen’s This Is Not My Hat, and Seeger’s Green). From a text standpoint, these books could comfortably fit into a leveled reader format; however, the often adventurous size, layouts, and illustrations seem to set them apart. Having said that, I do think that there are more traditional readers out there this year with Caldecott-potential. What do you think?

JONATHAN: There are several that come readily to mind. First, It’s a Sign by Jarrett Pumphrey and Jerome Pumphrey, which is part of the Elephant & Piggie Like Reading series. I really like the block -printing illustrations, and they are a good match for the story, but I'm not quite sure that anything pushes this one into the conversation of most distinguished.

Second, Team Up by Raúl the Third, which is the third in his early reader series El Toro & Friends. Color, line, and composition are strengths of this illustrator's work, and this book is no exception. I think this one has more elements which would push it into that most distinguished conversation, but I still think it would be an uphill battle.

Finally, I'm going to mention a book that is not ostensibly an early reader in quite the same sense. However, Sergio Ruzzier has carved out a niche of writing picture books for this beginning-to-read audience, so I'm going to put in a good word for No! Said Custard the Squirrel. Again, I love the use of color, medium, line, and composition. I love the absurdity of the various questions and the repetitive answers, right up until the final book-ending twist.

Do any of these strike your fancy? Any others that you'd like to argue for?

PATRICK: As a school librarian for preschool through elementary-age students, I greatly admire the Pumphrey brothers' work. Their often simple, effective text seamlessly pairs with their deceptively spare illustrations. To my mind, It’s a Sign appears to be their most adventurous work text-wise (especially when you consider the big punchline), but I'd agree that the illustrations aren't the star of the show. Instead, I feel that the Pumphreys really pushed themselves visually with another work this year: Somewhere in the Bayou. Brisk pacing, subtle shifts in characters' body language, and expressive page layouts make this picture book (that happens to function as a beginning reader) a serious Caldecott contender, to me.

Time and time again Raúl the Third and colorist Elaine Bay prove that their kinetic, joyful, and skillful cartooning are not to be missed. Team Up is presented as a more traditional beginning reader — vertical trim size, simple text (mostly English with some Spanish phrases), and repetitive story structure. As you stated, the compositions and colors are particularly strong, even if they perhaps are a little more restrained than the couples' work in their larger format ¡Vamos! picture-book series. Having that said, Team Up still packs more of a visual punch than pretty much any book I've seen this year.

I totally agree that Ruzzier's No! Said Custard the Squirrel is yet another title to add to his ever-growing oeuvre of idiosyncratic beginning reader-adjacent picture books. However, his whimsical illustrations may actually be leveled-up in a picture book written by Deborah Underwood — Walter Had a Best Friend. This picture book with beginning reader vibes is a heartfelt exploration of friendship, emphasized by radiant watercolor spreads filled with atmosphere and emotion.

I'm also a big fan of Holiday House's I Like To Read: Comics series. This year, I'd say that Laura Knetzger's The Big Tree is a beginning reader comic with a lot to say about friendship, grief, and new beginnings — all wrapped up in a beautifully-produced comic for young readers. Knetzger's sensitive, respectful writing for young people is probably just as strong as her wonderfully imaginative cartooning. The book's meaningful use of color, negative space, and shifting perspectives immerse the reader in a world of three young cats processing the death of their favorite neighborhood tree. Honestly, I wonder if the "cute" aesthetic of the characters and the world they inhabit is a nonstarter for Caldecott recognition...though it certainly isn't a problem for my students. Do you think a book like The Big Tree has a chance with the Caldecott?

JONATHAN: I think any of these books would be a surprise, even as a Caldecott Honor. Do you think any of them stand a realistic chance?

PATRICK: I'd say that Team Up’s illustrations stand out as a realistic Caldecott-contender due to its visual dynamism and distinct characterizations. Raúl the Third’s characters blast across the page, while Bay’s colors/textures absolutely pop. Team Up may come in a small package, but visually it is a MASSIVE book!

Finally, and it’s probably no surprise, but I’ve got to get your thoughts on Antoinette Portis’s A Seed Grows — which seems to be a conceptual successor to the 2020 Sibert Honor-winning Hey, Water!

JONATHAN: I've loved all of Portis's work since her debut (Not a Box). She seems so perfectly attuned to toddlers and preschoolers that it's uncanny, but the simple text also makes it a good choice for children just beginning to read. A Seed Grows is a flawless science book for this age group (ages 3–6), and I think the art is both distinguished in its own right and fully integrated into what the text and the overall book is trying to accomplish. I also think this one probably stands the best chance of anything that we have discussed, although I am rooting hard for Team Up for all the reasons we both mentioned.

PATRICK: Couldn’t agree with you more on Portis’s work as a whole. A Seed Grows is the complete package as an informational beginning reader. And I must point out a couple examples of the illustrations going the extra mile — such as the vertical gatefold and use of potatoes and celery as printmaking tools for a book about plants! And yes, out of all the titles that we’ve discussed I’d also put my money on A Seed Grows for Caldecott recognition.

Which I guess brings us back to where we started: honest-to-goodness beginning readers don't win Caldecott Medals and Honors. And even though we’ve identified a number of notable titles with distinguished characteristics, it still feels like an uphill battle. I hope we’re wrong this year!

But it's safe to say that our fingers are collectively crossed for Team Up, so we’ll just have to see what happens.

Patrick Gall and Jonathan Hunt

Patrick Gall works as a librarian for children in preschool through eighth grade at the Catherine Cook School in Chicago. Jonathan Hunt is the coordinator of library media services at the San Diego County Office of Education.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.

Eric Carpenter

I wonder if another reason we do not see traditional early readers receiving caldecott recognition is the publication schedule. Often times a publisher will release two books from a series in the same year. When this happens it would be very difficult for the committee to call either title "individually distinct" as these series are usually indistinct in terms of visuals and storytelling. This is not an issue if titles are released once a year (as the committee can only consider books of their yea), but if two books are released in the year under consideration then the definition of distinguished basically forces the committee to negate both books' chances.Similarly both Raul the Third and Sergio Ruzzier have multiple eligible picture books in 2022 done in similar visual styles as the titles mentioned here. I would have a hard time arguing that No! Said Custard the Squirrel is individually distinct from Ruzzier's Walter Had a Best Friend or his latest Fox & Chick volume both of which are also under this year's committee's consideration. And Raul the Third has two board books this year that would need to be looked at along with Team Up to see if Team Up is individually distinct.

Posted : Jan 05, 2023 07:36



We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing.