April 25, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Interview: Caldecott Medal and Honor winner Paul O. Zelinsky talks with SLJ

The golden bow tie that Paul O. Zelinsky created from gold Caldecott stickers.

To mark the upcoming 75th anniversary of the Caldecott Medal, School Library Journal is speaking with past recipients of the prestigious award. Here, illustrator Paul O. Zelinsky, winner of the 1998 Caldecott for Rapunzel (Dutton, 1997) and three-time honor recipient for Hansel and Gretel (Dodd, 1984), Rumpelstiltskin (1986) and Anne Isaac’s Swamp Angel (1994, both Dutton), talks about his working process, the awards ceremony, and “the call.”

Tell us how Rapunzel came to be.

As soon as Rumpelstiltskin was published, people were telling me how much they liked my book Rapunzel. I would say, “Thank you very much, but I think you mean Rumpelstiltskin.” Eventually I decided that if I actually did a Rapunzel, I wouldn’t have to keep correcting people.

I also wanted to follow Hansel and Gretel and Rumpelstiltskin with a third tale from the brothers Grimm. Why Rapunzel? I thought the story was compelling and mysterious, and I was interested in learning to paint hair.

What was it like receiving the phone call telling you that Rapunzel had won?

I had been called to jury duty, and if the judge hadn’t released me, the Committee’s call would have reached my answering machine.

I was curious to know which books would get awards, but confident that one of them wouldn’t be Rapunzel. After all, Hansel and Gretel had been a Caldecott Honor and so had Rumpelstiltskin, and that was clearly enough.

My wife Deborah had hopes for Rapunzel that I didn’t. I was taken completely by surprise. Words can’t describe how little I expected the call from the committee.

When I picked up the phone and a man’s voice asked to speak to Paul Zelinsky, I suspected it was some long-distance phone company trying to get me to switch carriers. It was John Stewig calling from New Orleans with the Caldecott committee, telling me that Rapunzel had won. Then in the background, the committee cheered.

I got very dizzy and confused, but I gathered myself together. When I hung up, I phoned Deborah’s school (she was teaching second grade in our local public school), to give her the news. When she saw a school aide come into her classroom holding a note, she began to cry.

Do you recall any other highlights from the ALA conference that year, aside from the awards ceremony?

My wife lost her wallet in a taxi. We had breakfast with a classmate I hadn’t seen since high school. My daughters were 14 and 10.

The conference and banquet were at the Washington, DC, Hilton Hotel. In a private back room they served very big, strong drinks before the beginning of the dinner. There was a passageway from that room to the stage area of the ballroom, which had been walked by all sorts of presidents and amazing historical figures whose photos lined its walls.

What do you remember about the ceremony? 

Karen Hesse was the Newbery winner, and Russell Freedman received the Wilder Award. There were a lot of speeches. I made sure to use the rest room beforehand, having had one painful ALA experience many years before.

The Caldecott Committee members came wearing silly hats representing either long blond hair or the cap my Rapunzel prince character wore. They were carrying huge plastic scissors to cut the hair.

I came to the dinner in a garment I had bought at a garage sale in college for $5. It was a tuxedo from the 1930s, which fit perfectly. I was wearing a cummerbund I’d made from gold Caldecott stickers. By sticking the medals to each other, front to back, with a little bit of overlap linking one to the next, I made a nicely sturdy-feeling swath of gold. I also made a golden bow tie out of the stickers.

When I was at the podium and delivering my speech, the cummerbund started to come unstuck. My body heat was loosening the glue. I kept surreptitiously pushing the medals back together as I gave the talk.

How did winning the Caldecott impact your career?

I felt like I was already in a pretty privileged situation before the Caldecott, with three honor books. But I think this still made a difference in terms of attention, speaking requests, and so on. I don’t believe it really affected what books I took on, or was asked to do, or how I worked on them. The medal also increased the number of people and organizations coming to me with charitable requests.

Where do you keep your medal?

It came in a beautiful wood box, lined in blue velvet, which I keep on my dresser.

Do you think there is more public awareness of the award today?

I remember one librarian whose great mission was to eliminate these awards. Her principle was that they encourage a personality cult based on winning, which is alien to the actual purpose of children’s—or any—literature.

She had a good point. I visited one school where I was introduced as someone who was famous and had won a prestigious medal, and if the students only work hard enough, they could also be famous and win medals. But the Caldecott leads children to read books, and eliminating it would hardly make the world a better place.

I sourly regret that the Today Show has stopped bringing in the Caldecott and Newbery winners on the air the morning after the awards are announced. But awareness of the Caldecott and Newbery is huge. I don’t know whether any other award, literary or otherwise, does as much to support the sales and lifespan of a book.

Do you have a favorite young illustrator that we should be watching as a future Caldecott contender?

Questions about favorites almost always stump me—see, for example, the Favorite Color page on my website. A lot of amazing illustration is being done these days, and naming young illustrators would make me feel that I was skipping over the large number of not-so-young ones who deserve the Caldecott even more. That said, a couple of names, very unfairly leaving out a talented multitude, might be You Byun or Julian Hector.

Any other special Caldecott memories?

The Caldecott Medal spawned a whirlwind of a year for me, and I loved it.

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Rocco Staino About Rocco Staino

Rocco Staino @RoccoA is the retired director of the Keefe Library of the North Salem School District in New York. He is now a contributing editor for School Library Journal and also writes for the Huffington Post.



  1. Sylvia Frezzolini Severance says:

    I have been a fan of Paul O Zelinsky since he illustrated HOW I HUNTED THE LITTLE FELLOWS. Always a clever interpreter of stories, he brings a sense of humor that adults as well as children can appreciate. His deft handling of different media and his attention to detail make his illustrations come alive.