April 24, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

The Art of the Caldecott: At 75, the powerful award keeps proving the value of librarians’ expertise | Editorial

There’s nothing quite like the run-up to the announcement of the Youth Media Awards at the American Library Association’s (ALA) Midwinter Meeting. The show buzzes with librarians taking best guesses and making their own bets—and with those on committees keeping their thoughts on the judging close to the vest. At hand on the show floor, at previews, and at parties are publishers sussing out the scene, braced for good or bad news. Everyone is talking about books.

Drawing from Mei Li.

Of course, this year is even more special. As the Caldecott Medal turns 75, the party is even bigger, and it will keep going until the awards celebration at ALA annual in Chicago in late June. It’s wonderful, and, because of the enduring value of the Caldecott award, it’s not just recreational. This award matters, bringing a broad readership to the winning books and keeping them in print for years to come. It’s also not just recreational because evaluations like these are at the heart of what librarians do every day as they choose materials for their collections.

Of course, this award is not without controversy—what award is? Among the issues is that the Caldecott is decided by committee, leading some to think the best books get left aside in the search for the ones everyone will agree on, and some of the choices don’t hold up over time. But the highly controlled judging process itself is key, and the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) continues to protect the integrity of the librarian judges and the privacy of the proceedings. (For the rules, see the Caldecott Medal Manual.) Getting to a decision requires artful mastery.

There will always be books that didn’t win the Caldecott that many argue should have. That is part of the fun. SLJ contributing editor Rocco Staino is collecting librarians’ picks of what’s gotten missed over the years in a series of video interviews we’ll post on SLJ.com in the months to come. There are also deeper reflections on the early award winners in a series of articles from
The Horn Book, rich discussion coming from bloggers, and much more in the pipeline.

I look forward to more conversation on where picture books fit into the lives of our kids. SLJ’s Trevelyn Jones, for one, hopes they’ll be better used to help kids appreciate and talk about art, even long past what’s considered to be the standard picture-book audience ages and on into the seventh and eighth grades. As a parent, I keep tapping the Caldecott winners and honor books as I read to my children, reaching for works that will enrich their language and their sense of what the world looks like and those that will spark their imaginations or transport them. I am delighted, for instance, by the pull of 1988 winner Owl Moon (illustrated by John Schoenherr, text by Jane Yolen) in the heat of the summer.

I had a special encounter with one Caldecott winner, Thomas Handforth’s Mei Li, when I visited Lisa Von Drasek, formerly at Bank Street, now the curator of the University of Minnesota’s Children’s Literature Research Collections in Minneapolis. Von Drasek showed me just a few of the choice pieces of art in the collection, including draft drawings of Caldecott-free Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown, and one from Mei Li (pictured). Mei Li, the winner of the second Caldecott Medal in 1939, was in the process of being digitized so it can be accessed more often for research.

It’s delightful that librarians made Mei Li a winner and now a librarian is preserving the art for the future. That’s the kind of difference librarians can make.

Rebecca T. Miller

Rebecca T. Miller About Rebecca T. Miller

Rebecca T. Miller (rmiller@mediasourceinc.com) is Editorial Director, Library Journal and School Library Journal.