March 21, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Convention Blues | Consider the Source


The American Library Association (ALA) annual conference is upon us, and I’m vexed with both Association for Library Services to Children (ALSC) and Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA). As I tool around the country helping folks engage with nonfiction and the Common Core, I keep seeing evidence of deeply-seated and unexamined prejudice against nonfiction in those two divisions.

I followed with real interest the discussion of the Caldecott Award at 75 on the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) listserv. The first posts were about identity: the overwhelming number of winners that were both male and Caucasian. I asked about nonfiction in terms of genre and format. How many nonfiction winners have there been? And, how frequently has photography (often used in nonfiction books) been honored?

Though there were moving and passionate posts about Tanya Hoban and Nic Bishop, (I’d add Susan Kuklin and Charles Smith, to begin), no committee has seen fit to honor them. Indeed the only exceptions I’ve heard mentioned emphasize my point: Jacqueline Briggs Martin’s medal winner Snowflake Bently (Houghton Mifflin, 1998), illustrated by  Mary Azarian, is about a photographer, without his photographs, while Patrick McDonnell’s honor book Me…Jane (Little, Brown, 2011) has, drumroll, a single photo. Why, one might ask.

The answer rests in a rule that gets to the heart of the issue I am raising: Caldecott criteria require original artwork that has not been previously published. That means that a picture book that incorporates archival photography or images from a research institute can’t win. At a stroke, the medal eliminates from consideration any book that uses, say, NASA images. The award can go to a deceased artist, but I was told by an expert that the medal was initially designed to support living artists, thus the focus on new work.

The problem is that Caldecott criteria state that the award is presented in honor of “the most distinguished American picture book for children,” and defines distinguished as: “Marked by eminence and distinction; noted for significant achievement. Marked by excellence in quality. Marked by conspicuous excellence or eminence. Individually distinct.”

If the Caldecott is an award to encourage living artists, then (contra what I argued in The Horn Book years ago) we should have awards designed to encourage every brand of living artist. Affirmative action is affirmative action–let’s identify deserving sets of artists and make sure they get their due. But, if the Caldecott honors the most distinguished picture book, it cannot exclude a title that requires the primary use of archival images. When I read through the list of medalists, I see marvelous books and a line-up of wonderful artists deserving of their honors. But the members of that all-star team, no matter how luminary, are solely masters of ink and brush, paint, and pixel.

The Caldecott does not honor the most distinguished picture book; it honors the most distinguished rendered picture book. That is a crucial distinction because it signifies that great artistry can’t be found in the selection, layout, design, and display of images that have survived from the past. Indeed, one person who posted on the CCBC listserv intimated that she, and she assumed most others, believe photography is not an art form in the same manner as drawing, painting, or collage.

Another person pointed to the Robert F. Sibert medal as meeting the need for a nonfiction award. But that is not fair given that the Caldecott criteria state that the award selects and honors distinction. The Caldecott is the ne plus ultra, the cynosure, of awards–it cannot both assert its primacy, and–implicitly–disqualify whole categories of books. Moreover, Caldecott is an ALSC award–a division that stretches up to 8th grade, as once again the award rules stress. Surely those older readers of picture books–and we all know they are legion–often prefer photographs over drawings they see as childish. And yet this ALSC award inherently excludes those older books from consideration.

That brings me to YALSA. I’ve been furious ever since that ALA division decided to remove nonfiction from its Best Books for Young Adults (BBYA) list. BBYA is now best fiction. While YALSA has made efforts to improve its nonfiction prize, it has never recognized a key flaw in its plan: the BBYA meetings were a public forum where future librarians, authors, and editors, and could listen and learn, and its nomination list was often used by teens as a reading/discussion list. There is no longer an up-to-date list of young adult nonfiction titles for reading groups to consider, or a public venue where stakeholders can discuss teen nonfiction. It’s ironic that this has happened just when librarians, authors, and editors are asking for guidance in how to select and craft quality nonfiction.

So there we have it. Sure, individual books are honored, as Steve Sheinkin’s Bomb (Macmillan, 2012) was this year. But nonfiction remains marginal–so marginal that neither ALSC nor YALSA seems to notice their abiding bias. The question is, why?

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Marc Aronson About Marc Aronson

Marc Aronson is a Rutgers University lecturer in the School of Communication and Information and the author of many notable nonfiction titles for children and young adults including, The Skull in the Rock, winner of the 2013 Subaru Prize from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. His book The Griffin and the Scientist (with Adrienne Mayor) will be published in April 2014. He was the first recipient of the Robert F. Sibert medal from the American Library Association for excellence in nonfiction writing for youth.

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  1. Marc, the Caldecott award goes to a person (or people, in the case of co-illustrators like the Dillons), not to a book. I would say that its larger goal is to encourage achievement in children’s picture book illustration, so you can see why the criteria are written to exclude art previously published for another purpose. Now, why the Caldecott committee has never honored a photographer remains a scandal.

    • marc aronson says:

      I get that the award goes to a person, and this is problematic for my case. But my argument is that the selection, layout, design and use of photography is an artform — in one version of this piece I cited the first Eyewitness books as, in my view, clearly the most distinguished advance in true picture books in the 80s. Not eligible, of course, since Brit, but my point was that if you look at the picture book as an art form, which the Caldecott seems to claim to honor, and which, say, Brian Seltzer’s speech about the page turn emphasizes, then you cannot just look at the items (paintings, drawings) but rather at the book. And if you do that, archival illos should be considered. My other point, where we agree, on the slighting of photography, is that the biggest problem is that few even notice that there is a problem. There is a blindness and complacency that is my real and abiding concern.

      • For that, my friend, you look to the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, which consider picture books in their totality rather than their series of pictures. They are also no respecters of media or political borders: Nic Bishop and Joy Cowley’s Red-Eyed Tree Frog won in the picture book category in 1999.

        • marc aronson says:

          always a fan of BGHB, however, as I say, Caldecott can’t claim to reward distinction and then define distinction in such restrictive ways – or, if it does shouldn’t be upset if the award diminishes in value

  2. Myra Zarnowski says:

    I welcome your continuing discussion about criteria for children’s and YA book awards. When I examined several prominent awards with my graduate students last semester, they were surprised at how vague some of the criteria was. We all need to think about how criteria can exclude some authors and illustrators from winning an award or even being noticed.

  3. Julie Cummins says:

    Marc, you don’t seem to acknowledge the difference is picture books between original photography (i.e. Tana Hoban) and archival images. In my experience with the Caldecott Award, a book illustrated with original photos has never been ruled out of contention because photographic illustrations were the medium of choice.

  4. Marc aronson says:


    First of all, no book of photography, original or not, has won so the problem is in ALSC not me. But, second, i am indeed arguing that the most distinguished picture book can be made with archival images, and that is so for a variety of reasons. First, if we claim otherwise, we assume most nonfiction picturebooks cannot be singularly distinguished — which i do not accept; second it does not recognize the true aesthetic art in crafting picturebooks with archival images.

    What bothers me most, as i wrote in response to roger, is that the slighting of nonfiction in general and photography in particular does not seem to bother folks in ALSC or in its way YALSA. where is the hand wringing and self questioning? No photography winners in 75 years? Surely it should not take me to point this out and to question why.

  5. Hear, hear!!!! I love the Siberts. But they simply do not have the recognition that the Caldecotts have. Keep campaigning, Marc. I can’t be the only librarian who agrees with you emphatically! It would help slow down the insidious and increasing preference of publishers for merely adequate series nonfiction if the Caldecotts were expanded to include photographs, archival and original.

  6. YALSA did institute their new nonfiction award this year, and they also include nonfiction in their Great Graphic Novels list, so I think they aren’t completely ignorant of the growing importance of nonfiction. That said, a BNFYA list would not go amiss. What would be the process for adding such a list to YALSA’s repertoire?

    • I should correct that – it was first awarded in 2010.

    • marc aronson says:

      I know about the award — since I was the one to suggest it to YALSA. But my argument is not that they ignore NF totally but, rather, that by elminating NF from BB they remove public discussion of NF at ALA and as a regular part of teen reading/discussion groups (who use the BB nomination list as a focus) around the nation. And the question I keep asking is why is it that no one in YALSA notices (or, acknowledges, since I and others have pointed this out over and over again) this flaw? Why this blindness on the crucial importance of public discussion of NF as a regular part of what it means to be a YA librarian and YA reader? Not one YALSA board member or officer has ever answered either why they did not notice or what they propose to do about it. As to fixes, the easiest one is simply to return BB to what it was and always should be: a discussion of best books, not limited by genre.