May 23, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

2017 Newbery and Caldecott Winners Look Back, Offer Advice to the 2018 Honorees

Winning the Newbery or Caldecott Medal is an overwhelming achievement that does more than add a revered sticker to the book’s cover. The heady phone call telling the winner of the honor kicks off nearly 12 months of all-consuming chaos.

“Nobody prepares you for anything like this,” says Kelly Barnhill, winner of the 2017 Newbery Medal for The Girl Who Drank the Moon. “Most of my year has been spent in a general state of shock and disbelief.”

The Youth Media Awards, sponsored by the American Library Association (ALA), recognize outstanding work for children and teens. Of the more than a dozen awards, those administered by the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), including the Caldecott and Newbery, are the most established and have the most clout. The Caldecott Medal, awarded “to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children,” and the Newbery Medal, given to “the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children” are are arguably the biggest honors given out during the annual ALA event.

Javaka Steptoe, who won the 2017 Caldecott Medal for Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, spent most of his year living out of a suitcase trying to go to as many places as possible. The crazy schedule impacted his ability to get things done, even when he was home.

“You don’t think about how taxing that can be in terms of trying to work,” he says. “When you’re visiting schools and libraries, it doesn’t really matter how nice the people are, you’re still, to a certain extent, on stage. It just takes more energy.

Photo by Gregg Richards

“You get back home and you need a second to get yourself balanced and ready to work again. You might have a week, might have a couple of days then you’re flying off somewhere else.”

Barnhill took a less flight-filled route, trying to continue to prioritize “family and quietness.” Still, the spring and fall brought more travel than usual, with Barnhill adding extra days and events to previously planned trips.  She learned a few things along the way.

“There is, I think, a lot of freedom in obscurity,” says Barnhill. “It’s one of those things I didn’t know to appreciate.”

And while she feels as if she loses ownership of all of her books once they are published, this one will forever be different. “It belongs to more people when it suddenly has that sticker on it,” she says. “With the Newbery, it belonged to the world in a much more profound way.”

She has found it “humbling” to receive letters, pictures and videos from kids all over the world.

“I have been so grateful for this year,” she says. “I’m not sorry it’s over, because we keep moving on to the next thing.”

Steptoe too is happy he can finally work on a project he had planned before Radiant Child was finished. “I’m just really enjoying the fact that I can sit and have a sustained period of time when I can work,” he says.

To this year’s winners, Steptoe would pass along the advice he was given: “Enjoy the time. Focus on the moment.” To that, he would add, “You should also say no if you need to say no. You don’t have to do everything.”

And don’t go it alone.

“Make sure you have help,” he said. “It’s a lot of work scheduling everything, just trying to keep everything in order. Get an assistant or a booking agent if you can.”

Barnhill would tell the 2018 Newbery winner to “not feel guilty about letting the great world spin.”

While the former teacher enjoyed the events, particularly getting back into the classroom, it was the time as an observer not the on-demand, award-winning author provided the most meaningful moments for her.

“I do think that it’s important to take a step back and let everything be quiet,” says Barnhill. “Bear witness to the life that our books have outside of us, and the life that our books have in the lives of kids. That is a really, really special thing.”

Now it’s time for the 2018 winners to take on a crazy year of opportunity and accolades. Or as Barnhill says, “Tag, you’re it.”

As the excitement builds to the 2018 Youth Media Awards announcements on February 12, takes a look at the Caldecott and Newbery Medal books’ impact on librarians, last year’s winning authors and the children’s publishing industry.

Kara Yorio About Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (, @karayorio) is news editor at School Library Journal.

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