Caldecott Confidential: What's next year's best picture book for kids? Please, don't ask.

Illustrations by Edward Koren.

Illustrations by Edward Koren.

Talk about confidentiality. It’s probably easier to uncover the identity of a new pope than to find out the name of the next Caldecott winner. That’s because the tight-lipped group that chooses our nation’s premier children’s picture book is sworn to secrecy, and it takes that charge very seriously. Nell Colburn, chair of the 2009 Caldecott committee, revealed some very interesting insights into what goes on behind closed doors when she recently spoke to this year’s incoming band of judges. Here’s what she told them. Dear Members of the 2011 Caldecott Committee: You are about to have one of the best experiences, if not the best, of your library career! It will be a year of hard work, culminating in one of the most exhilarating book discussions you’ll ever have. I asked the members of the 2009 Caldecott committee what they would like to share with you. They suggest that you nurture your sense of humor. That will be important throughout the year but especially during that final book discussion. They also suggest that you practice listening, most particularly listening without frowning. That will be useful during the book discussion as well. The main thing they want to tell you is to have fun. We certainly did, even though all of us would also tell you that the task of selecting the Caldecott winner is one of the most challenging jobs we’ve ever done. Start off the year by buying a new bookshelf—or clearing off some old ones. You’ve probably heard that each committee member receives advanced reading copies from most publishing houses. Expect hundreds. One person on my committee turned over her entire kitchen nook to these books—and had no regrets! Another one borrowed some old wooden book carts from her library. Another had a little rolling cart in her car she used to carry books so she could share them with whomever was interested on any particular day. The books probably won’t start arriving until late February, and there will be just a trickle at first. But don’t let that fool you. By late spring there’ll be boxes and boxes on your doorstep, with more coming each week. Each member of the 2009 Caldecott committee received more than 700 titles. It’s hard to wait for the books. Put this time to good use by perusing the committee manual’s resource list on picture book art and evaluation. You’ll be glad you did, as there won’t be much time for that kind of reading later on. Dip into several books, and choose two or three to read all the way through. The title I found most useful was K. T. Horning’s From Cover to Cover: Evaluating and Reviewing Children’s Books (HarperCollins, 1997). Chapter five is devoted to picture books. A new edition of this fabulous book is due out in May, so you’re in luck. My committee also highly recommends Dilys Evans’s superb Show & Tell: Exploring the Fine Art of Children’s Book Illustration (Chronicle, 2008). These valuable books will help you start thinking about color, line, texture, shape, space—the elements of art—and how they’re used to create distinctive picture books. As you read them, remind yourself of your own tastes in art and illustration. It’s important that you’re aware of your own biases so you can look beyond them and focus on how the artistic and narrative elements work together to create something special. If you aren’t in the habit of visiting art museums, consider strolling through one or two to remind yourself that distinctive art comes in all shapes, sizes, media, and styles—from Andy Warhol’s soup cans to Rembrandt’s oils and etchings and from Matisse’s cutouts to Jules Feiffer’s cartoons. During this time, you’ll also want to think about how to record your notes about each book. I urge you to write down your thoughts from day one. You will think you’ll remember everything, but you won’t. One committee member told me to mention that “after the first 200 titles you don’t remember much of anything”—without your notes, that is. Another said that it was interesting to see patterns emerge in the kinds of things she noticed on a first reading compared with the second, third, or 18th reading. She suggests setting up a system that’s “expandable,” as your notes on some books will grow and grow. Some people use index cards, some put everything on a laptop. Others use notebook paper kept in three-ring binders or put Post-its in their books. Ed Spicer, who went from the 2009 Caldecott committee to this year’s Notable Children’s Books committee, uses his iPhone to record page numbers or his thoughts while reading. He replays the messages and finds the page numbers he needs when he’s ready to review and annotate. Whatever you decide to do—it’s hard! It’s hard to interrupt your experience of a book to take notes. But you’ll be so glad you did. Your contributions to the committee will be richer, and you won’t be frustrated when you try to recall those all-important specific examples. As the books start coming in earnest, you’ll also need to discipline yourself to keep up with the reading. Read or reread several titles every day. Go back to books you initially dismissed. Sometimes it’s the time of day or your mood that affects your initial reaction, especially when you’re dealing with so many titles. Your chair will establish a procedure for recommending outstanding books—books that you’d like your fellow committee members to look at carefully. There will probably be a monthly exchange, and the chair will keep a cumulative list of recommendations. This is an important way to guarantee everyone’s participation throughout the year, and it underscores the comforting fact that you’re not alone in determining the next Caldecott winner—you’ll have the help of 14 colleagues! Most likely your chair has thoroughly gone over the need for confidentiality. While you may share your own favorite titles with friends and colleagues, you’ll want to remind them that the winning title will be selected by a group of 15 people and you can’t speak for the entire committee. You may not share the list of recommendations or quote other committee members at any time. Your chair will periodically remind you of this, as well as other things that must be kept confidential, such as the final discussion list and the number of ballots it may take to determine the winning title and honor selections. Confidentiality is important to maintaining the integrity and authority of the award. It’s taken very seriously. After today, all of your meetings will take place behind locked doors. You’ll probably have two committee meetings in June at the American Library Association’s (ALA) annual conference. As you prepare for these sessions, keep in mind that you won’t be spending a lot of time talking about books. Many committee members I’ve known have been disappointed about this. So prepare yourself: know that the June meetings are a time for committee members to get comfortable as a team and to familiarize themselves with the procedures for the fall nominations and the midwinter meetings, when time will be at a premium. The June book discussion is pretty much just a warm-up exercise. Each and every book in contention for the Caldecott Medal will be evaluated fully at ALA’s midwinter meeting in January 2011. As the year progresses, look for opportunities to discuss books with colleagues and kids. It’s not only a great way to get insights on the titles but it’s a good way to practice making points succinctly and to hone your discussion skills. And also to practice listening. Practice listening without frowning. During the fall, you’ll have three rounds of formal nominations; each of you will be able to nominate seven books. As the nominations come in, you’ll begin to see what your conference discussion list will look like. As you organize your notes, be sure to spend some time preparing to defend your position on the books you see as flawed. Seriously. The first time I served on an award committee, I was shocked by how much time I spent speaking against books that I felt were not worthy. To do this effectively, you need good notes, and you have to have your points in line so you can make them efficiently. I learned that arguing against certain books is as important as arguing in favor of certain books. These arguments can make a huge difference in helping the committee determine why one book may be more distinguished than another. Reread. Reread. Reread. You’ll be astonished at what you discover during repeated readings. Clear your calendar for the month of December. You’ll need time to read through everyone’s nominations and consider your colleagues’ thoughts with the particular books in hand. Theoretically, there could be 105 different titles nominated! Most likely the number of nominated titles will be smaller, due to inevitable overlap, but there still will be 105 individual justifications to read and consider. Members of the Association for Library Service to Children, the division of ALA that sponsors the award, are invited to submit nominations, too, so there may be additional titles to put into the mix. Don’t think that you’ll be able to do this at the midwinter meeting, or even in the days just before it. You’ll need plenty of time to digest your colleagues’ thoughts and prepare your own arguments. The midwinter meeting will be a whirlwind, and some of you will be adjusting to a different time zone. During the discussion, there’ll be a time limit on each title you want to talk about—so prepare ahead to make your points concisely and logically. Otherwise you may get frustrated and end up being less effective than you’d hoped. The most important thing I have to tell you as a past chair is this: don’t go to the midwinter meeting with your mind made up. Know that you will participate in one of the best book discussions you may ever experience. It’s really quite amazing to discuss books with 14 other people who know all the titles better than probably anyone but their authors, illustrators, and editors. All 15 of you will have read each book multiple times and thought about them, perhaps even dreamt about them. All 15 of you will be well aware that the stakes are high and that your decision will affect library collections worldwide and perhaps change the lives of the winning illustrators. All 15 of you will be determined to give it everything you have. The quality of the discussion is remarkable. Most of you will come away seeing new things in many of the books. At least some of you will wind up letting go of a book you came in championing. Prepare for this. Go into the midwinter meetings ready to listen to each other with your minds and hearts open. It will be emotional. Hey, it’s about books! You are all passionate book people; that’s why you’re on this committee! So… nurture your sense of humor. Practice listening. Practice listening without frowning. And get ready for a sweet career high.
Nell Colburn (nellc@multcolib.org), an early childhood librarian at the Multnomah County Library in Portland, OR, says that chairing the 2009 Caldecott committee was the highlight of her 30-plus years in library work.

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