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Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Caldecott 2014: Predictions and Predicaments

By Carol Baicker-McKee

It's award season! And not just for movies and TV shows!

On Monday, January 27, 2014, the American Library Association will announce their Youth Media Awards, including my favorite, the winner and honor books for this year's Caldecott Medal, awarded for the most distinguished picture book published in the U.S. during 2013.*

Speculation about the possible winner(s) has been building since last January. And not just in my household. Some of the bloggers who track contenders include:
  • Elizabeth Bird, who puts out quarterly watch lists for the Caldecott and Newbery through the fabulous Fuse #8 blog at School Library Journal (see the posts here, here and here - and her final list here). 
  • Lolly Robinson, Robin Smith, and Martha V. Parravano, who write the Horn Book's annual blog Calling Caldecott, which tracks a wide range of possible contenders and also examines various controversies and concerns related to the books and medals. On the side bar you can find links for the Caldecott Manual, lists of past winners, etc.
  • You can find lists of potential contenders at the Allen County Public Library site here and on Mia Wenjen's Pragmatic Mom blog here.
There are always interesting discussions in the comments of these blogs, too.

Mock Caldecott votes will be held in schools and libraries all over the country. If you haven't had the pleasure of participating in one, I urge you to give it a try - you will learn so much not just about the year's best books, but also about how to evaluate an illustrated book. I participated in a fabulous Mock Caldecott for years through the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh; it was led by Amy Kellman, a remarkable children's literature consultant, former Youth Services Coordinator at the Carnegie. Oh, and past committee member for the Caldecott, Newbery and Batchelder awards. (And Very Special Human Being! She also serves on the Best Books for Babies committee that I'm a member of.) I learned so much from her about what makes a book outstanding; I find myself applying the lessons in my own work and reading.

If you can't find a live group to join in, there are lots of virtual options, including ones through the Calling Caldecott blog (read the schedule and how-to here) and Goodreads, which you can learn about here.

*The Caldecott Medal is not actually given to the book, but to "the artist of the most distinguished American Picture Book for Children published in the United States during the preceding year." (My emphasis.)

Controversies in Award Land
The Caldecott has a huge impact on a book's sale, a publisher's fortunes, and an illustrator's career. With so much riding on a win - or lack thereof - there are of course lots of...heated discussions of issues. Here are a few you might enjoy debating with other picture book fans.

The Gender Divide
Male illustrators are much more likely to win the award - and have in fact become increasingly likely to win it, in contrast to what you might think. I've discussed this at length here and here, so you may be sick of it. But it's shaping up to be an issue AGAIN this year - Elizabeth Bird's top contenders are ALL by men (though most of her longshots are by women) and the Horn Book folks are concerned too (see here). I will probably be back to revisit this issue again in a few weeks. Sigh.

The Racial Divide
Caldecott winners are more likely to be white, compared to the representation of people of color in the U.S. population. And characters in the books are more likely to be white. New awards, like the Coretta Scott King Award and the Belpre Medal were created to make sure that illustrators and writers of color also get recognition, but some have argued that this actually reduces the ability of those illustrators to win the Caldecott, which still carries more prestige.

Popular/Kid-Appealing versus Distinguished
The committee does not take into account whether the books they consider or choose are liked by actual kids, just whether they are "distinguished" in their illustrations and design. Should popularity matter? Would that lead to the awards being dominated by books found by the checkout line in the grocery store? Or is it possible for books to be both popular and distinguished?

The Process
Unlike other best-of awards, the Caldecott committee does not produce a public long list or short list prior to the selection; some feel that publication of the lists would invite more attention to special books all year and give recognition to a wider array of artists.
There are also concerns about the makeup of the committees, which tends to be heavily female (I know!), white and well, librarian. Does that influence their choices?
The chosen books tend to slant older, though heavily illustrated chapter books almost never win. This is partly because older books tend to have more complex, work-intensive illustrations than books for the very young. Should there be a separate award for books for the very young? Or some way of handicapping that gives those books an equal shot (such as making age-appropriateness a heavily weighted variable).

The Role of the Text
Although the author clearly benefits - and clearly influences the illustrator's work -- the award goes to the illustrator and not the text. Should the award take the text into account? Occasionally books have won despite near universal agreement that the text was not of the same level - but more often books without distinguished texts fail to make the cut, regardless of how remarkable the art is.

Controversies about Specific Books in Contention
This year, for example, there are two books that are basically retellings of other well known tales - Journey by Aaron Becker owes its existence to Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crocket Johnson, and Bluebird by Bob Staake is clearly a revisit of The Red Balloon by Albert Lamorrisse. Elizabeth Bird was uneasy about Bluebird for these reasons, but doesn't seem to have similar qualms about Journey. (See here.) What do you think? Can a retelling/showing be distinguished?

My Pick
Hands down, both as what I want and what I think will win:
See my earlier review (and comparison with The Purple Crayon) here to understand my choice.
(I did get a giclee print of Becker's Tree House art for Christmas! From my wonderful son, Eric! Thank you, again, Eric!)

You can read details about the award here and find information about the announcement of all the ALA's Youth Media awards (which now number 18) here. This link will take you to the live webcast of the awards, if you wish to follow them.

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