Choosing the Caldecott

Book Links: August/September 2001 (v.11, no.1)

by Connie Rockman

Few experiences can be more exhilarating for a librarian than serving on one of the American Library Association's prestigious awards committees. The group process and focused book discussion among seasoned professionals is stimulating and informative. For members of each year's Caldecott committee, the process also includes developing a familiarity with the terms of art criticism and looking at picture books more carefully than ever before.

Last year I had the pleasure and the challenge of serving as the chair of the 2001 Caldecott committee, which chose the award for books published in the year 2000. There are many ways to prepare for participation on the Caldecott committee. Visiting art museums and looking at a variety of styles, reading books on art criticism and picture book art in particular, using picture books in programs with various age groups, having book discussions with friends and colleagues: all these efforts contribute to building a background for choosing personal favorites and preparing for the committee's discussions later in the year.

Each committee defines for itself what points in the criteria are most important for them and which book will rise to the top in their pool of candidates. The work of British illustrator Randolph Caldecott was characterized by warmth, wit, and delight in the world around him. Each of Caldecott's books had a theatrical quality that drew readers into the special world of his imagination. The energy of his line and careful composition of his pages created a wonderful synergy that led the reader through each story. The members of the 2001 committee tried to keep those qualities in mind as we searched for a Caldecott Award winner.

The awards committee process is very much a group effort; group discussions back home help hone the skills of committee members throughout the year. The committee meets at the beginning of the publishing year (although this meeting is not mandatory) and at the ALA Annual Conference halfway through the year to get better acquainted and look at some early contenders. Throughout the year, mainly through e-mail these days, members suggest titles for others to peruse. Toward the end of the year they narrow their own choices to specific nominations.But it is at the ALA Midwinter meeting that the committee actually deliberates, discusses, argues, and cajoles until a decision is reached.

Below are the 2001 Caldecott books that we chose, followed by a brief description of why the committee felt they were worthy of distinction. One thing is sure--after serving on the Caldecott committee, we will all continue to look at picture books with a more searching eye than ever before.

2001 Caldecott Honor Books

Cronin, Doreen.
Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type. Illus. by Betsy Lewin. 2000. 32p. Simon & Schuster, $15 (0-689-83213-3).

Preschool-Gr. 5. "Cows that type. Hens on strike! Whoever heard of such a thing?" Surely not unimaginative Farmer Brown, who doesn't have a clue how to deal with the labor crisis on his hands. With a deceptively simple but highly effective use of watercolor washes and quick black lines, Betsy Lewin has created expressive cartoon-like farm animals at odds with the farmer over working conditions in Doreen Cronin's tongue-in-cheek story. Young children enjoy the cartoon art and wacky story, while upper-elementary students respond to the subtlety of the negotiation message and its relation to real-life conflicts. Lewin's strong use of color to convey mood and tension blends perfectly with the sparse text; and her comic brush strokes provide a multitude of expressions for the cows and chickens, farmer, and duck. And how about that duck? As we watch the neutral party walk confidently up the long path to the barn with the farmer's ultimatum, somehow we know who is going to have the last laugh in this story . . . and he does, in a wordless back page illustration that extends the story in the grand tradition of the picture books of Randolph Caldecott himself.

Falconer, Ian.
Olivia. 2000. 40p. Simon & Schuster/Atheneum, $16 (0-689-82953-1).

Preschool-Gr. 3. For precocious, curious, and self-confident Olivia, life is in the details, and so is the charm of Ian Falconer's illustrations. Shadowed vignettes of Olivia wearing herself out or figuring out what to wear point out the fact that she is always on stage. Falconer has masterfully employed a minimalist approach in his use of line, color, and white space. The red gouache accents give viewers an immediate focal point and enhance his boldly understated charcoal drawings. The smallest adjustments of line or perspective or color effectively further the story and develop the character, such as the day at the beach when Olivia masters the fine art of sand-castle building. And, although she is amusing, like all children Olivia is also serious, and she dreams big. She appears center stage in every scene, with only brief appearances by her supporting cast. That we are with her all the way is a product of Falconer's talent. His seemingly simple art is sophisticated, elegant, and appealing.

Thayer, Ernest.
Casey at the Bat: A Ballad of the Republic Sung in the Year 1888. Illus. by Christopher Bing. 2000. 32p. Handprint, $17.95 (1-929766-00-9).

Gr. 3-8. Since it first appeared in print in the San Francisco Examiner of June 3, 1888, the poem that forms the text of this book has been a staple of American literary folklore and has appeared in many editions. Here, Christopher Bing's illustrations, rendered in the stylized geometric line drawing of the times, are created with pen, ink, and brush on white scratchboard and cleverly layered with a fantastic collection of memorabilia--imaginative newspaper clippings, coins and currency, baseball cards, real tickets to that mythical Mudville game, and even a Library of Congress catalog card that assigns the fictional Casey birth and death dates. These elements are carefully combined in the faithful re-creation of an aging scrapbook, so that Casey's story becomes a seamless blend of history, poetry, and whimsy--a celebration of our national pastime as it was played over a century ago. With a skillful use of new technology to create an old world look--and a dizzying variety of perspective, from the view of a hot air balloonist to the dust of the batter's box-the artist gives Thayer's tragicomic text new life and new dimension that has appeal for all ages. Computer-savvy middle schoolers and young teens will enjoy poring over the digitally layered pictures and finding all the visual clues.

2001 Caldecott Medal Winner

St. George, Judith.
So You Want to Be President? Illus. by David Small. 2000. 56p. Penguin Putnam/Philomel, $17.99 (0-399-23407-1).

Gr. 3-6. Organizing a large quantity of random presidential facts in a humorous, engaging, and memorable manner for young readers is no small task. David Small's drawings, rendered in ink, watercolor, and pastel chalk, truly capture the spirit and tone of Judith St. George's witty text from its opening: "There are good things about being President and there are bad things about being President." Both the writing and the illustrations maintain a delicate balance of humor, information, and insight throughout the book, comparing the names, educational backgrounds, character traits, and talents of all the presidents through the year 2000.

In A Critical History of Children's Literature Cornelia Meigs said of Randolph Caldecott, "Never perhaps was there a maker of pictures for children who felt so instinctively what children want." It was quite clear to this year's Caldecott committee that the same can be said for David Small. An artist with a double career in magazine illustration and political cartooning as well as children's books--similar to the career of Caldecott himself--he makes the most of each humorous fact in the book, from the cabbage once thrown at William Howard Taft to the Shetland pony Teddy Roosevelt's children took upstairs in the White House. With skilled composition and wiry, expressive lines, he propels the reader from one astonishing scene to another.

But all is not humorous in life or in this high office, and Small's atmospheric use of color and texture also creates spreads of impressive impact when dealing with the weighty side of the presidency, indicating the consequences of lying under oath . . . and the importance--if you want to be president--of patterning yourself after the best. Those who "asked more of themselves than they thought they could give" are illustrated in the closing spread of a bowed Lincoln, whose body stance indicates more than any words the awesome weight of his responsibilities.

Caldecott Fast Facts

  • The first Caldecott Medal was given in 1938, 16 years after the first Newbery Medal.
  • The Caldecott Medal is named after Randolph Caldecott, a nineteenth-century British illustrator.
  • The Caldecott Medal is presented to the artist of a picture book, not the author.
  • The artist must be a U.S. citizen or resident.
  • A picture book for children is defined in the Caldecott committee's manual as a book that "essentially provides the child with a visual experience." It should have a "collective unity of story-line, theme, or concept, developed through the series of pictures of which the book is comprised."
  • The age range for the Caldecott Medal is the same as the Newbery--up to and including age 14.
  • The 15 members of each Caldecott committee are drawn from the membership of the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), a division of ALA. Members may be school or public children's librarians, coordinators of children's services, reviewers, or professors of children's literature.

Connie Rockman is a children's literature consultant with 25 years' experience as a children's librarian. She provides workshops for school districts and library networks, is an adjunct professor at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut, and is the editor of
The Eighth Book of Junior Authors and Illustrators (H. W. Wilson, 2000).