Curious about the pic? Susan says, "After the committee has read the hundreds of books, each one of us only gets seven nominations. To be discussed and considered on the table, the book must be formally nominated. So, as you can imagine, a lot of thought goes into selecting the nominations. During the actual discussion meetings, our nominated books arrived in an enormous steamer trunk. Right after we selected the winners, it felt like a good idea at the time to get in the empty trunk myself. Once I did, committee members started handing me our winning and honor books. There wasn't enough room to put them all in my hands, so I proudly held Beekle, and the committee arranged the honor books behind me in the trunk."
ES: Welcome to The Corner, Susan! And congratulations on your service on the 2015 Caldecott Award Committee!
A lot of the American Library Association award process is a closely guarded secret. However, what can you tell us about the judging process?
SK: Delighted to be here! Thanks so much for inviting me.
Being on the Caldecott committee was a phenomenal experience for me. It had always been one of my lifetime goals to get on the committee, but I still can’t believe that it actually came true.
Yes, the ALA award process does indeed have a lot of secrecy attached to it but I’m happy to share as much as I can. In general, I can’t tell you anything that the committee decided on or discussed as a group, but I can give you my personal opinions.
I read several hundred books over the past year. Some were sent by publishers and arrived on my doorstep. Others were found by committee members in libraries, bookstores, and publisher catalogs, etc.
ES: Ha – you never know what that humble person next to you in line at the library might be checking out that book for…it could be to find the next ALA award winner!!! I can just picture it…
Now, some folks point out the wording of the award is ambiguous in that it states the "most distinguished American Picture Book" rather than purely an award for illustration. However, the oversimplified "street" interpretation of the ALA awards is that the Newbery is for content of longer works (especially middle grade), while the Caldecott is for illustration of shorter works (like picture books). Can you clarify the committee's views on this? How much does (prose) content versus purely illustration play into the Caldecott Award?
SK: Speaking of expected book lengths reminds me of the 2008 awards. I was working at a toy and bookstore at the time, and I remember very proudly showing the winners to my boss right after the press conference. I was proud because I had guessed they might win and pre-ordered them, which meant they were actually in our store at the time of the announcement. I held up the 533 page copy of The Invention of Hugo Cabret and said “This is Caldecott winner” and then I held up the 96 page copy of Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! and said “This is the Newbery winner.” He stared at me for a while, then at the books, and then told me I must have gotten it wrong.
It’s funny, but I don’t really think about the awards in terms of the length of the books.
But, if I had to have an oversimplified definition for myself, it would be that the Caldecott is for illustration and the Newbery is for words.
For me, it’s all about the criteria, which is something I referred to constantly, which was in front of me every time I read a book and during the entire discussion process, and which can be found by clicking here.
As you said, the criteria says "The Medal shall be awarded annually to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children published by an American publisher in the United States in English during the preceding year.”
How does the text play into it? Take a look at this line from the criteria:
"The committee is to make its decision primarily on the illustration, but other components of a book are to be considered especially when they make a book less effective as a children’s picture book. Such other components might include the written text, the overall design of the book, etc.”
ES: Thank you for clearing that up! I love the visual impact of your myth-busting on book length when you hold up the two award winners for 2008 as a comparison point.
SK: You should see the looks I get when I show people one of our honor winners from this year, This One Summer, which is 320 pages. They are always surprised that a longer book is eligible.
ES: What is your thought process as you read a book for award consideration? How do you take notes?
SK: Everyone’s note taking process is different, but personally, I was a hardcore computer person. I used a fantastic database called Readerware that was able to find all the details of each books once I had entered the ISBN (International Standard Book Number). It also helped me a great deal later on when I needed to refer back to books I had read months earlier.
I know that each book takes the illustrator, author and publishing house many years to come to fruition, and I felt that every single book deserved my complete attention and respect. Some I had already seen, but I did my best to ignore that and look at them with fresh eyes. Obviously I read each book to myself and took notes, but I also read them to my own kids and with many groups of children at different age levels. I read them again and again over the course of several months and took additional notes to gain new perspectives.
ES: It’s fascinating to me that you read these out to kids as well. That must have provided you with very good feedback on whether it was truly engaging for the target audience.
SK: Yes, kids give you a wonderful perspective. For example, I’ve noticed that younger kids spot the trick ending in one of our honor books Sam and Dave Dig a Hole almost every time, while older kids and adults tend to miss it. And, I think everyone should read that book aloud to children. It’s a very different experience than reading it to yourself.
ES: It must truly be a heart breaker at the end as you narrow down the top contenders to just the few that will actually win (or be granted honors)!
SK: On every award committee I’ve been on, you go off and read all the books by yourself over a long period of time in relative isolation. You come across the books that you are sure will be the ones- that are so obviously wonderful to you that you are convinced they must have stood out to everyone. And every time you enter the room, the computer chat or the e-mail discussion, you find that isn’t the case. We’re all unique people with different perspectives and we all find different books to be the best ones. It’s always a bit jarring and takes time to adjust to the rest of the committee’s opinions. But, I also think it’s important not to go in with your mind made up and to listen to the discussion. So, yes, there were a few books that made me sad when they left the table, but I was also introduced to books that other people thought were wonderful and was able to hear their perspectives.
ES: How does the committee work at this point? What factors do you all take into consideration?
SK: It’s important to know that once a book is removed from the table it can never be put back into consideration. The committee narrows the field until they reach the ballot. There may be one ballot or multiple ballots. The number of ballots a committee uses to determine a winner is secret. The criteria I mentioned earlier is crucial- to make sure each book in contention meets that.
ES: Oooo – all the secrecy :)
What are some of your favorite features of this year's winner/honors?
SK: I love the fact that they are diverse. Diverse in all ways. The creators of the books come from all different backgrounds but the books themselves are diverse too. For example, I think it’s wonderful that we have a book with only short phrases and vibrant puppets (Viva Frida) along with a lengthy graphic novel done only in one color (This One Summer.).
ES: As a Hispanic author myself, it certainly is encouraging to see such a diverse lineup for the committee’s ultimate selection! What surprised you the most about this process?
SK: So many things.
I had always heard how amazing the actual discussions were, and they were even more incredible than I had imagined. It was a privilege and honor to be able to discuss books at such a high level with such intelligent people who had read and analyzed each book so carefully. I walked away feeling I had fourteen new friends for life. The bonding that happened over the course of this process was far more than I ever would have expected.
I was also surprised how many people have heard of the Caldecott Medal. Whenever I was asked why I was reading pictures books in my doctor’s office, or a restaurant or why I was busy every single weekend all year long, everyone always knew what that gold seal meant. I was suddenly treated like a celebrity, even if they had no connection to the children’s book world.
I was surprised at how proud my family was of me. I don’t think you could have a conversation with my mother that lasted longer than three sentences without finding out that her daughter was on the Caldecott committee, even if you had started that conversation as a complete stranger or had come to fix the plumbing. The same holds true for my father, husband, kids, and really, anyone that’s ever met me. It was very humbling.
I was surprised at the emotion I felt at the press conference. By the time they announced the Caldecott Medal, which is always second to last, I could barely contain myself, I felt so nervous. What was everyone going to think? I gripped the committee members on either side of me as the announcement was made and felt like I was about to jump out of an airplane. When we were asked to stand, which we did proudly while wearing yellow construction paper Beekle crowns, there were tears in my eyes. The moment only lasted a few seconds but it seemed to go on for at least an hour. I was relieved to see everyone in the crowd smiling and waving back at us. The best part was that my family was in the audience too, and I could see them waving at me.
I was surprised at the emotion I felt during the phone calls when we called the winner and honor recipients. You can see part of the calls by clicking here. There is absolutely nothing like hearing the moment where someone’s life changes- and you get to be a small part of that.
I was surprised how honored I was to place our book on my bookshelf when I got home. I own every single Caldecott Medal winner, from 1938 to 2014… all 76 of them. And that moment when I put the 2015 winner on that shelf and made it officially 77 books was really quite something. I looked down the row and could see Make Way for Ducklings and Where the Wild Things Are. I felt such a thrill that Beekle was now a part of that group and I was a small part of that medal.
ES: What a lovely sense of community and of family standing behind you in pride as you played a key role in one of the most important literary awards in the country. Now…after it’s all said and done…would you do it again?
SK: In a minute! But, once you’ve been on the Caldecott committee, there’s actually a four year waiting period before being on the Caldecott again or being on other award committees like the Newbery. I think I need that time to recover!
ES: Thank you again for taking the time to stop by The Corner, Susan, and sharing your insights and experiences with us! For those of you interested in seeing the full line-up of Caldecott winners, click here.
Readers, please know I will be taking a hiatus from the blog next month as I’m getting married! Thanks, and see you soon after…