Saturday, July 23, 2016

Making Memories with My Calde-crew

The last time the members of the 2016 Caldecott Committee gathered, it was January and we were in snowy Boston where we spent hours in a locked room trying to determine which book would win the 2016 Caldecott Medal. On the morning of January 11th, our choice was announced to the world: Finding Winnie, illustrated by Sophie Blackall. We also chose four Caldecott Honor books (in order by title): Last Stop on Market Street, illustrated by Christian Robinson; Trombone Shorty, illustrated by Bryan Collier; Voice of Freedom, illustrated by Ekua Holmes; and Waiting, illustrated by Kevin Henkes.

It's no secret that being on an awards committee is a real honor, but it's also hard work. There are hundreds of books to read and evaluate followed by a herculean effort to winnow that mountain of books down to a list of finalists, and then the final push to choose a winner. We finished the hard part in January, and then last month, at the American Library Association's Annual conference in hot and muggy Orlando, it was time to celebrate the winners, and be feted for our work on the 2016 Caldecott Committee. And it was also a time to be inspired and energized by talking with some of the best authors and illustrators working in the children's book world today.

First up was a mini-reunion of our Calde-crew at a Thursday night dinner. Not all 15 of us could be there that night, but we had enough of a majority that we decided to present our wonderful chairperson, Rachel Payne of the Brooklyn Public Library, with a memento of the experience: a bracelet specially made by an artist on Etsy featuring tiny images of our Caldecott Medal winner and Caldecott Honor books. In fact, we liked the idea so much that many of us decided to order our own bracelet.

Friday night was devoted to a dinner with the four Caldecott Honor illustrators: Christian Robinson (Last Stop on Market Street); Bryan Collier (Trombone Shorty); Ekua Holmes (Voice of Freedom); and Kevin Henkes (Waiting). Carole Boston Weatherford, author of Voice of Freedom, also attended. The event was hosted by the indefatiguable Jason Welles of Abrams, publisher of Trombone Shorty. Abrams had created special table decorations from illustrations in each of the Caldecott Honor books, and we committee members each got to take one home. Even more importantly, we were given a copy of each of the four Honor books, and were able to spent time with each illustrator as he or she personally signed our copies.

Close-up photos of the table decorations are by my fellow committee member, Elise Katz.

There weren't any formal remarks by the Honor illustrators, so Kevin Henkes later sent us copies of what he had planned to say if there had been a time for speaking. Henkes wrote: "The brilliant publisher, William R. Scott, once said, the picture book is 'the simplest, subtlest, most communicative, most elusive, most challenging book form of them all.' I couldn't agree more. In my book, three gifts appear on the windowsill: a marble, an acorn, and a tiny seashell. Your gift to me is far grander. And, I thank you, Caldecott Committee, for honoring my picture book in such a lovely way."

Saturday evening was another night to remember as our committee dined with Caldecott Medalist Sophie Blackall, her editor Susan Rich and several other folks from the Little, Brown team whose combined efforts made Finding Winnie such a gem. The event was orchestrated by Victoria Stapleton, Little, Brown's publicist extraordinaire, who surprised our committee with specially-saved first edition copies of Finding Winnie for Sophie to personalize for each of us. It was an evening of laughter and happy tears as Sophie described her experience working on the book, beginning with Susan Rich's invitation to illustrate it. Susan then presented Sophie with a one-of-a-kind gift: a hand-embroidered Winnie that Susan had created herself. 

Sophie holds Winnie embroidered by Susan Rich.

The final touch was the amazing poppy corsage/boutoniere -- complete with a tiny watercolor image of Winnie -- that Sophie had hand-crafted for each member of the Calde-crew.

Then came the big event -- the Sunday evening Newbery Caldecott Wilder banquet. It's always a highlight of any ALA Annual conference, as the winners of these most prestigious children's book awards give acceptance speeches that are not only fascinating glimpses into writing and illustrating children's books but also are hugely inspiring. In addition to 2016 Caldecott Medalist Sophie Blackall, the two other speakers were 2016 Newbery Medalist Matt de la Pena, who wrote the text of the Caldecott Honor picture book, Last Stop On Market Street, and 2010 Caldecott Medalist Jerry Pinkney, who won the Wilder Award for his distinguished work over a decades-long career in children's books. (Note: the Caldecott Honor and Newbery Honor recipients are called up to the stage during the program to receive recognition and a plague, but they don't speak at the banquet).

Before the banquet, however, we had one other wonderful chance to mingle with the winners in the pre-banquet "greenroom." 

Sophie  & Kevin Henkes (in back at right) with the Calde-crew.

The banquet head table was quite a picture of diversity. Matt de la Pena is the first Latino man to win the Newbery Medal. Jerry Pinkney was the first African-American man to win the Caldecott Medal (a biracial author/illustrator team, Leo and Diane Dillon, had previously won two Caldecott Medals). And Sophie Blackall added to the number of women who have won the Caldecott Medal, a number that is still significantly smaller than the number of male recipients.

The 2016 Caldecott, Newbery & Wilder honorees

Each of the trio had important and heart-felt things to say about children's literature, and I'm going to link to The Horn Book, which has reprinted their full speeches, each of which is well worth taking the time to read. Also in this link are the profiles of each winner, written by someone close to them. (There are also a few other links, including one to Bryan Collier's speech accepting the 2016 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award for Trombone Shorty. )

Meanwhile, I will pull out just a few lines from the banquet speeches:

Sophie Blackall: "Winnie the Pooh was the first book I bought with my own money. It was an old, worn edition. A prop in my mother's antique shop.I read it in my secret spot under a table. I used to hide the book so nobody would buy it. Eventually my mother sold it to me for a dollar, and I polished the steps to earn the money. I had never known a book like it. A book with interjections and digressions and ponderings. One that meandered and backtracked, that bounced and hummed, that drew you in so close that you felt you were in the very forest itself, and at the same time allowed you to step back and see the actual form of a book. With characters so endearing you hated to leave them behind. So you didn't.....

"Everything is connected. If I hadn't been bored out of my brain in my mother's antique shop, I wouldn't have resorted to a dusty book. If I hadn't encountered that book at that time, I would have been a very different child. If my mother hadn't kept me supplied with paper, I wouldn't have traced E. H. Shepard's lines over and over again. If my father, to whom Finding Winnie is dedicated, hadn't devoted his life to books, I wouldn't have known what a good life it could be."

Matt de la Pena: "...'Hey mister,' I've heard time and time again, always from kids at the poorer schools. 'Why would you come here?

The subtext is obvious. 

This school is not worth of your time.

We are not worthy of your time.

When I sat dow to write the text of Last Stop On Market Street, this troubling mindset was rattling around in my brain. Nana, the wise grandma in the book, is urging CJ to see the beauty of his surroundings, yes, but she's also steering him toward something much more fundamental. She's teaching CJ to see himself as beautiful. To see himself as worthy. 'Sometimes when you're surrounded by dirt, CJ, you're a better witness for what's beautiful.'

And sometimes when you grow up outside the reach of the American Dream, you're in a better position to record the truth. That we don't all operate under the same set of rules. That our stories aren't all assigned the same value in the eyes of decision makers. "

Jerry Pinkney: "Picture books became a vessel to hold all of the joy and sadness of my growing-up years, all the triumphs and tragedies...... By using my personal history, the work became layered, the drawings more meaningful. Art became the bridge that carried me from the past I wanted to escape into the world I wanted to inhabit. My childhood was limited, but I learned that through my own creativity, the world was limitless....

"I'm saddened that we still have too many children waking up in a world where the odds are stacked against them, where they don't feel safe in their own communities..... Librarians and teachers have the most important job, in a sense: ... they are the keepers of dreams, the dispensers of possibility.

"This was certainly true for me, growing up. So, to all of the people who have supported me through the years, who have opened my books and shared them with others: thank you for your belief in me. It is you whom I have felt nudging me to always stay true to drawing my dream."

It's a tradition for the newly-named Caldecott Medalist to create the program for the banquet, using imagery from their winning book. The program created by Sophie is truly a piece of art, with several die-cut pages at the back, and not-previously-published photographs of the real Winnie on the inside. During the banquet, my fellow committee member Jennifer Ralston and I were lucky enough to sit with Caldecott Honoree Christian Robinson and family, including his beloved Nana. Later, we all got to meet Lindsay Mattick, author of Finding Winnie, which, of course, tells the story of how her great-grandfather purchased a bear cub while on the way to World War 1. 

With the dawn of Monday morning, there was one last thing for the 2016 Calde-crew to do: head to the conference exhibits for a copy of the latest Horn Book, fresh off the presses. Here's why: it's a tradition for the Caldecott medalist to create the cover for the June/July Horn Book, referencing both their own winning book and the winner of the Newbery Medal. We wanted to be among the first to see what Sophie had done with the cover, and we certainly weren't disappointed!

END NOTES: Thanks to all of the publishers who feted our Calde-crew in Orlando: Little, Brown, Abrams, Candlewick Press, Greenwillow/HarperCollins, Putnam/Penguin. Thanks to our Caldecott winner, Sophie Blackall, and our Caldecott Honoroees: Bryan Collier, Kevin Henkes, Ekua Holmes, and Christian Robinson. Thanks to my wonderful Calde-crew for memories that will last a lifetime. As Sophie put it in her speech: "To the 2016 Caldecott committee: we are forever connected, you and I. You are my committee and I am your medalist. To everybody I couldn't thank by name: you know who you are. Publishers, librarians, agents, educators, booksellers, writers, and illustrators, we are all connected by our love of books and the children who read them, and by our profound belief in the power of stories to shape lives. We may never all be in the same room together again, but wherever we go, and whatever happens to us along the way, I will remember you all and this enchanted evening, and be grateful."


  1. Karen, thanks for the in side story on the Caldecott. I now have a new generation of young readers in my family and i look forward to Christmas shopping having learned about these illustators and authors.

  2. Hi Nancy -- Thanks so much for reading the blogpost! I am quite proud of all of our choices, and I'm happy that you will have them on your Christmas shopping list!