What Makes A Caldecott

Originally posted: Fri, May 8, 2009

By Melanie Hope Greenberg

Have you ever seen a book with a gold sticker on the jacket cover in a bookstore or library? Chances are, that book won a Caldecott Medal. Brooklyn Public Library Central librarian Judy Zuckerman, a 2005 Caldecott Committee member and Assistant Director of Neighborhood Services Children’s and Family Services, spoke at the SCBWI Metro New York Tuesday Professionals Series in December. Zuckerman delved into the criteria for judging for the most distinguished art prize in children’s literature.

Although primarily an art prize, the illustrations must work together with the text, the overall book design and use of fonts to create a cohesive unity. The committee looks for the “excellent use of pictorial interpretation” of a story. The art must be child-friendly. “Most importantly”, Zuckerman said, “the book’s characters, settings, mood, or information must be conveyed through the pictures.”

To show these abstract criteria in action, she walked the audience spread by spread through two Caldecott-winning books. The books were Kevin Henkes’ Kitten’s First Full Moon (2005 winner, which Zuckerman helped select) and David Wiesner’s The Three Pigs (2002 winner).

With Kitten’s First Full Moon, Zuckerman discussed how design and attention to many small details create the book’s mood and pacing. She pointed out how panels of horizontal, vertical and square shapes combine with the use of white space to create the alternating moments of movement and rest. She highlighted the artist’s purposeful use of circle shapes – central to the book’s story – which repeat in each spread as moon, bowl and even in the text font and endpaper and cover treatment. The book’s integrity of theme, Zuckerman said, extends even to the reproduction of the art: it appears black and white, but is really a finely-honed use of 4 color separation which created the moods of warmth, night and familiarity appropriate to the story and the age of its readers.

In Zuckerman’s discussion of The Three Pigs, the artist’s use of formal elements was again the focus. In this version of the old story, the three pigs outwit the wolf by jumping out of their own story and running through a series of other famous tales, each of which is painted in its own characteristic style. Wiesner’s mastery at establishing, then integrating so many different styles and using them to tell a layered story was a major focus of Zuckerman’s take on the book. She also took appreciative note of his dazzling use of white space and emotional characterization. For the many illustrators in the audience, Zuckerman recommended a familiarity with former Caldecott winners. A great way to polish up the craft of picture book illustration, she said, was to see what comprises “the cut above the rest.”

Melanie Hope Greenberg will celebrate her 20 year anniversary of being a published picture book author and illustrator with a solo picture book art retrospective exhibition in the Brooklyn Public Central Library Youth Wing from April through June 2009. Her latest book is Mermaids on Parade, GP Putnam’s Sons. Visit her at http://www.melaniehopegreenberg.com or http://mermaidsonparade.blogspot.com/

A Closer Look:

Judy Zuckerman On The How Caldecott Committee Works:
The Caldecott Medal, which began in 1932, is a prestigious prize that honors the best illustrated books for the year prior. These picture books are chosen by a Caldecott Committee and the gold medalist gets to speak at an awards dinner, be on the Today Show.

The Caldecott Committee, speaker Judy Zuckerman explained, consists of 15 librarian jurors. The jurors must be members of the Association for Library Services to Children (ALCS), which a part of the American Library Association (ALA). The committee meets two times a year: first at the Summer ALA conference to discuss the 300+ books they have received for consideration from publishers, self-publishers or as suggestions from other book professionals. The committee begins to whittle down the selections to a short list.

As the year progresses, books are read, re-read and compared by individual committee members. Finally, the committee meets again at the Winter ALA conference to choose the gold medal prize-winning book, as well as up to five silver medal “Honor Books”.

The Caldecott Committee changes every year. Each book submitted for that year, including books in series, must stand on its own; the committee cannot use an artist’s prior books for comparison. To respect the privacy and seriousness of their responsibility, the committees choose to never discusses what goes on at their meetings to anyone else, ever!

For more information regarding the craft of picture book illustration, Zuckerman –a true librarian, after all – recommended some books: From Cover to Cover: Evaluating and Reviewing Children’s Books by Kathleen T. Horning; Writing with Pictures: How to Write and Illustrate Children’s Books by Uri Shulevitz; and Show and Tell: Exploring the Fine Art of Children’s Book Illustration by Dilys Evans.


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