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The Bulletin
of the Center for Children's Books:

Focus On ...
Each month we offer a focus on a particular author or artist. Sometimes we use this space to discuss a rising new talent or an established star, but we also like to celebrate those who now live on only in the rich legacy of their books . Occasionally, as this month, we highlight a particular topic of interest to one of our editors. See the archive for focus pieces from previous months.

Of Cabbages, Caldecotts, and Kings: Reflections on Smoke, Mirrors, and Awards Committees

I served on the 1997 Caldecott Committee, the one that awarded David Wisniewski the Caldecott Medal for Golem (Clarion, 1996). It was quite a year, but when I sat in the press conference audience and looked at the medal winner and honor titles all lined up in a row, I could honestly say they were a handsome bunch of books.

I hadn't been back in my office two days when I got a phone call from a librarian in downstate Illinois. She and some of her patron's parents were very concerned. Golem was a dark story for preschoolers. However had the committee come to pick it? After I explained that the discussions of the committee were confidential, I explained that Golem was not a book for preschoolers. But picture books are for preschoolers, she said. We were on the phone for a long time.

When the 1997 Caldecott winner was announced in committee, I knew there would be heated discussion of the winning title, and there was. But I was bemused by the direction of the discussions, because they often were not discussing the book itself. The discussions to which I was privy, both on-line and face to face, centered around the "suitability" of the choice; that is the discussions weren't about the merits of the illustration and design of the book so much as they were about the book's suitability for a child audience. There seemed to be a strong and mostly unquestioned belief that picture books were for preschoolers; that the Caldecott medal was given for "the best picture book"; and that child-appeal, and young child-appeal at that, was or should be a deciding factor in the awarding of the medal.

I have run into these and other erroneous impressions of the Caldecott criteria and process since 1981, when I first became a youth services librarian and started dealing with "Calde-berys" and other children's literature award winners on a regular basis.

The Caldecott Medal is awarded annually by the Association for Library Services to Children, a division of the American Library Association. The medal is endowed, and the terms of the endowment state that the medal will be awarded annually. (This answers the question "What do they do when there aren't any good books?" They award the medal anyway.) The Caldecott Medal is an illustration medal; it is awarded to the creator of the most distinguished illustrations in a children's picture book published in the United States in the previous calendar year; the artist must reside in the United States. The Caldecott medal is not given for "best picture book", or "the picture book that most children will like" or "the best picture book for storytime"-although those books deserve medals, too. The Caldecott medal is for a distinguished contribution to art in children's picture books. ("Child" is defined as up to age fourteen.) The term "distinguished"is one that every committee must clarify anew each and every year for the sake of their discussions.

There are fourteen committee members and a chair, all members of ALSC. Seven members of the committee and the chair are elected by the ALSC membership; the other committee members are appointed by the current president of ALSC (who is also elected by the membership). They meet three times at the American Library Association convention; once at midwinter shortly after being elected; during ALA Summer Annual; and during the following midwinter conference, when the vote is taken and the decision made. The remainder of the year they stay in touch with the chair and with each other via mail, phone conferences, and e-mail. Any member of ALSC can nominate a title for discussion to the committee.

The members of the committee come from a wide variety of geographical and professional locations, and while there may be a few who are professionally acquainted, when the committee first meets most of them don't know each other from Adam (or Eve, if you prefer). This helps answer another question: What sort of influence do publishers have on the committee? What sort of influence does anyone have on the committee? Well, in my experience, pretty darn little. What impressed me most when serving on the Newbery and Caldecott committees was the committment of the committee members. They take their charge very, very seriously. I don't mean that the discussions are deadly dull and without humor-on the contrary, they are often boisterous, impassioned, and quite funny. I mean that, with the help of an informed and articulate chair, each member understands why they are on the committee, commits to the process, and recognizes that the decision they make will have substantial impact. The discussions are confidential, and any breach of that confidentiality is recognized as a serious matter.

The voting procedure itself precludes outside influence or coercion. When the committee finally narrows the field to a small enough number of picture books to actually take a vote (the year I served on the Caldecott Committee we looked at more than 400 picture books) they are looking at the best picture books of the previous publishing year. Committee members vote for their first, second, and third choices for medal winner; the choices are weighted-first place gets 3 points, second place gets two points, third place gets one point- and the votes are tallied. The Caldecott medal winner must have eight first place votes, and the spread between the first place point getter and the second place point getter must be at least eight points. If this is not accomplished on the first vote, there is no winner, and the books must be discussed again, and the vote retaken at the end of the discussion. (Apocrypha says this can go on for days....) The reason for this mathematical complexity is so that the winner wins by consensus and not because it had a persuasive champion.

Being on an award committee is rewarding, exhilarating, exhausting, and exasperating. Committee members make friends, make enemies, behave like children, behave like professionals, take themselves too seriously and laugh at themselves uproariously. Sometimes somebody's favorite book doesn't make the cut (mine didn't) but true professionals are able to put aside their personal preferences because they have committed to this unique decision-making process. Despite the unpredictability of group dynamics, somehow, miraculously, the process works. Line up the Caldecott medal winners and honor titles since 1938. They're still a pretty handsome bunch of books.

--Janice Del Negro, Editor

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This page was last updated on March 1, 1999.