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I Am Not An Artist: The Biggest (And Oldest) Knock on the Caldecott

Why Cats Paint

Calling Caldecott, the Horn Book-housed blog all about the most prestigious award in picture books, is back up and running (click here to visit).

Over the coming months they’ll examine a bunch of books that are knocking collective socks off.

It reminded me of a conversation I had with an illustrator at the most recent ALA Annual. We were talking about Caldecott, and specifically the idea of non-artists critiquing art. This illustrator thought there should be more guidance for those on the committee. Maybe adding a member who was an expert or some other way for the committee to have more facility when it comes to discussing art.

It’s a debate that’s been going on for a long time, probably since the award was created. It’s interesting to think how it would change the Caldecott. *Update* And it’s a conversation, Julie Danielson reminds us in her comment below, that’s taken place at Calling Caldecott.

To the illustrator’s point, I think there is a varying degree of art-specific expertise among the Caldecott committee – some folks come with a lot of previous experience, others less so.

In defense, I would say the committee members do work hard to educate (or refresh) themselves on all things illustration before and during their service. Members are provided with a reading list (see page 24 of the Caldecott manual) of excellent resources to help expand their knowledge.

What do you think? Should the Caldecott committee have more artistic guidance?

About Travis Jonker

Travis Jonker is an elementary school librarian in Michigan. He writes reviews (and the occasional article or two) for School Library Journal and is a member of the 2014 Caldecott committee. You can email Travis at scopenotes@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter: @100scopenotes.


  1. You may already know this, but this was also discussed at Calling Caldecott two years ago. I still remember that conversation, and here’s the link for those who want even more food-for-thought: http://www.hbook.com/2013/10/featured/whos-committee-barry-moser-question/#_

    • Travis Jonker says:

      Thanks for linking this, Jules – definitely a discussion that’s been kicking around for a long time

  2. Whether or not this should be a thing, it makes me itchy when we don’t honor the process. I can’t imagine that committee members are all WHATEVS about it. Because the committee members are all experts in story, and I’d argue that you don’t need an art degree to have a feeling from it, to read its story. (Though I do love the conversation, and pipe up about it from time to time and read all of the chatter about it with eager eyes!)

  3. (Also remember when I told you I wasn’t ready for all the hubbub? I think I changed my mind. I realized this is the last year I can go librarian-gangbusters over it all, because once I have books out I’m sure my POV will change dramatically!)

  4. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I must disagree with your illustrator friend there, Travis. I think people need to read the criteria a little bit more closely. I often hear people say something along these lines: Newbery is for text and Caldecott is for art. And that’s really not true at all. The Caldecott is given to the most distinguished American picture book for children–not the best art–and further the criteria call for . . .

    Excellence of execution in the artistic technique employed;
    Excellence of pictorial interpretation of story, theme, or concept;
    Appropriateness of style of illustration to the story, theme or concept;
    Delineation of plot, theme, characters, setting, mood or information through the pictures;
    Excellence of presentation in recognition of a child audience.

    You really only need an artistic background for the first one; the remaining four criteria have as much to do with the narrative as they do the art. Right?

    When people recommend that the committee needs somebody with an art background, they don’t realize that out of fifteen people on the committee there are probably several of them who do indeed have that formal background in art. The rest of them work very hard throughout the year to get there.

    The implication is that if only somebody did have that background that the committee would have better Taste. Sadly, that’s not the case. We’ve seen awards that have been doled out with the benefit of illustrators or exclusively by illustrators and those books are not any more inspiring, more or less, than the Caldecott choices.

  5. I just want to say I LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE Why Cats Paint. :)

  6. Starr LaTronica says:

    For those who would like delve deeper into the artists’ process of illustration, The Society of Illustrators offers an informative and inspiring annual event geared specifically for librarians:

    READING PICTURES: The Artist’s Voice and Vocabulary in Picture Books
    Monday, November 16th, 1 pm – 8pm. The Society of Illustrators, 128 East 63rd Street NYC

    Illustrators Diane Dillon, Floyd Cooper and Carin Berger will share their behind-the-scenes decisions and discuss and/or demonstrate their creative process in the intimate gallery setting of the annual Original Art Exhibit. Art Directors from major children’s publishers will lead a gallery talk of this spectacular show for a close-up examination of the works on view.

    $30 registration fee includes program and tour, gallery admission (value $10), catalog (value $10) and small plates buffet supper.

    For details and registration please visit http://www.societyillustrators.org/Product.aspx?id=13430