Thursday, February 12, 2015

My 2015 Caldecott Quandary by Jim Hill

It has been a fantastic, groundbreaking awards season for graphic novels. El Deafo was named a Newbery Honor, and This One Summer earned both a Printz Honor and a Caldecott Honor.

*Record scratch*

Wait, what? There’s a book that can get both a Printz–the YA award–and a Caldecott? The Caldecott? The one for picture books? For little kids? You’re seriously telling me this? Shut up.

Right? I thought the same thing. I hadn’t yet read This One Summer when the awards were announced. I had seen the cover, and thumbed through it at the bookstore, so I knew it to be a beautifully illustrated book. As soon as the snow stopped and the libraries opened again (hash tag snowmageddon), I got my hands on it.

The illustrations are fantastic. Evocative, well paced with an artful use of splash pages that break out of the panel format to mark chapter endings and important story points. It’s blue–a choice made in production by Jillian and Mariko Tamaki that, in my opinion, elevates the art and the emotional stakes while at the same time softening a sometimes difficult story by providing a little psychic distance for the reader. Blue is a calming color after all. It’s also entirely appropriate as it relates to the setting at Awago Beach, and the importance that water plays in the story.

So why don’t I love the idea that it received a Caldecott Honor? Age range and subject matter.

Let me try to explain. Um, justify. Er, rationalize. Crap, this is awkward.

The material in this book is not easy stuff. It’s a coming of age story that deals with newfound sexual desire, teen pregnancy, infertility/miscarriage, parental disharmony, and even touches on class/socio-economic issues.

So, first let me say, holy cow, well done Jillian and Mariko. This is great stuff, handled authentically, honestly, and experienced deftly through the eyes of the main character.

Slap two Printz awards on the cover, and call it a day. I am all in.

But the Caldecott? You’re killing me.

To me, and I’m willing to bet to most people, the Caldecott is the picture book award. I fear there will be censorship/banning discussions fueled by parents who are upset that this material landed in their children's hands by virtue of a sticker. One look at the negative Amazon reviews reveals exactly that. What boggles my mind about those negative reviews is the objection to language, not subject matter. But that’s an argument for another day–tentative title, “What’s Wrong with You? Words Are Not the Problem, You’re the Problem.” But I digress.

Technically, This One Summer totally qualifies for the Caldecott Honor. But emotionally? Instinctually? I think the committee misstepped.

Yes, the Caldecott's second criteria says, "A ‘picture book for children’ is one for which children are an intended potential audience. The book displays respect for children’s understandings, abilities, and appreciations. Children are defined as persons of ages up to and including fourteen and picture books for this entire age range are to be considered." But has there ever been one recognized that pushes that upper limit so hard?

Parents, teachers, and librarians are confused. That doesn’t help the credibility of the award. The negative Amazon reviews and this post (with subsequent discussion in the comments) on the Hornbook blog illuminate the issue nicely.

I don’t know. On the one hand, I am over the moon that graphic novels are getting attention, sales, and shiny award stickers. Cartoonist Dani Jones might have said it best on twitter:

And Matthew Winner, of the excellent Let’s Get Busy podcast, nails the reason we should all read El Deafo in his Washington Post op/ed piece.
Graphic novels matter. This is great. In an online discussion with alums and students of VCFA about this issue, it was suggested that maybe it's time for a specific graphic novel award. Not to eliminate graphic novels from contention for other awards, but to shine a light on them alone. Skip age ratings–that’s a big ol’ can of worms that almost no one can come to consensus on, but celebrate the writing, the art, and the storytelling for what it is by virtue of its unique format.

David Elzey suggested an excellent name for it: The PILKEY YANG award (for Dav Pilkey, Gene Luen Yang, naturally). Sounds good to me.

My thanks to that secret board of VCFA’ers for helping me clarify my thoughts, and a special shout out to Robin Herrara for rightfully turning me around on my second (undisclosed) problem with this award for This One Summer.

Do yourself a favor–read the book and make up your own mind.

Create your free online surveys with SurveyMonkey , the world's leading questionnaire tool.


  1. I sort of had this exact same quandary with American Born Chinese. I think it's a fabulous, beautiful, important graphic novel, but I just don't see how comparing graphic novels directly with regular novels for an award makes any sense. Why can't there just be two categories?

    1. I wouldn't want to block a GN from winning a larger category award. I'd like them to get their own category for shiny stickers so more can receive the attention.

  2. Hi Jim! As you know, I think the idea of a graphic novel award is an awesome one (though can we name it for Raina Telgemeier, too?). I'd still want graphic novels to be eligible for the Newbery and Caldecott medals, though, because everyone thinks of those as the "big" awards--and of course they are. Most of us don't blink when nonfiction or poetry titles win those awards, so I don't think we should blink terribly much when graphic novels win, either.

    As for giving a Caldecott Honor to a book for older readers, I know there are plenty of people who share the concerns you mention, but I have to admit they don't seem all that concerning to me. There's no actual danger of the Caldecott losing its credibility as an award, is there? And if we stop recognizing and awarding certain books because we're afraid that people will be confused, or that they'll be offended, everyone loses out.

    1. I would want GN to be recognized in the larger categories too. And Raina would be a fantastic namesake as well. I remember picking up Smile and being hooked in the first couple of pages.

      Some of the negative reviews on Amazon do talk about not trusting the Caldecott ever again. Of course, those are outliers and fringe cases. Then again, measles is making a comeback, so outliers do have an impact.

      Someone brought up the point (Anna Jordan, I think) that the award criteria haven't changed since their inception (fact check that?), and maybe updating them to the current marketplace is warranted.

      I don't think ignoring books that are challenging is the right thing to do. In this particular case, though, I think the general public defines the Caldecott as the picture book award so The language and content of this book exaggerates the responses.

  3. Whoa, Nelly! Granted, I'm still in my winter cocoon and didn't pay much attention to the awards--but, yes, like the public in general I do have a bias that the Caldecott is for picture books--you know, the kinds of books that are read on the sofa while snuggling with the 7-year-old, or books that ol' Mrs. Mahoney reads to the class while they're gathered on the school rug. So, jiminy. There may be a lot of confusion, angst, and sturn und drang in various comment sections. (But isn't it grand that good old paper and print can still stir such passions!)

    GNs to have their own award, ftw!

    1. Whoa, is right! I am with Michael here (in my snow-filled cocoon) but how fabulous it stirs such debate. I like to think, in the long run, this is all a wonderful thing - and inspires folks to still see books across genres as holding the power to engage and move people. I like the idea of a graphic novel category, with this genre having exploded in recent years.

    2. Isn't the idea that art stirs an emotional response in the viewer? Hurray for art. And graphic novels too.

  4. I agree with the notion that there should be a separate category for graphic novels.

    As a parent: though I can understand parental dismay at a child reading a book with mature content, that's on the parents not on the Caldecott Committee. In my opinion, parents (and librarians and teachers) should have some content awareness of books their young children are picking up.

    I would imagine this wouldn't be shelved next to THE LITTLE HOUSE or PUSS IN BOOTS in the store, but would be in a YA area. Similarly, the Amazon summary does say it's a teen graphic novel, and the description indicates older content. Seems enough to inform parents and others that it's not for young children?

    1. I agree, but those torch wielding Amazon reviewers have another opinion. I, however, am of the opinion that some people just want to fund things to distrust and get outraged about.


  5. Curious how you felt about The Invention of Hugo Cabret winning the Caldecott!

    1. I was surprised when it did. Who wasn't? But it fits the expected age range much better so, for me, it makes sense.

      I also think it's a brilliant hybrid format, and the illustrations match up perfectly with the film making theme.

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. I did not delete my comment. Annoying.

    Anyway, when people say "parents should be aware" or "librarians should be aware" enough to deal with age-appropriateness issues, I think that's silly. I know that might offend other commentors, but it's the truth.

    Our library checkout is automated, as it is in many large communities. It wouldn't be possible for librarians to prevent a child from checking anything out, even if they wanted to. Except erotica and romance novels; those are flagged on a child's card.

    As long as a child is old enough to look around and check out without a caregiver's help (6 or 7?), there is nothing a parent or librarian can do. This goes for school libraries, too. I imagine librarians will be uncomfortable shelving this with other Caldecott winners for exactly this reason. That's a bit weird, isn't it? I'm not saying it shouldn't have won-- I'm undecided on that-- but assuming that adults can prevent the average kid from grabbing a book that looks interesting and is shelved in their section is naïve.

    So in most places, this will kept in a separate section from the rest of the Caldecott winners, and I guess some people have a problem with that. It'll be interesting to see how the conversation evolves.

    1. Are there many libraries that shelve all Caldecott winners together? I haven't seen that in my local libraries, but I can see how this situation would be confusing in any libraries that do shelve by award. I suspect, though, that most libraries will have THIS ONE SUMMER in their YA collection, and 6-year-olds checking out books on their own will never even see it, let alone spy the award on the cover and decide it must be a book for them. (When I was a kid, I didn't want to read any book with an award sticker on the cover because I assumed the award meant it was boring!)

    2. Dear Jennifer,
      As blog manager, I apologize for whatever happened to your initial comment. Blogger can be buggy. (Even Project Mayhem members have reported issues with being unable to comment.) We appreciate you stopping by and adding to the debate--and for your tenacity in commenting again so that your voice can be heard. Sorry for any inconvenience caused. Yours, Michael Gettel-Gilmartin

    3. I think the volume of new books fairly limits how much any librarian, teacher, or parent can know about. However, I've seen more than one comment on reviews (or other blogs) that indicate that the gatekeeper has simply ordered the award winners without looking at what they are.

      I kind of understand how that can happen, but at some point you have to take responsibility for your own actions.

      In one of my local village libraries they had the Crossover in YA. I commented that now that it had one the Newbery maybe they should shelve it with the MG. I was answered with a blank stare.


      Not everybody is god at their job. And people often have bad days. Still...

    4. Hmm. Our library displays Caldecott winners together. My school library did too. Although, they probably won't add this one. Who knows.

      The fact that this is a graphic novel would have been very appealing to me. I didn't care about the sticker, but I did choose books on display. I would definitely have picked this up if it were displayed with other Caldecott winners.

      I think we forget that the average reader isn't privy to these discussions. My parents would have trusted the sticker. They wouldn't have even thought to worry about the appropriateness of a Caldecott winner. That's why I think acknowledging the history of the award matters.

  8. While we add Graphic Novels to ALA awards, let's add picture book writing (not illustration) and middle grade debut novel. These would be wonderful additions!

    1. ^ This! More awards, more great books honored and therefore given greater visibility.

  9. I think Jennifer makes a good point. Unsupervised kids can pick up all sorts of age-inappropriate titles. I'm not sure an award makes them more likely to pick up this one, but I think the key will be where it's shelved.

    I think librarians and teachers have some gatekeeping ability simply because they're probably not going to hand young children this title or display it in the picture book section, but I think parents ultimately have to take responsibility for being engaged with their kids and what they're reading.

    As an aside, when I taught 5th grade in a small community, we would often take a weekly field trip to the public library. The school had an informal policy that kids needed to check out from the children's section only, and I thought it was silly and didn't apply it until I found one of the students out in the main stacks sneaking peeks at very grown-up books. Oops!

    And I'm with Caroline! As a kid I dodged any books with awards on them, because I thought they would be b-o-r-i-n-g

  10. Does anyone happen to know what trim or format THIS ONE SUMMER was published in? AMERICAN BORN CHINESE is in a kind of a trade paperback style format (at least the copy I own is) and there is no way anyone would ever mistake it for a picture book.

    1. I looked it up. Looks like an 8.5 inch trade paperback style trim.

  11. I hadn't heard of "This One Summer" until it won,and even then I hadn't followed the initial awards blitz as I was working on a video project for someone and blocked out most news the past week to finish it. I'm just now getting plugged back in.

    While I understand the backlash, I'm glad the committee was willing to make a bold move, especially when you consider that in recent years prior to now many in and outside publishing have accused the Caldecott of playing it too safe in terms of what wins the medal.

    To me it's no different than the argument that few Caldecott winners are by varying ethnic backgrounds, women, and authors who openly identify being in the LGTBQ community, even if the book that won isn't directly about that topic.

    Plus, given the growing frustration many illustrators (whether we're talking picture books or graphic novels, regardless of the intended readership) have expressed feeling they get treated as second fiddle compared to authors, I'm glad this book won because it gives visual artists a cold slap reminder that, "Hey, those of us who draw AND write matter and are appreciated."

    As a non-illustrator author, I certainly don't take the illustrator's work for granted.

    But while my heart goes to illustrators who have been given this "Second class" treatment, I also feel authors who aren't illustrators get similar push back at times, especially during the period of 2008-2012 when agents and the few publishers open to the unagented only wanted picture book submissions by author-illustrators, for whatever reason.

    While some authors I know think it's solely the ease of just paying one person, I think there was more to it than that.

    But I'm already going long on this comment so I'll end it here.

    To Be Continued...

    1. That said, picture books have pushed boundaries many times. Though I can't think of any that won the Caldecott. Which kind of speaks to my points above. But in terms of kid-friendly books that might get passed over for perceived inappropriateness, "Uncle Bobby's Wedding" by Sarah S. Brannen comes to mind.

      That book only came out a few years ago, I think it's out of print now, which is a shame because I think that book was just slightly ahead of it's time, as the views on LGBTQ have changed and evolved.

      While homophobia certainly still exists, it's nowhere what it was in the 90s when I was a kid.

      I hope that book gets reissued as it would provide comfort not because it features a gay couple getting married, but it's a book that acknowledges and respects another type of family dynamic without the story itself being a soapbox if that makes sense.

      To put it simply, it's not a story about gay marriage, it's a story that just happens to have a same-sex couple in it.

      That book is totally appropriate for little kids to be read to, but I suspect many heterosexual parents would pass it over simply because it included a gay couple.

      But the story wasn't about being gay, simply about a girl trying to reconcile with not being the center of her (once single) uncle's world, and that just like the "New Baby" situation, learns that there's enough room in her uncle's heart for her and his new spouse. The same feelings a kid whose heterosexual mom or dad gets remarried or married the first time if the parent adopted the child while still single.

      That said, I hope despite this unconventional choice, the Caldecott committee won't shy away from other comic/graphic novel style picture books that would be prime contenders for the prize.

      Eileen Christelow's "Desperate Dog" books are partially in comic panel format, and they're totally appropriate for younger readers, but I also think older kids will like them, too, they're e are great example of working on two levels. the older reader and those being read to.

      "There's A Wolf at the Door" is another great picture book in graphic novel format that again older readers might enjoy as much as the kids being read to.

      So while this book was clearly on the older end of the spectrum, I think picture books for preschoolers in comic panel format are more than worthy of the Caldecott, and I'd hate to see the controversy around "This One Summer" take that away entirely.

      I agree a comic/graphic novel specific award's a GREAT idea, but I don't want under 13 kid-friendly picture books in the graphic novel format to be exempt just because of this offbeat selection.

      Plus, while I know it's not the same, The Invention of Hugo Cabret (2007) had a visual-heavy, non-traditional format, and it won the Caldecott, and that book was aimed at older kids without being as heavy issue-wise compared to "This One Summer."

    2. I just wanted to point you in the direction of some picture books which were very boundary-expanding at the time they won they Caldecott Medal, either in theme or execution, so you can check them out if you want. Off the top of my head (I'll look up the authors and illustrators): "Golem" by David Wisniewski, "Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People's Ears" by Verna Aardema, "Black and White" by David Macaulay, "Lon Po Po" by Ed Young, oh, and "Mei Li" by Thomas Handforth (which I think was the second or third winner ever). There are many more. Although there are years when the books that win are fairly standard for the industry (if brilliantly executed), there are some incredibly unique books that have won the medal too. I do think the issue of LGBT rights has, traditionally, been underrepresented, but that is a problem with the industry as a whole and not just the award. "Uncle Bobby's Wedding," for example, is an awesome book with truly beautiful images, but I don't think it's Caldecott-worthy illustration. I agree with most everything you said-- just not that the Caldecott's don't push boundaries. Anyway, if you haven't read these, check them out!

    3. Thanks for replying, Jennifer, I'm still new to picture books as reader and writer. I get so passionate I don't always think some parts of my talking points through. Sorry for the misinformation that caused. (Blush)

      Unlike some of my more pragmatic colleagues, I feel may way through , versus the "academic" approach lots employ, so I'm certainly not an expert on the Caldecott winners, but I just felt some of the angst around this was a bit overblown.

      I get the concerns parents have (despite not being one) but I think this speaks to a larger problem of just being aware that not every book is right for every reader, even if it's age-appropriate.

      I think people sometimes forget that picture books and early readers are as much about the kid's personal taste as much as what they can handle from a subject matter perspective. That's the filter I was speaking from above.

      We're sometimes so concerned of the raw academics involved with new readers, we forget that it's also about entertainment and nuance. Something we attribute to YA than we do picure books or even middle grade fiction at times.

      Unlike many of my writer colleagues who started with picture books and worked their way out, I came to writing through novels (I didn't get the iconic picture book experience a lot of writers did as kids, or gave their children as I'm not a parent yet) so II haven't "studied" it as long. (Smile)

      Okay, there's more ethic diversity in the Caldecott winners than I realized, but I do feel certain types of stories have yet to be represented by the Caldecott, .but have in YA and some middle grade fiction.

      I wasn't saying "Uncle Bobby's Wedding" specially was necessarily Caldecott material, but I do think as far as the whole "What's appropriate?" question people are raising about "This One Summer" right now, you can mistake the subject matter with how it's actually handled in any one specific book.

      I think that's why this can be so complicated, because you don't want to trivialize someone's ethnicity, or you also don't want to perpetuate stereotypes further compounding the problem.

      If you're too self-conscious it comes off wrong, but ignoring it entirely certainly isn't the answer, either.

      When I said Caldecott might not push boundaries, I meant in terms of more progressive portrayals of varying family dynamics, not just regarding LGBTQ families, but changing norms in heterosexual families, too.

      YA and adult fiction's making strides, but I do feel there's not enough in the picture book/MG realm.

      I mean, it wasn't too long ago when books like "Uncle Bobby's Wedding" would not have been published in the first place because of not only the stigma of LGTBQ in general, but also the assumption that there's no way to touch on this subject in a developmentally appropriate way period.

  12. I am a big fan of graphic novels. I haven't read this one yet, but I am looking forward to it after your description. That being said, it does seem like an interesting choice, based on the content, to be awarded the Caldecott. I know a lot of elementary schools that have the kids read the books that receive that award. I am sure this will be a hot topic!

  13. for the record, my suggested naming of the PILKEY YANG award was tongue in cheek, mostly decided by the way the two names sounded together. ("dude, i won a Pilkey Yang!") like the printz, i think i would prefer the award be named for a champion of graphic novels for youth (i'm available!) and not after any specific writer or illustrator.

    i think the "confusion" between THIS ONE SUMMER receiving awards in different categories, along with the HUGO CABRET controversy a few years back, underscores the need for a separate category for graphic novels.

    as to the question about whether a graphic novel can compete with an all-text novel, i think that's a fair question, and my answer would be 'yes.' as a reviewer i apply the same criteria of storytelling quality to all books, from picture books to YA to graphic novels. is the narrative compelling? would the story work without pictures OR do the pictures adequately move the story along the way text would? i find a lot of times graphic novels are given a 'pass' on the quality of their storytelling because people can be swayed by graphics. where text should show, pictures should tell, and sometimes GNs the pictures both show and tell, which i tend to find shows a weakness in the quality of the narrative. if a wordless picture book can convey a satisfying narrative based on the language within the drawings, then the illustrations in a graphic novel should do no less. i don't want a character to tell me he's depressed when i should be able to see it.

    having looked over THIS ONE SUMMER i can see where people would find it deserving an award, but i don't think it's a caldecott book. a newbery, perhaps, the printz, absolutely, but not the award for picture books.

  14. I am a huge fan of graphic novels. They have the ability to take creativity to the outer limits. :) ~ Jess


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!