A Look Inside the Caldecott Committee

Christine Nassar, First Program Librarian at The Dalton School and HVLA President, spoke with Ramona Caponegro about her experience as a member of the 2023 Caldecott Committee.

CN: Alright, well, thank you so much for being here with me. Do you want to introduce yourself ?

RC: Sure. So I was a member of the 2023 Caldecott Committee and in my day job, I’m the curator of the Baldwin Library of Historical Children’s Literature at the University of Florida.

CN: Great. We have some questions from elementary students, and some questions from librarians. The first question from our students was how did you get onto the committee?

RC: I was appointed to the committee by the President of the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), part of the American Library Association, which is the organization that runs the Caldecott Award. And I was probably asked to be part of the committee because I have been on other committees for ALSC beforehand. 

CN: Amazing. I think this was my favorite question. How many books did you have to read as part of this process? And, how do you decide which one wins?

RC: So I had to read over 700 books for this process. Most of them were picture books, but we also read early readers, chapter books with illustrations, and graphic novels. So if it has pictures and it’s by an American author/illustrator and published in the United States in 2022, I probably got to look at it.

CN: Wow, 700… how much time did that take? 

RC: Hours and hours and hours. I mean, my evenings and my weekends were reading picture books.

CN: And then how did you all decide together which ones would win?

RC: Lots and lots of conversation. There are 15 people on the committee, and we all get to talk about the books that we like, and we all get to vote on the winner and the honor books. So we have lots and lots of conversations and everyone gets to talk about how the book fit the criteria or what they liked about the book, anything they might not have liked as much about the book. And then we kind of build on one another’s comments. So a lot of talking happened.

CN: The next question from students is what do you do when the committee disagrees?

RC: We talk again! That basically sums it all up. There is a voting procedure, but if a book doesn’t receive the needed number of points, then the committee has a whole other round of discussion before there’s another vote.

CN: Wow. And how many times do you meet throughout this process?

RC: We don’t meet to talk about books until the very end of the year, until the very end of the process. So we met for three days in zoom to talk, for 8 or 9 hours each day. And then we met for one day in person at LibLearnX to make final decisions.

CN: Oh my goodness. And you don’t talk at all before that so that you’re not biasing each other?

RC: Right. I mean, during the year, we’re all sending in suggestions of books we think everybody else on the committee should look at because we think they’re strong contenders. And then we do three rounds of nominations where we write in three books the first time, then two books, then two more books that we think are our top choices for the award because they best fit the criteria, and we write an explanation of why it should be that book. So we’re communicating with each other that way, but we don’t actually talk about the books until the very end.

CN: Did you have any particular favorites, besides Hot Dog?

RC:  I loved all of our committee’s choices, but there are so many good books published in a year that you’re never going to be able to recognize all of the wonderful illustrators.

CN: The final question from our students was, is it hard to keep it secret when you know who the winners will be?

RC: Yes, it is, because it’s such a big secret. I guess the good news is because we don’t decide until the end, you don’t have to keep the secret very long. But it’s almost two secrets, because first, you know who won before you tell the illustrators who won, and then there’s some time between calling the illustrators and hearing how excited they are to win, and then everybody finding out at the Youth Media Awards ceremony. So it’s kind of two big secrets you get, or two big reveals.

CN: It’s the famous call that illustrators wait for on Sunday night before the ALA YMAs, right?

RC: Mhm. Not everybody answered their phone immediately because who answers the phone from numbers we don’t know anymore? But as soon as you leave a message saying the Caldecott Committee would like you to call back, people get right back to you.

CN: I did hear on The Yarn podcast with Colby Sharp, he interviewed Doug Salati, and he said that he was on the phone with his parents when he got the call. He told them, “hold on, I’ll call you right back,” and had to put them on hold. That must be a nice time to find out. 

RC: It was. Especially since, apparently he and his parents had been kind of, “oh, well, it wasn’t the year,” thinking it was over. And then, surprise!

CN: All right, now questions from the adults in our community. Has this changed how you view award winning titles?

RC: It has given me a lot more appreciation into all of the work that went into selecting them and a deeper recognition of just how much discussion and back and forth went into those final selection processes. That little gold sticker represents an awful lot of human labor.

CN: And a lot of thought and care too, I’m sure.

RC: Yes.

CN: Is this an experience that you would recommend?

RC: Yes, definitely. Know going in that it is going to be an enormous amount of work, so if you can, plan accordingly. Keep reminding yourself, one, that it really is worth it, and two, that you’re going to put in a lot of time and energy, so as much as you can try to clear some of the other decks to make that possible. And if you can have a supportive work environment who recognizes that you are doing this very amazing but very labor intensive project and supports you accordingly, that really helps.

CN: How do concerns about DEI influence committee discussions?

RC: The ALSC and ALA have a DEI statement, and there’s a DEI statement as part of the award proceeding, so in the manual DEI is mentioned. And we do think about and talk about and make sure that we are recognizing excellence, and excellence from all creators who are eligible for the award.

CN: Does it weigh in as you are looking at the books themselves, the stories of their creators, or do you try to just look at the work in a vacuum?

RC: I don’t know if you could ever look at the work in a vacuum, I don’t think the work probably exists in a vacuum and evaluating it doesn’t exist in a vacuum either. But we just keep returning to the criteria over and over again. And if you look at the criteria in terms of distinguished, excellence of representation, of story, pictorial elements, etc., there are a lot of ways you can interpret that that include works by all creators and about all subjects.

CN: I’ve heard rumblings that there’s discussions about changing or reevaluating the criteria. Did you feel that they served you well while you were evaluating the books or do you think that some change could be useful?

RC: I think they served us well because I’m thrilled with our end results, but there are a lot of conversations about what the criteria mean, because the criteria are very open-ended, and that’s something that has both positives and negatives. Because when something is excellent or distinguished, that can mean so many different things. But it’s also really exciting that the committee is trusted with talking about and working it out, ‘what does that mean for us in this given year with this given pool of books?’ So I think it would be hard to come up with narrower criteria that would potentially continue to fit the books and the mission year after year.

CN: That’s a beautiful way to put it. I’ve done Mock Caldecotts with students in the past, and the criteria are so broad that it’s hard for young students to wrap their minds around, but I like this concept of trust, that you can all discuss amongst yourselves what do all those things mean, what does it look like in any given year? I think that’s a really nice way to look at it.

RC: Thanks, and I do Mock Caldecotts too, both with younger students and then also with college age students, and again if you ask people “what does excellent mean?,” it’s fascinating what answers you get and how broad they are. But again, maybe that’s why I would be hesitant about how much defining beyond that is really possible.

CN: That’s a really valuable perspective.

RC: All we can do is talk about the criteria and books. Really we just talk.

CN: Well, you picked a really excellent book this year, so thank you, thank you for all that talking. Our last question– what do you think is the most important thing we can share with our students if we are teaching about the Caldecott Award and this experience, or even running a Mock Caldecott?

RC: Maybe in some ways, it’s what you and I just talked about. It’s ‘what does excellence mean,’ and how might that be different from one student to another who is participating in your Mock Caldecott or who’s in your class, and how would they share those different ideas of excellence with each other?

CN: I know our students are always up for a debate, at least at my school, they love to hash it out. They too love to talk, much like the Caldecott Committee.

RC: And much like us, they also have a time where the day is done, the time is moving on.

CN: Ramona, thank you so much, I’m really so grateful that we were able to hear your thoughts.

RC: Thanks for asking!

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