The power of the Caldecott Medal is practically subconscious at this point. Awarded annually to the most distinguished American picture book, it has been instantly recognizable to children and adults for over 80 years. Even people who don’t know the origin of the man atop the runaway horse on the medal—it’s from “The Diverting Story of John Gilpin” by Caldecott himself—have come to equate the seal with quality in children’s picture books.
Clemson professor Jonda C. McNair admits that those shiny silver and gold medals on the cover of children’s books have never ceased to get her attention. As a young girl who enjoyed reading and now a scholar specializing in literature intended for youth, she feels compelled to pay attention to the books honored by the American Library Association (ALA)—the powerful organization that oversees some of the most prestigious awards given to children’s book authors and illustrators.
For the better part of her career, she has also not-so-secretly wanted to be a voice in selecting winners of this prestigious award. In the spring of 2017, she got her wish when she was elected to serve on the 2019 Randolph Caldecott Award Selection Committee. We got the chance to ask McNair about this process, what she learned along the way, what she had to offer, and the surprising level of secrecy around the coveted award.
Michael Staton: How did you first become involved with this committee?
Jonda McNair: I became involved with ALA many years ago because I wanted to serve on children’s book award committees. My first goal was to serve on the Coretta Scott King Book Award Jury. I served as a member of the jury and then became chair. As a result of this work, an ALA representative eventually asked if I would be interested in serving on the Caldecott committee, so of course I said yes! A Caldecott Medal can literally make an illustrator’s career; attention for the book increases along with royalties, and those books are much less likely to ever go out of print.
For example, one of the Caldecott Honor titles we selected this year, “Thank You, Omu,” is by an illustrator named Oge Mora, and this is her first book. From now on, she is a Caldecott Honor artist and I suspect that she will be in demand for more school visits and book contracts from publishers.
I wanted to be a part of the selection process and I am happy to have played a role in highlighting the work of talented illustrators like Oge. One of the fun things we get to do is call the illustrators to congratulate them really early in the morning on the day that the awards are announced. Oge was hysterical and so excited!
Staton: What kind of impact has the award had from an educator’s standpoint?
McNair: Awards such as the Caldecott help guide teachers in selecting quality books for young children. Many of the students I have now at Clemson remember the Caldecott books that their teachers introduced them to growing up, so these books make their way into elementary classrooms across the country.
Staton: What was the process like for you?
McNair: I read a lot of books (laughs). There are thousands of children’s picture books released every year, and we each easily read hundreds. All committee members suggested books to one another throughout the year, but each of us had to make seven nominations separately. Then when we finally met we could see where nominations overlapped, and things were narrowed down from there.
Staton: What are the big things committee members look for when considering these books?
McNair: We look at whether or not we think it’s a distinguished picture book that’s appropriate for a child audience, but we don’t necessarily talk about what children will or should get out of a book or what they will learn. One thing that children’s literature should usually avoid is being didactic or preachy.
We pay more attention to the quality of both the art and the story and how they work together. We have to endorse the whole book, so if a book features outstanding art and a bad story or vice versa it wouldn’t rise to the level of consideration for the committee.
Staton: What did you take from the experience and what do you think you brought to it?
McNair: Through this process I’ve learned to better articulate why a book stands out. It was so enlightening for me to hear from the other committee members who could go into great detail on technique and art style and use of space and color and all sorts of things that had me viewing books in a whole new way. Picture books are art objects; people should study them in the same way someone spends time admiring a painting in a gallery.
One of the things I specialize in is African American children’s literature and so I really look carefully at books written by and about people of color and how people of color are represented in books. I think I was able to view many of the books through that lens to aid in the discussion of whether people of color were represented in an authentic, realistic way. The ALA has really made a conscious effort over the last few years to have much more inclusive, diverse committees that can consider books from multiple viewpoints.
Staton: Was the selection process closely guarded or monitored?
McNair: Absolutely! I had to keep all my books in a closed bag at all times going to or from our committee meetings so that no one could see what I was nominating or considering for a nomination. If the committee was meeting and hotel staff came into the room, we had to stop talking until they left.
During the entire year I couldn’t talk about any 2018 picture books on social media or review any 2018 picture books even if that review was limited to a Clemson student newsletter that I produce. The level of secrecy really stood out to me and always has, but it makes sense considering so many people want to earn this honor.
I have heard that publishers sometimes hang around outside of the ALA Press Office at the conferences just to see if they can hear anything or get a hint about one of their illustrators or authors (laughs).
Dr. McNair specializes in literature intended for youth with an emphasis on books written by and about African Americans. She is serving as a coeditor of Language Arts, the journal of the Elementary Section of the National Council of Teachers of English. Her work has appeared in journals such as Review of Educational Research, The Reading Teacher, Young Children, the Journal of Negro Education, and Children’s Literature in Education.
McNair is an active member of numerous professional organizations including the National Council of Teachers of English, the American Library Association, and the International Literacy Association, formerly known as the International Reading Association. McNair serves as a faculty advisor for the Clemson University IRA Student Council. She is a former elementary school teacher of students in grades K-2.
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