January 11, 2012

Princeton Librarian Alison Santos Helps Select This Year’s Winner of the Caldecott Medal

AND THE WINNER IS …: Librarian Alison Santos is a member of the committee that will choose this year’s Caldecott Medal winner. “I can’t tell you what an interesting process this has been,” she said. (Photo by Susan Conlon)

It’s not the Oscars, but the hoopla and air of secrecy surrounding the naming, each year, of the Caldecott Medal winner, is pretty impressive. As an elected member to the committee that will make this year’s selection, Princeton Public Library’s Allison Santos is delighted to be part of the process.

The Caldecott Medal, which was created in 1938 and named in honor of nineteenth-century English illustrator Randolph Caldecott, is awarded annually by the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association (ALA), to the artist of “the most distinguished American picture book for children.” It is a much-coveted award among children’s book illustrators, and, to be sure, their publishers; spikes in the winning book’s sales, and demands for public appearances by the illustrator follow hard on the heels of the announcement, which is made in late January.

“I can’t tell you what an interesting process this has been,” said Ms. Santos in a recent interview. While she has always “loved” children’s picture books, this year-and-half long immersion in them — with 150 books at a time arriving at her home during peak months — has only improved her appreciation for them. She and this year’s 14 other Caldecott Medal Committee members representing libraries all over the country are coming into the home stretch; the 2012 award is due to be announced on Monday, January 23 in Dallas, Texas, where the ALA is holding its midwinter meetings. “I can’t believe it’s almost over,” Ms. Santos said wistfully.

A “huge manual” given to each member of the committee helps to create order out of potential chaos. It “doesn’t make sense” at first, said Ms. Santos, but ultimately, the complicated guidelines on what to look for in every book quickly become second nature. “The eye becomes trained,” she observed. Among the important points to bear in mind, she noted, is the fact that the award is going to a specific book by an illustrator, not his or her entire oeuvre. 

Among the manual’s other stipulations is the requirement that a book’s illustrator be an American citizen, and that the illustrations and text support each other. This is less likely to happen, of course, when a book is written and illustrated by the same person. It gets tricky, though, when, for example, the illustrator is on one coast and the writer on the other. The proportion of books written and illustrated by one person, compared to those titles that are a collaboration, is “50/50,” said Ms. Santos.

While she is not permitted to be specific about the finalists at this point, Ms. Santos did point out several “beautiful books” published this year, including Blackout, by John Rocco; Grandpa Green by Lane Smith, and Jerry Pinkney’s Twinkle, Twinkle. “It’s also been a big year for biographies,” she added. Winners are allowed to receive the medal more than once.

The selection process gets really intense over the weekend preceding the Monday morning announcement, when committee members are “sequestered” until they make a decision. Their deadline is Sunday evening, so “it behooves us to decide early,” noted Ms. Santos. Even if they decide on Saturday, however, committee members are “under oath” not to reveal the winner. On Monday morning, January 23, Ms. Santos and her fellow committee members will “get dressed and made-up” for a final 6:30 a.m. meeting. A phone call will be made to the winner, followed by an official announcement to a general audience. A “big banquet” also comes with the deal.

Along with libraries all over the country, the Princeton Public Library will learn the decision that Monday morning and, in all likelihood, order additional copies of the winning and honored titles. A display of Caldecott and other award-winning books this year will be quickly assembled in the children’s section on the third floor, and, Ms. Santos predicted, they will all be borrowed by afternoon.

In addition to the winner, several “honor books” are also named each year by the Caldecott Committee. Honor Books through the years have included Ludwig Bemelman’s Madeline in 1940, and, in 1994, The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales, illustrated by Lane Smith and written by Jon Scieszka. The first Caldecott medal winner, in 1938, was Animals of the Bible, A Picture Book, illustrated by Dorothy P. Lathrop, with a text selected by Helen Dean Fish.

The Princeton Public Library has added to the fun this year by conducting its own “mock-Caldecott” competition, which was scheduled to end on Tuesday, January 10. Participation has not been limited to youth services librarians, reported Ms. Santos; the building manager, members of access services, and staff from throughout the building have been comparing and contrasting over 100 new picture books in recent weeks.

What will Ms. Santos do with all the books she’s received as a Caldecott Committee member once this year’s winner is announced? She reported that she is planning to donate some of them to the Friends of the Library for the book sale, while others will go straight into the library’s collections for Story Time programs. The libraries of Princeton’s regional elementary schools will also benefit.