Read a brief history of Caldecott Medal books through the decades. See below for resources on race and diversity in children’s books.
In the final years of the 1930s, a new and highly welcomed award was created: the Randolph Caldecott Medal. Sponsored by the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC)—a division of the American Library Association—the Caldecott Medal was designed to honor picture-book art, paralleling the Newbery Medal given for distinguished writing for children. The Caldecott Medal, named for 19th-century English illustrator Randolph Caldecott, quickly became a distinctive and coveted honor. The ALSC delegated the work of choosing a yearly recipient and the Runners-Up (a term changed retroactively in 1971 to Honor Books) to the already-functioning Newbery Committee. In 1980, the ALSC established a separate fifteen-member committee to select the Caldecott winners.
THE FIRST DECADES
The first Medal was awarded in 1938 to Dorothy Lathrop for her graceful lithographs in Animals of the Bible. Lathrop handled the religious subjects in arresting ways, illuminating her love of nature. In 1939, the committee chose a newcomer to the field: Thomas Handforth for his book Mei Li. A world traveler and artist, Handforth drew upon his years roaming pre-Communist China to tell the story of a vivacious Chinese girl. In Robert Lawson’s 1941 Caldecott Medal book They Were Strong and Good, the artist combined simple words with strong black ink drawings to pay tribute to his forebears. Highly respected, Lawson’s work has appeared in seven Newbery and Caldecott books; he remains the only person, to date, to receive both a Caldecott Medal and a Newbery Medal (for Rabbit Hill, 1945).
Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings, one of the most beloved books in children’s literature, garnered the 1942 Caldecott Medal. McCloskey spent two years studying mallard specimens at the American Museum of Natural History and seeking guidance from an ornithologist. Eager to accurately capture their movement and personalities, he purchased 16 ducklings that came to live in his small Greenwich Village apartment and serve as models. The following year, Virginia Lee Burton’s The Little House featured a small, once-happy country home that is nearly swallowed by a growing city. In 1947, Leonard Weisgard became the first artist to win both a Caldecott Medal and a Caldecott Honor in the same year for The Little Island by Golden MacDonald (the pen name of Margaret Wise Brown) and Rain, Drop, Splash by Alvin Tresselt. Jon Klassen, the only other artist to accomplish this feat, won the two medals in 2013 for This is Not My Hat and Extra Yarn.
The 1940s debuted several husband-and-wife teams, who brought a special richness to their books. Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire’s 1940 Abraham Lincoln concentrated on the president’s youth and prairie years. Another married team, Maud and Miska Petersham, created The Rooster Crows: A Book of American Rhymes and Jingles, winning the 1946 Caldecott Medal. The rhythm, humor, and patriotic zeal of the book complemented national sentiments at the end of World War II. (Coincidently, both books were later reissued with new art since they contained offensive representations of African Americans and Native Americans.) Berta and Elmer Hader used a real-life experience to dramatize how a huge East Coast snowstorm nearly buried their small home in The Big Snow (1949).
Ludwig Bemelman’s impish French orphan stared in the 1954 Caldecott-winning Madeline’s Rescue, in which an irrepressible small dog rescues Madeline from an accidental fall into the river. Marcia Brown used strikingly patterned woodcuts to aptly set Once a Mouse (1962) in ancient India. In contrast, Ezra Jack Keats’s urban streets showcased the escapades of a young boy in The Snowy Day (1963). The book was an immediate classic due to Keats’s artful use of collage and because he portrayed a child of color as a protagonist, something rare in mainstream books of the time.
Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are (1964) became a world-wide sensation. Sendak used graphic devices, like widening and narrowing of the picture frame on each page spread, that were new and surprising. Scholar Leonard Marcus cited the transformation of Max’s room into a jungle as one of the greatest moments in children’s picture-book history.
The 1970s brought another married team—Leo and Diane Dillon—to prominence with back-to-back Caldecott Medals, another first for the award. Their retellings offered two different but equally compelling African folktales, Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears (1976) and Ashanti to Zulu (1977). William Steig was already a famous New Yorker cartoonist when, at the age of 61, he began creating children’s books. He won the 1970 Caldecott Medal for Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, although the book was banned by some libraries because Steig portrayed the police as pigs.
Chris Van Allsburg, a two-time Caldecott winner for Jumanji (1982) and The Polar Express (1986), introduced surrealism to children’s picture books. In Grandfather’s Journey (1994), Alan Say poignantly recounts his family’s history and cross-cultural experiences. Brian Selznik won the Caldecott Medal in 2008 for The Invention of Hugo Cabret, a 526-page volume that stirred debate whether graphic novels are picture books. David Wiesner is the only living artist to receive three Caldecott Medals—for Tuesday (1992), The Three Pigs (2002), and Flotsam (2007)—although Marcia Brown was the first to achieve the record, in three different decades no less, for Cinderella (1954), Once a Mouse (1961), and Shadow (1982). After five Caldecott Honors, Jerry Pinkney won the Medal in 2010 for The Lion and the Mouse, the gold Caldecott seal a gleaming addition to his striking cover illustration.
The wide variety of artistic styles and techniques in Caldecott Medal books are what make their study so interesting. On February 12 the ALSC will announce the winner of the 2018 Caldecott Medal, adding another title to a legacy of artistic achievement. The new book will no doubt engender celebration and discussion as picture books continue to inspire, reflect, and open new doors.
Resources on Race and Diversity in Children’s Books
The Caldecott winners, in many ways, hold a mirror to the wider history of children’s books. Many scholars have made note of offensive racial depictions—in pictures and in words—in several of these titles. As a cultural institution, we believe that diversity and inclusion are critical to children’s literature and that it is our responsibility to spur conversations and learning about the history of race in children’s books. We hope you will find the following resources helpful.
Beeck, Nathalie Op de. “Picture Book Ethnography.” Suspended Animation: Children’s Picture Books and the Fairy Tale of Modernity, University of Minnesota Press, 2010.
Martin, Michelle H. Brown Gold: Milestones of African-American Children’s Picture Books, 1845-2002. Routledge, 2012.
Nel, Philip. Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: the Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books. Oxford University Press, 2017.
*Available in The Carle’s Reading Library
American Indians in Children’s Literature americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com
AICL provides critical perspectives and analysis of indigenous peoples in children’s books, the school curriculum, popular culture, and society.
Doors to the World
Doors to the World is a partnership of educators dedicated to making global children’s picture books and teaching resources available to Pre-K to Grade 3 teachers.
Lee & Low
Lee & Low Books is the largest multicultural children’s book publisher in the country. Their Classroom Library Questionnaire is a great tool for both educators and caregivers to assess book collections to determine where there are strengths and gaps in diversity.
Raising Race Conscious Children
The primary purpose of Raising Race Conscious Children is to support parents and teachers who are trying to talk about race and diversity with young children. Their blog includes posts that model how to read select books using race conscious practices.
We Need Diverse Books
We Need Diverse Books is a non-profit grassroots organization of children’s book lovers that advocates essential changes in the publishing industry to produce and promote literature that reflects and honors the lives of all young people.