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What Makes a Good Picture Book?

Written by Deborah B. Ford

December 07, 2016

Caldecott‘Twas the month before ALA, when all through the land
Everyone was talking ’bout the best pics drawn by hand…

Or computer, or collaged, or painted: It’s award season…which means we are all making guesses about which of our favorite picture books might take home a prize. But just what makes a good picture book? What is the Caldecott committee looking for?

Do you remember when The Invention of Hugo Cabret (Scholastic, 2007) won the medal? I recall being both delighted and shocked that a 500-plus-page novel could win a picture book award. After a little investigation, I learned that the Caldecott (like the Newbery) considers books for readers through age fourteen. Length of book is not a factor. Instead, a “picture book for children” is defined by the committee as something distinct from other books that have illustrations—it’s one that “essentially provides the child with a visual experience.”

In discussions about the Caldecott medal, you’ll most often hear the term “most distinguished.” (If you want to read the “Terms and criteria” document in its entirety, visit ALA’s website.) The award criteria define “distinguished” as:

a. Marked by eminence and distinction; noted for significant achievement.

b. Marked by excellence in quality.

c. Marked by conspicuous excellence or eminence.

c. Individually distinct.

For my workshops on best books, I’ve been thinking about my favorites. I’ve been following The Horn Book’s Calling Caldecott blog, and I’m making a list. (And checking it twice!) Because of the Caldecott requirement that illustrators be American citizens or residents, some of my choices don’t qualify. For example, I love A Child of Books by author/illustrator Oliver Jeffers and typographical artist Sam Winston—I don’t even know how that art was created. The use of type to create shape is amazing. Unfortunately, Winston lives in London, so A Child of Books is ineligible. But here are some of my other favorites of the year, in no particular order.

We Found a HatKLASSEN, Jon. We Found a Hat. illus. by author. 56p. Candlewick. 2016. ISBN 9780763656003. {IL K-3, -Fic-}

I love that this book’s ending is so different from Klassen’s previous two stories about hats, I Want My Hat Back and This Is Not My Hat. Though any book needs to stand alone when evaluated by the committee, I’m not so sure that I’m personally capable of considering this one without thinking fondly of its predecessors.

WENZEL, Brendan. They All Saw a Cat. illus. by author. 44p. Chronicle. 2016. ISBN 9781452150130. {IL K-3, -E-} RL .9

What an awesome book for teaching point of view and perspective. Everyone sees a cat, but no one sees it the same way. If we are looking for uniqueness, Wenzel’s book is a strong contender.

SWEET, Melissa. Some Writer!: The Story of E. B. White. illus. by author. 176p. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2016. ISBN 9780544319592. {IL 3-6, 818}

Sweet has already started to garner plenty of awards, and well-deserved ones at that. Though she uses her signature collage style and colors, this (longer than her usual) biography of E. B. White surpasses all her previous work. Each page-turn offers a surprise, as Sweet’s pictures invite readers to linger and ponder the text, from its biographical details to excerpts from White’s own writings to “How A Manual Typewriter Works.” Certainly there is nothing else like it this year. (I would also guess that the Newbery and Sibert committees will discuss Sweet’s book.)

Sound of silenceGOLDSAITO, Katrina. The Sound of Silence. illus. by Julia Kuo. 40p. Little, Brown. 2016. ISBN 9780316203371. {IL K-3, -E-}  RL 3

Right from the dust jacket, Kuo uses color to pace the story of Yoshio (living in busy, noisy Tokyo) and his quest to find the silence between sounds, or “ma.” The black-and-white jacket, with only Yoshio in color, cleverly hides the abundance of color to come within the pages. There’s nothing like this in the 2016 lineup either.

ORGILL, Roxane. Jazz Day: The Making of a Famous Photograph. illus. by Francis Vallejo. 64p. Candlewick. 2016. ISBN 9780763669546. {IL 3-6, 781.65} RL 4.7

Six starred reviews. A Boston Globe–Horn Book Award. An SLJ Best Book nod. Debut illustrator Vallejo uses collage, paint, and photographs to document the day in 1958 when Esquire photographer Art Kane gathered fifty-seven jazz greats on a street in Harlem. One of my favorite illustrations is the picture showing some neighborhood boys alongside these legends of jazz; my second is the one that nods to Norman Rockwell’s work, also featuring one of the few female musicians to have appeared in the historical photograph. And when you open a gatefold to reveal the real photo by Kane, you can’t help getting goosebumps.

What will actually win? We’ll have to wait. Your guess is as good as mine. (Honestly, my goal is to have at least read potential winners.) But, in the meantime, you can join the lively conversation at Calling Caldecott. You can subscribe with an RSS feed so you won’t miss a post. Read picture book best-of-the-year lists—School Library Journal, Kirkus Reviews, and Publisher’s Weekly have already posted their favorites, and The Horn Book‘s Fanfare list is coming soon.

What are your favorite contenders?

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Deborah B. Ford

Deborah B. Ford

Deborah B. Ford, JLG’s Director of Library Outreach, is an award-winning library media specialist and international speaker with almost thirty years of experience as a classroom teacher and librarian in K–12 schools. Traveling across North America, she does workshops, library coaching, and professional development for school and public libraries. Deborah is the author of JLG's Booktalks to Go @ SLJ. She also maintains an award-winning coordinating online resource at LiveBinders.com. Contact her at dford@juniorlibraryguild.com. Follow her on Twitter @jlgdeborahford.

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