Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Fun with Authors @ My Library

What do a cat wearing a party hat and a cheese doodle sporting a Samurai helmet have in common? They were both recently featured at author programs at my library -- true story!

First up was Origami Yoda author Tom Angleberger, who visited last Wednesday evening and entertained the crowd by doing  -- among a number of other things -- some live drawing of the characters from the first book in his wacky new Rocket and Groot series, Stranded on Planet Strip Mall. Rocket and Groot are two characters from Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy; Rocket is an adventuresome raccoon with energy to spare, while Groot is a tree, whose only words are "I am Groot." For the series, Tom added a fabulously quirky new character, a talking -- and opinionated -- tape dispenser named Veronica.

In their first book, Rocket, Groot and Veronica crash-land onto a planet composed entirely of strip malls, and they must battle hungry toilets, murderous robots, and a "Grandma" washing machine with chainsaw arms to survive. In its review, School Library Journal called the book "a slapstick romp," and that it is.

Speaking of a "slapstick romp," that's pretty much what Tom's presentation was like. He warmed up the crowd with a demonstration of his prowess in juggling Sharpies and then Tom talked about -- and drew -- the characters from his best-selling Origami Yoda series before launching into a lively presentation of his new book. Tom joked about the fact that the Marvel folks had chosen him to both write and illustrate the Rocket and Groot series, noting: "It turns out that the art was supposed to look like that of an insane raccoon, and I'm almost up to that."

The Killer Grandma Washing Machine

At one point, Tom got a bit of help from award-winning graphic novelist Gareth Hinds (a patron at my library!), who put a Samurai helmet on Tom's cheese doodle in homage to the illustrations Gareth did for author Pamela Turner's new book, "Samurai Rising." At another point, in a brilliant piece of improvisational drawing, Tom asked kids to name their favorite books (other than his!) and then created a drawing tying them all together.

Gareth Hinds adds a Samurai helmet to Tom's cheese doodle.

Throughout the evening, it seemed like Tom was a whirling dervish of humor and motion, and the crowd especially loved how he called every kid "Larry." The evening ended with Tom showing everyone how to create their own Origami Yoda finger puppet. Everyone got a little green rectangle and followed Tom, who used a giant piece of green paper and got a bit of folding bit of help from a young fan. All in all, it was a wonderfully fun evening for both kids and adults.

The next evening's author program was quite different, but no less fun. The featured author/illustrator was Ruth Chan, whose first picture book, Where's the Party?, has just been released. To celebrate the book and its theme, we decided to throw a party, complete with cake, party hats, noisemakers, and party favors. (Full disclosure: Macmillan, Ruth's publisher, provided funds for the cake and sent several packets of party hats, while we provided lemonade, party favors and the people-power required to figure out how to put together the party hats).

Note: All photos of Ruth's event were taken by Bruce Guthrie.

In her presentation, Ruth talked about how the close friendship between her beagle-like dog Feta and her cat Georgie gave her the idea for Where's the Party? 

Local debut author Minh Le and his boys meet Ruth.

In the book, Georgie the cat wants to have a party but can't find any willing guests. Fortunately, there's a happy surprise for Georgie at the end. Publishers Weekly noted that Ruth's ink-and-watercolor illustrations are "full of playful details to enjoy."

After a number of years in education, Ruth's new career as a picture book creator is off to a flying start. She's already got a second Georgie & Friends book ready to go, titled "Georgie's Best Bad Day. We got a sneak peek at the book, which will be published next spring.

The real Georgie and his best friend Feta the hound dog.
Ruth also has another book coming out this year for which she did the illustrations, Mervin the Sloth Is About to Do the Best Thing in the World. Written by Colleen AF Venable, that book will be published in September, and Ruth already is signed on to do the illustrations for a second book by Colleen.

Once Ruth finished her presentation, everyone headed for cake and lemonade. We gave out the party favors, which were pencils and bracelets with a "reading is fun" theme, and then everyone got to pick a noisemaker as they left the library. It's safe to say that a good time was had by all!

The Library's Dave Burbank presents his sketch of Ruth.

END NOTES: Thanks to Seale Ballenger of Disney for working to set up Tom Angleberger's program, and for providing a review copy of Stranded on Planet Strip Mall.  Thanks also to Molly Brouillette of Macmillan for setting up Ruth Chan's program, and providing the cake, party hats, and a review copy of Where's the Party? Thanks, as always, to Kerri Poore of Politics & Prose for booking these wonderful programs at my library. And a rousing thanks to Bruce Guthrie for the great photos of Ruth's event.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Bob Shea & Ursula Vernon: Two High Voltage Authors

Before we launch into a new season of author visits, I wanted to write a brief wrap-up of our two final winter programs with picture book creator Bob Shea and author/illustrator Ursula Vernon.

Yes, these two are very different in the kinds of books they publish. Yet they have one very important thing in common: they are consummate crowd pleasers.

Bob came in late February to talk about the new book in his popular Ballet Cat beginning reader series. Titled Dance! Dance! Underpants!, the book's silly story and comic  illustrations are just the kind of humor that beginning readers need. As expected, Bob's presentation was just as funny as his books. He began by reading one of his Dinosaur Vs. books -- Dinosaur Vs. the Potty -- then segued into the new Ballet Cat book before giving us a preview of his upcoming book.

Of course, Bob also did some drawing of both Dinosaur and Ballet Cat. He got us all drawing along with him as well, even the adults. Throughout the program, we did a lot of ROARing -- just like Dinosaur. Perhaps my favorite thing was the way that Bob talked all of us into regularly chanting: "Bob Shea is my favorite author!"

Bob clearly is both a fun guy and a nice guy. Recently I read about his presentation in Parma, Michigan, at the school of teacher/blogger Colby Sharp. It's a pretty amazing story: https://sharpread.wordpress.com/2016/03/23/bob-sheas-totally-secret-secret/

While we had a mostly younger crowd of kids (and their parents) for Bob, our program featuring Ursula Vernon drew a range of ages. It turns out that Ursula has a number of adult fans, who love her science fiction as well as the podcasts she does with her husband, such as Kevin and Ursula Eat Cheap.

Ursula is obviously a seasoned presenter, and readily rolled with the combination kid-adult crowd. She got everyone involved in helping her decide the elements of a fairy tale that she then amazingly created right on the spot. Titled The Princess and the Mosquito, it was a wacky but comic tale -- vintage Vernon.

Of course, Ursula was actually at the library to talk about the second book in her Hamster Princess series, Of Mice and Magic. The series focuses on a "warrior princess" named Harriet who "prefers sword-fighting and fractions to sighing and fainting." Just like Vernon's best-selling Dragonbreath series, the Hamster Princess books are highly illustrated -- a type of book that we label as a "hybrid" in my library. Hybrid books are hugely popular with young readers; think Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Dork Diaries, Big Nate, etc.

So, two great authors, two great programs. Now.... it's on to the spring season!

Thursday, March 31, 2016

"Radioactive!" Spotlight on Some Fab Women Scientists

As we close out Women's History Month, I want to give a shout-out to a great new book for readers ages 12 up by Winifred Conkling about some women scientists who have largely been forgotten -- but shouldn't have been. Titled Radioactive! How Irene Curie and Lise Meitner Revolutionized Science and Changed the World," Conkling's book shines a spotlight on the major accomplishments of these two women in the field of nuclear science.

Recently, as part of our partnership with Politics & Prose Bookstore, Winifred came to my library to talk about her book. She noted that Meitner, who was memorialized in element 109, was a co-discoverer of nuclear fission, while Curie was a co-discoverer of artificial radiation and winner of the 1935 Nobel Prize in chemistry. (She also was the daughter of Marie and Pierre Curie.) In a starred review of "Radioactive!," Booklist  praised it it as "a thorough and engaging study of two female scientists worth their weight in radium." School Library Journal, meanwhile, called "Radioactive" "luminous and fascinating."

During the program, Winifred talked about the research that went into the book. She noted that she's no scientific expert, so had to learn the basics about nuclear science so she could understand the accomplishments of Lise Meitner and Irene Curie. Winifred added that lack of expertise wasn't necessarily a bad thing, as it meant that she came to the subject with a fresh outlook, but she did have experts vet what she wrote. If you haven't had a chance to read Radioactive, I highly recommend it. Besides being well-written narrative non-fiction, the book is important in helping young readers -- especially girls -- learn more about the largely overlooked achievements of some amazing women scientists. But it's also a great book for adults: I felt like it really highlighted for me the way sexism has both held back women scientists and also obscured their accomplishments.

Winifred has written two other books for young readers, and both of them focus on the lives and achievements of girls and women. In Sylvia & Aki, Winifred tells the well-researched but fictionalized story of how institutionalized racism connected two real girls in the United States during World War 2. When Aki Munemitsu's family was forced to move to a Japanese internment camp, Sylvia Mendez' family moved into the Munemitsu home, and Sylvia's father became the plaintiff in a landmark case challenging California's segregated schools law. 

Winifred's other book, Passenger on the Pearl, is a fictionalized account of a slave named Emily Edmonson, who was part of the largest slave escape in U.S. history in 1848. Although she was recaptured, Edmonson later won her freedom, went to Oberlin College, and became  a teacher in the first school in Washington, D.C. dedicated to the education of African-American girls.

Women's History Month 2016 may be over, but if you're looking for a good read that's full of inspiration, I would recommend one -- or all -- of Winifred's books. And I'm already looking forward to her next one!

End Notes: Thanks to Kerri Poore of Politics & Prose for helping to make this event happen. Thanks also to Jacquelynn Burke, senior publicist at Algonquin Books for setting things up with Winifred and sending both photos and a review copy of Radioactive! And a special "merci"to my friend Mandy Bolgiano who told me that her cousin wrote great books -- she was right!

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Gareth Hinds & Samurai Rising

Gareth Hinds has won critical acclaim for his elegantly-illustrated graphic novel adaptations of classic stories, including Shakespeare's Macbeth and Romeo & Juliet, The Odyssey and Beowulf. But Gareth's latest book, Samurai Rising, is something quite different. For one thing, it's not a classic -- just yet. Another difference is that it's not a graphic novel; Gareth provided illustrations for the beginning of each chapter, as well as a wonderfully "in your face" cover that just begs kids to pick up the book to find out more.

Gareth came to my library recently to talk about the book, which is published by Charlesbridge and aimed at ages 10 up. Samurai Rising already has received four starred reviews from professional journals: Booklist, Kirkus, School Library Journal and The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books. Written by Pamela Turner, Samurai Rising tells the story of -- as the subtitle notes -- The Epic Life of Minamoto Yoshitsune. The phrase "epic life" actually might be a bit of an understatement. Just look at the back cover, which gives fair warning about the contents of the book: "Warning: Very few people in this story die of natural causes." Yes, that's true, but it's also true that readers ages 10 up will be riveted by Pamela's meticulously-researched text, which combines humor, drama and an ironic writing style that allows readers to see parallels between Yoshitsune's long-ago life and their own. Here's an example: "... Yoshitsune, an unskilled teenager... wanting to be a warrior! It was like a boy who had never played Little League showing up for spring training with the Yankees." Or this: "When your half-brother sends assassins to kill you, it's a strong hint that your relationship is beyond repair." As The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books said of Samurai Rising: "Hand this to long-faced kids whining that they 'have to write a history report.'"

Gareth's black-and-white chapter illustrations further expand the the interest and energy of the book's text. Done in a loose brush-and-ink, his artwork is both stunning to look at and helpful to understanding the bloody world of Yoshitsune. Gareth also did several maps that are found throughout the book and really help readers keep track of the action. In fact, it turns out that Gareth was the perfect choice to illustrate the book. As Gareth told us at the library event, he had done some karate and aikido in his childhood and studied Japanese culture and language during high school and college. In 1990, Gareth visited Japan, where he met a famous Japanese swordmaker; swords, of course, play a key role in many parts of Samurai Rising. In addition, Gareth has been seriously practicing aikido for 15 years, and is a third-degree black belt. One more interesting connection: in college, Gareth actually did an illustration project on Yoshitsune, so he already knew the basics of the warrior's story.

At the library program, Gareth talked about the process of illustrating Samurai Rising, showing us pages from his sketchbooks where he did rough pencil sketches for each chapter. Once he and the book's art editor, Susan Sherman, decided on a sketch, Gareth then went to work with his brushes. As he describes the process in a fascinating post on his website: "In order to do a loose brush painting, I actually needed to work out a fairly precise drawing, often with more information in it than the finished illustration would have. Then I put the drawing on a light table and painted over it, laying down the solid blacks first, then the grey tones. I used some carefully distressed, bristly brushes I’ve cultivated over the years (a good inking brush, as it ages, tends to lose its ability to keep a sharp point, but sometimes gains other magical qualities!)."

I'll admit that I was a bit reluctant at first to read Sanurai Rising because I had already heard about the high body count. Once I began reading, however, I was totally hooked, both by the text and the illustrations. If you've got -- or know -- a reluctant young reader who is interested in history, Japanese culture, samurais, and/or manga/anime, Samurai Rising is a book you should know. I've already successfully booktalked it to two young readers, and both were thrilled with it. And I'll get out my crystal ball, early in the season, and say that I think Samurai Rising should be a top contender for the 2017 Sibert Medal and the 2017 Newbery Medal. Fingers crossed!

End notes: Thanks to Donna Spurlock at Charlesbridge for helping to set up Gareth's event at the library, and for sending a review copy of Samurai Rising. Thanks also to Kerri Poore of Politics & Prose for helping to "book" the event at the library.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Kwame Alexander: Inspiration Incarnate

When Kwame Alexander won the 2015 Newbery Medal for The Crossover,  he got phone calls from several other Newbery Medalists: Katherine Paterson, Katherine Applegate, and Linda Sue Park, among others. All of them had the same advice: "Do not plan on writing any book during your 'Newbery Year.'"

Kwame in "beach wear" (All photos by Bruce Guthrie)
Kwame, however, is seemingly inexhaustible, and he was undeterred by this advice. Far from writing nothing, Kwame actually wrote three -- yes, count 'em, THREE -- books! And so it was that he came to my library recently to launch one of those three, a gem of a picture book titled Surf's Up!, illustrated by Daniel Miyares. Although it was a cold February evening Kwame was resplendent in a denim jacket, t-shirt, light pants and a cool pair of orange sneakers. He said his young daughter told him that he needed to dress in clothing appropriate for the beach, "since your book is about the beach."

In Surf's Up!, Kwame tells the story of two frogs named Bro and Dude who have a difference of opinion. Bro is desperate to head out on a nice day and catch some waves on his surfboard, while Dude wants to finish the exciting book he is reading before hitting the surf. As Dude gets deeper into his book, Bro gets swept up in the story, which adult readers may recognize as a riff on Moby Dick.  By the end, the two frogs have switched places, with Dude -- who has finished the book -- heading off with his surfboard and Bro curled up and reading.

Kwame wrote the text of Surf's Up! during a plane ride. "I thought it was perfect," he laughed, "and then I spent the next year re-writing it." Miyares is actually the third illustrator for the book. "The first two just couldn't get it right," Kwame said. "It is a tough book to illustrate because it's all dialogue." Miyares, however, really understood the ideas behind the text, Kwame said, and "he took all that and did something unique with the illustrations."

Kwame gets ready to read Surf's Up!

Surf's Up! has gotten several starred reviews, with Kirkus calling it "a warm-hearted tribute to reading," and Publisher's Weekly noting that the book is "a wild ride on the sea of imagination and a rousing high-five to the power of reading." But Kwame was dumbfounded by a question recently asked by a librarian about the book, which she had only heard about: "What color are the frogs?" It was the same question Kwame had been asked about the twin brothers who are the protagonists of The Crossover. In the case of the question about the frogs of Surf's Up!, Kwame said he responded that "your question is more intriguing than any answer I could ever give."

After telling this story, Kwame noted: "The problem is us, the adults -- not the kids. We're the ones who compartmentalize and treat people as 'the Other.'... I believe that we children's book authors, teachers, parents -- we need to help children imagine a better world, to plant the seeds of ideas in the minds of our children." If you've ever met or seen Kwame in action, you can envision his passion as he said those words. He's a truly dynamic speaker who feels it is his mission to inspire and empower children and teens through his books and appearances at schools and other organizations.

Kwame himself is one of four children who were raised by parents who were passionate readers. As he puts it: "Our house was a library and my Dad and Mom were verbal maniacs." Kwame recalled that he got in trouble at the age of two at preschool when, upset by a child who had knocked over his block tower, he spouted several lines of Fox In Socks. The teacher called Kwame's mother and told her: "Your son is arrogant -- he intimidates other children with his words." Kwame's mother responded by asking what book he had quoted.

Despite such a bookish upbringing -- or perhaps because of it -- Kwame fell out of love with reading for some time. But his literary love affair blossomed anew when he discovered poetry, specifically the poetry of Nikki Giovanni, who has said she taught him one thing: "The Answer is Yes." Kwame also found poetry a perfect way to woo the woman who became his wife, saying: "I ended up writing her a poem a day for a year so she would marry me. She did."

Kwame continued to write poetry and other types of creative writing over the years, even as he did other jobs, including teaching high school, producing jazz and book festivals, owning several publishing companies, and hosting a weekly radio. He's published nearly 20 books, including another picture book, Accoustic Rooster and His Barnyard Band. But it was The Crossover that has made him a star in the children's book world, and has given Kwame an international platform from which he can spread his special brand of dynamic inspiration. Written in free verse, The Crossover tells the story of twin middle school boys who are superb basketball players, thanks in large part to their basketball-obsessed father. The boys' close bond is tested when one of them falls in love, but the real worry is over their father's increasingly poor health. As Publishers Weekly noted: "This verse novel delivers a real emotional punch before the final buzzer."

Winning the Newbery also led directly to the second book that Kwame wrote last year. After winning the Newbery, Kwame had a meeting with Dick Robinson, the president of Scholastic, who asked Kwame: "What can we do for you?" Kwame, who had been trying for some time to make the materials he uses in his popular "Book-in-a-Day" programs at schools more readily available, realized that here was his opportunity. The result is Kwame Alexander's Page-to-Stage Writing Workshop: Awakening the Writer, Publisher and Presenter in Every K-8 Student, which will be published in March.  

Kwame shows a copy of Page-to-Stage

The third and final book that Kwame wrote during his Newbery year will be published in April. Titled Booked, it is, like The Crossover, a novel written in verse, and tells the story of a star soccer player named Nick whose father has written a dictionary and pushes reading on his son. But Nick is a daydreamer who is averse to reading until an injury sidelines him. In a starred review, Kirkus praised Booked for its "likable protagonist, great wordplay, solid teen and adult secondary characters and ... clear picture of the challenges young people face when self-identity clashes with parental expectations."

Kwame and fans with The Crossover and an advanced copy of Booked

Now that he's set a new standard for what can be done during a "Newbery Year," it's going to be interesting to see what Kwame will do next. But one thing is sure: Kwame will continue to work his magic to inspire young readers. As he put it at a recent appearance in Denver: "I'm the 'Say Yes Guy', the inspiration guy." And I say yes to that!

Kwame and I, with two of the books He wrote during his Newbery year.

End Notes: Thanks to Kwame for a truly inspiring evening! Thanks also to Heather Lennon of NorthSouth Books for the review copy of Surf's Up!. Thanks to Bruce Guthrie for taking such wonderful photos. And thanks, as always, to Kerri Poore and the other folks at Politics & Prose, Washington's great independent bookstore, for "booking" Kwame's event at my library.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Ryan Higgins, "Mother Bruce," and Imprinting

In his new picture book, Mother Bruce, author/illustrator Ryan Higgins offers a twist on the traditional tale of Mother Goose, complete with a comical new way of teaching the concept of "imprinting," or the near-instant attachment of an infant to the one caring for it. Ryan came to my library recently to read Mother Bruce, and when he came to the page where four, just-hatched goslings eagerly shout "Mama" at a cantankerous bear named Bruce, he noted with a grin: "That's called imprinting."

Ryan Higgins gets ready to read! (All photo credits: Bruce Guthrie)

And it's imprinting that gives Mother Bruce its laugh-out-loud  quality. No matter that Bruce is a bear, who actually wanted to eat the goslings when they were still in egg form. And no matter that Bruce does everything that he can to discourage the goslings' view of him as their mother. Their attachment to Bruce continues to deepen (even as surly, headphones-wearing teen geese), and eventually Bruce must make his peace with the situation. Kirkus gave Mother Bruce a starred review, calling it the book "visually beautiful, clever, edgy and very funny." Booklist noted that "this case of mistaken identity will lend itself to a fun-filled storytime," while Publishers Weekly concluded that Mother Bruce is, "in its way a book about unconventional families."

At our library event, Ryan, who lives in southern Maine with his wife and two young children, said he first creates a good amount of his illustrations in the traditional way, then uses a computer to do the final art. This way, Ryan said he can create the distinctive textures that make the illustrations in Mother Bruce really stand out, while still being able to "hit the undo button," as he put it, when he needs to make changes. Although Ryan has created several other picture books, most notably Wilfred, it is Mother Bruce that has become his break-out book. He's already written a sequel, Hotel Bruce, and is preparing to write a third book starring the grumpy bear.

Ryan and a young fan decide what to draw next.

Meanwhile, while Ryan is doing fewer school visits these days as he focuses full-time on creating picture books, I can attest to how great he is with an audience. Because of bad weather, we had a tiny -- but appreciative --audience the night he came to my library. Ryan didn't miss a beat, opting to sit close to the audience to read his book, and then offering to do some live drawing after taking questions. All in all, everyone had a great time, and now we all can't wait to see the next adventures of the perpetually-scowling Bruce!

End Notes: Thanks to the folks as Disney/Hyperion for a review copy of Mother Bruce, and for sending Ryan out on the book tour. Thanks to Kerri Poore of Politics & Prose for "booking" Ryan's event at my library. And thanks to Bruce Guthrie for the photos!

Friday, January 22, 2016

Back to the Blog -- After a "Bucket List" Experience

Serving on the 2016 Caldecott Committee was truly a "bucket list" experience. But it also meant that I haven't been able to post on this blog for months because of the rule against posting on social media anything remotely connected to books eligible for the 2016 Caldecott Medal. In the last six months. I've been immersed in Caldecott-eligible books and had little time for anything else. Hence, no blog posts in the last six months! Now, finally, I can get back to regular blogging, and my first post is -- naturally -- a look back at my Caldecott experience.

For some reason, it feels right to begin towards the end of this once-in-a-lifetime experience. The process culminated two weeks ago, when my committee met in Boston for two long (into the evening) days of the most invigorating book discussions in which I have ever participated. It was truly "the book discussion of a lifetime," as we had been told to expect. Sarah Bean Thompson, one of my committee colleagues, perfectly captured the experience in a recent post on the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) blog.

Here I am with some of my fellow "Caldecrew;" our wonderful chair, Rachel Payne, is second from right in back. 

(Note: the video works even though the picture doesn't show up!)

Then came the fun of calling the winners, early on the morning on Monday, Jan. 11. Making "The Call" is a time of high emotion -- both for the winners, and for we committee members. Our winning illustrator, Sophie Blackall, burst into sobs when our chair, Rachel Payne of the Brooklyn Public Library, told her the good news. Sophie had to promise to keep the news secret (except from her spouse and editor) until it was announced at the Youth Media Awards (YMAs) a couple of hours later. Interestingly, Sophie and the children's book illustrators with whom she shares studio space have an annual tradition of watching the YMAs together. Sophie somehow managed to keep her secret from her studiomates -- including 2014 Caldecott Medalist Brian Floca -- until it was announced. Brian then captured Sophie's emotions in a photo, and put it on Twitter:

But we committee members weren't done quite yet. After calling Sophie and our other winners, we took our seats at the Youth Media Awards (YMA) program. (If you missed it, check out this archived version). It was a truly electric moment for my committee when the hundreds of librarians packed into the Boston Convention Center room for the YMA program erupted in cheers as ALSC President Andrew Medlar, the program emcee, said: “And the winner of the 2016 Randolph Caldecott Medal for most distinguished American picture book for children is….. Sophie Blackall for Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear.

2016 Caldecott Committee Chair Rachel Payne places the medal on Finding Winnie at the Little, Brown booth.
As the crowd applauded, my fellow 2016 Caldecott Committee members and I turned to each other with huge smiles. We had done it! After a year of reading, and re-reading (and re-reading…..) hundreds of eligible books, and after two days of intense and deeply meaningful discussions, our work was finally completed.

Throughout the process of choosing the 2016 Caldecott Medal winner, we had been humbled and awed by the fact that we were charged with choosing a book that would be bought by hundreds of libraries and thousands of parents. We knew that the winning illustrator would garner both fame and fortune, as books chosen for the Caldecott Medal virtually never go out of print. There’s a good reason why the Caldecott Medal (and the Newbery Medal, given annually to the “most distinguished contribution to American literature for children”) are often called “the Oscars of the children’s book world.”

My involvement with the Caldecott process actually began in 2013, when I was asked to run for the 2016 Caldecott Committee. There are 15 members of the committee; seven are elected and eight, including the chairperson, are appointed by the leaders of the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), a division of the American Library Association.

The elections were held in the spring of 2014, and I won a spot on the committee. But it wasn’t until January 2015 that our real work began. Over the course of 2015, each committee member received hundreds of books from publishers. Contrary to popular understanding of the Caldecott Medal as an award for picture books written for preschoolers, books for children ages birth through 14 are eligible. That wide age meant we received – and read --board books, illustrated non-fiction books, graphic novels and – yes – picture books for both young children and elementary-age kids.

Our job was to evaluate these books according to the Caldecott Medal criteria. Each month, we sent Rachel, our chair, a list of suggested books, ones that we found interesting and thought our colleagues should read.Then, in October, things got really serious. Each committee member has seven nominations – three made in October, and two each in November and December. With so many great books published in 2015, it was excruciating for us to narrow our choices, but we had to. These nominated books then became our “finalists” – the only ones we could discuss when we gathered in Boston to choose our winner. All other books were off the table.

Now, a note about confidentiality: all of our monthly suggestions, all of our nominated books – including how many books were nominated, since people could end up nominating the same book – and all of our discussions in Boston, will forever remain secret. Even our discussion room was designated as “secured,” meaning only committee members could enter. In addition, we never discussed the nominated books, even in email or on the phone, until our deliberations began at 8 a.m. on Friday, Jan. 8. As you can imagine, we were all quite eager to finally discuss books that had consumed so many of our waking hours for a year.

Now the entire world knows our choices. In addition to awarding the 2016 Caldecott Medal to Sophie Blackall for Finding Winnie, (which was written by Lindsay Mattick), our committee chose four Caldecott Honor books. They are (in order by illustrator’s last name): Trombone Shorty, illustrated by Bryan Collier and written by Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews; Waiting, written and illustrated by Kevin Henkes; Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement, illustrated by Ekua Holmes and written by Carole Boston Weatherford; and Last Stop on Market Street, illustrated by Christian Robinson and written by Matt de la Pena.

In terms of Caldecott history, the 2016 Caldecott Medal was the 25th won by a woman (some women have won multiple times) since the award was first given in 1938; 47 medals have been won by men, while three Caldecott Medals have been won by husband and wife teams (Diane and Leo Dillon won twice, and Alice and Martin Provensen won once). (Note: I did these calculations based on the information available on the ALSC Caldecott Medal page.) I have to say that it's been particularly fun to read Sophie's reactions to winning the Caldecott Medal. Publishers Weekly talked up her "champagne and donuts" celebration, while NPR noted that Sophie's favorite book as a child was Winnie-the-Pooh, and so she was particularly delighted to have been asked to illustrated Finding Winnie. And the inimitable John Schumacher, better known as Mr. Schu, perfectly captured the joy and drama of winning a Caldecott Medal in his interview with Sophie on his Watch.Connect.Read blog.

Our group of Caldecott Honor books is quite diverse. Our Honor illustrators include three African-American artists (Collier, Holmes and Robinson), a debut illustrator (Holmes), a Caldecott Medalist (Henkes, who won the Medal in 2005 for Kitten’s First Full Moon.), and a previous Caldecott Honor winner (Collier,  who has won three Caldecott Honors for Martin's Big Words, Rosa, and Dave the Potter). And, in a bonus for us, most of our books received awards from other awards committees, underlining their excellence. Perhaps the biggest and best surprise was the fact that one of our Caldecott Honor books,  Last Stop on Market Street, also was awarded the 2016 Newbery Medal for the lyrical and poignant text by author Matt de la Pena. It is only the second time that a picture book has won the Newbery Medal.

Meanwhile, some folks have loved our choices, while others debate them. That goes with the territory. Since we committee members can't discuss our decision-making process, we can't respond very specifically. But I can tell you that we did our very best, and that our decisions were based -- as they must be -- on the Caldecott criteria (which are now burned in my brain forever!). Susan Kusel, who served on the 2015 Caldecott Committee, wrote about the experience in this thoughtful blog post. And Susan references another well-written piece about the issue, written a couple of years ago by my Caldecott colleague Sarah Bean Thompson after she served on the Michael Printz Award committee. 

While our committee’s official work is now done, we now are charged with promoting our winners, using them in programs and talking them up with kids, parents and teachers. Rachel, our chair, started the process with her deftly written guest post for the Calling Caldecott blog on The Horn Book website, in which she describes some of the reasons we chose our award winners. I particularly love Rachel's call to action at the conclusion. Noting that some folks wish we had chosen other books, Rachel concludes: "It was a magical experience for our committee to put gold and silver award seals on these books. Work some magic for the books you love."

Our committee will gather one last time at the American Library Association’s conference in June to hear the acceptance speeches by the winners. And, as a usable souvenir of our extraordinary experience, we’ll always have our committee t-shirt  (created in homage to the beloved Boston-based, 1942 Caldecott Medal winning book Make Way For Ducklings):  “Make Way for Caldecott 2016!”