I’m convinced that there is no better person with whom to shoot the Caldecott breeze than Ed Spicer. A first grade teacher, a member of the 2009 Caldecott committee, and a passionate supporter of the written word, Ed can talk books with the best of them. The fact that he has no qualms sharing his opinions doesn’t hurt either.
Recently, Ed sat down to discuss his Caldecott committee experience, handicap the 2010 race, and even prognosticate this year’s Printz award winners. This was fun. This interview is also available in video form – click to watch part I, part II, part III, part IV.
Scope Notes: On your website (Spicy Reads) you list your age as “17 for the last 35 years”. I take it you’ve always been a fan of books for young people?
Ed Spicer: Welllllllllll, um, NO! As a teen, a homeless teen, looking for ways to validate myself and protect my perceived need to hide my situation, I did not read any books by anyone unless the author was dead for at least one hundred years. I read (and memorized) Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, Shelley, Byron… I adored Dostoevsky, Hesse, Plato, Sartre, Dickens, and many other dead White guys.
As Bob Dylan would say, “I was so much older then; I’m younger than that nowwwwww.” And I am even younger than my website page, which now needs to be updated to say for the last 38 years. Thanks for pointing out the error!
Nice impression! That lyric certainly applies to your Caldecott work. Before talking Caldecott, maybe I should ask about ground rules. What topics are off limits for you to discuss about your committee experience?
Well, no topics are off limits for you to ask, but I may not answer all your questions.
I cannot answer any questions about which books we considered, which books were nominated (or not), what did the committee think about any particular book. However, we were encouraged by our Chair (Nell Colburn) and by K.T. Horning, who did a training session with our committee, to share books with multiple audiences and to solicit opinions on a wide variety of books. We are permitted to share personal opinions about books, but to make it very clear that they are NOT the views of the committee. Essentially ALL committee deliberations for both the Caldecott and the Printz are forever private, despite my lobbying for a statute of limitations that would allow sharing after X amount of time.
Keep hammering away at that statute of limitations proposal – I’m hoping to see your Caldecott tell-all hit the shelves sometime in the future. What would be a good title? RANDOLPH WOULD BLUSH; CALDECOTT UNCENSORED, perhaps?
Well, of course it would have to be a, “Show and Paint-All Picture of Producing a Picture Book Winner.” Lurid tales of treats and chocolate and why the postal service and the UPS guy have investigated bumping us off. Funny! I like RANDOLPH WOULD BLUSH.
So how did you end up on the committee? Had you been pining for a while?
I have served on the Printz Committee (2005) and immediately after I served on BBYA (2006-2008). I also served as on of the facilitators for YALSA’s Best of the Best pre-conference (BOB, as we affectionately label it) in which participants selected the ten best books of the year for the past ten years.
I write reviews for the Michigan Reading Journal and I have done many presentations around Michigan on great books for children and teens. I also teach first grade at North Ward Elementary School in Allegan, MI which probably helped the nominating committee understand that I would understand how to review books for young readers too. I am NOT shy about liking or not liking books and I have been active on several list serves centered on children and teen literature. I try very hard to be respectful and polite to even those who are so horribly wrong about any given book! I work hard and I do all the work. I am guessing that these things reached the ears of the nominating committee. Many of the members of YALSA are also members of ALSC, which certainly helped during the voting. During my last year of BBYA, I was asked if I would be willing to submit my name for the Caldecott ballot. Surprisingly this was a difficult question to answer because I had already told YALSA that I would serve on the Margaret Edwards committee. OK, OK, OK it was really very EASY to say, YES!!!!!!!!! to being on the Caldecott ballot because my school district thinks this is closer to my job as a first grade teacher (although I was terrified that I would not be elected and would have to miss attending the Midwinter meeting).
As a man who lists ALA Conference as your favorite vacation, I can see how that would be a worry.
Chicago, Boston, Washington D.C., San Diego, New Orleans, Toronto??? What’s not to like, especially when San Diego takes me away from Michigan for close to two weeks in January!
I love rural Michigan, but I need big cities, even if I spend the bulk of my time in convention center rooms!
You made a concerted effort to solicit input from kids when making your Caldecott choices. How did that go? What did you think about the feedback? How did it influence your choices?
This was very easy to do. My students made videos in which we modeled the Caldecott process in my classroom. We start by finding something good to say about each book. Then we find things in the illustrations or text that do not appeal to us personally and we say why. My students are used to the fact that it is OK to love books or hate books as long as we say why, with our arguments directed toward things we find in the books. Among the Caldecott criteria is the contentious issue of audience. One of the benefits of soliciting feedback from young readers is that it may help the committee determine whether or not a book that is marketed for a certain age group actually has appeal to that age group. There are books that I thought were exceptionally funny only to find that the jokes were over the heads of my students. While my students did not really change my mind on any of my favorites, they often gave me ammunition when confronting the, “NO appeal to audience” argument. It should be noted, however, that I also did more than ten presentations on Caldecott contenders to adults, including programs for the Church and Synagogue Library Association and (my favorite) to the American Chemical Society.
What made that group your favorite?
One of the concerns of this division of The American Chemical Society is the fact that many of the students coming into the field have trouble envisioning what is happening in a lab or in an experiment. Visual literacy is an important skill for far more than just the person designing new video games. In this presentation, I read Jabberwocky (the version illustrated by Christopher Myers).
However, I had the cover wrapped in brown paper and I did not share the illustrations. When I finished reading, I asked the audience to share their mental images for these words that are impossible (at least for me) to understand, regardless of how much I still love them. Then I showed them the cover and illustrations. I asked how many saw this as a basketball story? I was hoping to get them to see that our ability to envision solutions and new ideas, even very complicated ones, are dependent on our ability to see outside the box, so to speak. This presentation also came with a certain amount of pressure because the President stated that this group (of professors, heads of research labs, PhDs, and people much smarter than I will ever be) had never tried this sort of program before. He wanted them to send him feedback to determine whether or not they would ever do something like this again. He called the program, “risky” while I was getting ready to speak! I received several emails from people who loved the program and they bought me dinner, paid me $150.00, purchased drinks for me afterwards, and invited me back.
Do you feel the Caldecott committee process eliminates personal bias, or is that inescapable?
With fifteen very independent and intelligent committee members, personal bias is mitigated, but not eliminated. As a committee you spend time reading about how to evaluate picture books. You spend time becoming aware of your own preferences in art and in format and in genre. When the time comes to discuss the contenders, you have looked at the books so many times that you can easily see both merit and flaw in all of the books, even those that come closer to matching your personal biases. Betty Carter, who was chair of my Printz committee, said to us that she has not met the perfect book and after my experiences on both the Printz and Caldecott, I understand that axiom more clearly. My own procedure, which I recommend to other committee members, is to take every single suggestion and nomination and write up the most compelling case you can for why that book deserves to be the winner. I did this FIRST, which made ripping the book apart later on a lot more fun! However, getting your mind ready to understand why a book should win is a helpful exercise when you see books brought to the committee’s attention that make you question the sanity of the person suggesting it and then you discover that you are just about the only person who doesn’t see the book as a serious contender. There are books that do grow on you when you try to see them in a new way.
Thinking about books that grew on you, do any examples spring to mind from last year?
To some extent, ALL of the books we spend time discussing grow on you. One book that I almost overlooked (and my first graders who noticed immediately that Señor Calavera was a ghost really helped me return to this magnificent book) is Yuyi Morales’s fabulous JUST IN CASE: A TRICKSTER TALE AND SPANISH ALPHABET BOOK.
Every time I went back and looked at this one, I found more to appreciate. In addition to being one of the very few alphabet books that has a real story, I just love all the intertextual play that it does with, say, Gabriel García Márquez. I did not notice any of this my first few times through. Consequently, I was thrilled when this book won the Belpré last January.
Does the discussion get heated? Table pounding? Angry tirades? Punches thrown? But seriously, are folks disappointed if their choices aren’t in the discussion?
The discussion gets VERY HEATED. While I don’t remember table pounding, I do remember tirades and tears. We did not engage in fisticuffs, but one of the little known secrets of single book selection work is that it is very possible to be on a committee that does not select ANY books that you like personally. It can be heartbreaking, especially heartbreaking because you can never tell anyone about your committee work. However, even if your books are not selected, you still know the strengths of the books and can easily understand why they are selected, even if you do not especially agree. Just think about the reality of trying to get any group of 15 people to agree on which book is the best of the year. For every person that loves a book, you can easily find a person who holds a very different perspective. Selecting the winner and the honor books is a consensus driven process. Consensus means, almost by definition, that pretty much everyone has to give up on personal favorites.
Difficult indeed. Did you feel like your personal favorites lived or died on your ability to persuade others?
In the discussion, which goes on for a long time, there are always times for every single person on the committee in which he or she wishes he or she had phrased an argument more clearly and more convincingly. Sometimes an argument develops toward the end of the process that makes you wish you had more time to think about it before having to vote. I was VERY WELL PREPARED, in part, because of all the presentations I did. I had good, concise notes and was, for the most part, coherent. I am, overall, very pleased with my participation, which is based on PREPARATION! I was not perfect and I had to sacrifice children on the altar of consensus. However, I am VERY PLEASED with the process and very pleased with our four books. I learned a ton from the committee members and from the process. It is an AMAZING experience!
How in-depth do discussions get about artwork? Do you get into the nuts and bolts of technique? Is the text only discussed in how it connects to the illustrations?
I did the bulk of my preparation looking at what the experts had to say about picture book art. I read books by K.T. Horning, Uri Shulevitz, Dilys Evans, and many others. If you look at the technique in, say, MOON OVER STAR and then look at A COUPLE OF BOYS HAVE THE BEST WEEK EVER, you will probably say that Jerry Pinkney is the better artist, as did 99% of the people at a program in Schoolcraft last summer.
However, the Caldecott is not about presenting an award to the best artist, it is about the artwork that serves the text the best. We look at technique in relation to the type of story that is being told. The collage done in A RIVER OF WORDS is so perfect for Williams, who wrote poems on scraps of paper.
While the illustrations are the critical focal point to any Caldecott book, they are not the only items under consideration. We look at how the technique improves or detracts from the story. We look at page turns—how does the artist guide the eye into turning to the next page. We look at lines. We look at shading. We look at color palate in relation to the mood the author is trying to create. There are several books in which the illustrator seemed to ignore the text, including some by illustrators that should know better (I will not name names, in case you are thinking of asking me). The competition is so intense that I cannot imagine a book winning the Caldecott that has a poor text. THE HOUSE IN THE NIGHT has a gorgeous text that begs to be heard (and the words are placed in the book as if they are an essential part of the picture).
I was 0-4 in my predictions for Caldecott last year (Old Bear by Kevin Henkes, Wabi Sabi by Mark Reibstein & Ed Young, The Little Yellow Leaf by Carin Burger, and We are the Ship by Kadir Nelson). People have said the Caldecott is the most difficult award to predict – do you agree?
I love all four of these books! In fact, I talk about WABI SABI as one of my personal favorites, so it pleases me to be able to give another shout out to this one. OLD BEAR is the book that kids who came to my evening Caldecott programs most often chose as their winner. THE LITTLE YELLOW LEAF is another amazing book that I also love. No one was happier than I was to hear Kadir’s name as the King author winner for the magnificent, WE ARE THE SHIP. Nikki Grimes gave our committee grief for not selecting it as the Caldecott winner but never mentioned that it did not WIN the King prize for illustration either (it was an honor book for illustration, and that committee has a smaller group of books to consider).
I think it is probably true to say that the Caldecott is the most difficult winner to predict because we do not value illustration as highly as we do words in our culture. One of my pet peeves as a first grade teacher is hearing families tell me not to send picture books home to read because the student is able to read chapter books. Implicit in this request is a devaluing of art. Young students, even excellent reading young students, need illustrations because while they may well indeed be able to read books without pictures, they also need to build comprehension skills. Picturing learning is a skill that is not innate. It is developed. Illustrations help students picture learning. The more time we spend “reading” the illustrations, the better our students will be at comprehending those books that come with no pictures. Consequently we have not developed the artistic vocabulary for discussing art in the same way that we talk about plot, structure, or organization of text (and we have vast differences of opinion here, too). I am hoping that after having served on a Caldecott Committee my ability to predict future winners will improve significantly!
Speaking of (possible) future winners, you mentioned on your blog that you’d be “bleeding on the table” for Jerry Pinkney’s The Lion & the Mouse if you were on this year’s committee – are you willing to make any more Caldecott picks? Anything fly under the radar that you think will be in the discussion?
I am still pulling for Jerry Pinkney to win this year. THE LION & THE MOUSE remains the most significant contribution to children’s art that I have seen this year.
However, I have not had the luxury of devoting my entire reading time to picture books. Jerry could also win Caldecott notice for his SWEETHEARTS OF RHYTHM book, which is also illustrated beautifully.
A truly under the radar book (and I have not checked the illustrator to determine whether it is even eligible) is WAITING FOR WINTER by Sebastian Meschenmoser.
I love the way that it trusts the reader to understand the wordless ending. It has a few very minor problems with the shading, but it is a book that more folks should discover.
Molly Bang’s LIVING SUNLIGHT is a nonfiction book that explains photosynthesis to very young students. The artwork shimmers and shines. This is such a great year for nonfiction for all ages; it would be nice to see a nonfiction book that is informational win one of the big prizes (an honor). I am a big fan of Barry Moser and the work he did in ONCE UPON A TWICE really helps make this book—BEOMOUSE, as I call it—stand out. POSY, illustrated by Catherine Rayner (Linda Newberry, author) is another one to take a look at. Jason Chin’s work in REDWOODS has awesome art that really makes this book notable (in so many ways). SPELLS by Emily Gravett. WILLOUGHBY AND THE LION by Greg Foley. JEREMY DRAWS A MONSTER by Peter McCarty. THE CURIOUS GARDEN by Peter Brown. DUCK! RABBIT! Illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld. I NEED MY MONSTER by Amanda Noll (illustrated by Howard McWilliam). A BOOK by Mordicai Gerstein. THE HAIR OF ZOE FLEEFENBACHER by Laurie Halse Anderson (illustrated by Ard Hoyt), which is a first grade favorite along with BOBBY BRAMBLE LOSES HIS BRAIN. I love looking at DINOTRUX by Chris Gall. These are some of the books that come quickly to mind that I would want to spend more time inspecting, if eligible to win. Another older student potential Caldecott book is the CUCKOO’S HAIKU by Michael J. Rosen (illustrated by Stan Fellows).
It is definitely under the radar and a book that is just gorgeous to read. Hard to stop because I hate to forget anything.
I know what you mean. When you look around, there are plenty of deserving titles. Can I pin you down to a winner and three honors?
Well, as stated, I am pulling for Pinkney to win with LION & THE MOUSE. After that, I am really floundering. Maybe Jerry Pinkney will win the medal and win an honor? I take all that stuff back about getting better at picking Caldecott winners and honor books! It’s difficult! My personal favorites are ONCE UPON A TWICE, LIVING SUNLIGHT, and RED SINGS FROM TREETOPS (unless I spend another second thinking about possibilities, which will add another 17 to my list).
You’re also a huge fan of books for teens, having served on the Printz Award committee and Best Books for Young Adults (BBYA). Care to toss out a few 2009 must-reads in that category?
MARCELO IN THE REAL WORLD by Francisco X. Stork
THE LOST CONSPIRACY by Frances Hardinge
THE ROCK AND THE RIVER by Kekla Magoon
CHARLES AND EMMA by Deborah Heiligman
CLAUDETTE COLVIN: TWICE TOWARD JUSTICE by Phillip Hoose
GOING BOVINE by Libba Bray
TALES FROM OUTER SUBURBIA by Shaun Tan
THE ASK AND THE ANSWER by Patrick Ness
LEVIATHAN by Scott Westerfeld
ALMOST ASTRONAUTS: 13 WOMEN WHO DARED TO DREAM by Tanya Lee Stone
STITCHES by David Small
WRITTEN IN BONE by Sally M. Walker
THE GREAT AND ONLY BARNUM by Candace Fleming
POP by Gordon Korman
GRINGOLANDIA by Lyn Miller-Lachmann
WILD THINGS by Clay Carmichael
THE BROTHERS STORY by Katherine Sturtevant
LIAR by Justine Larbalastier
LOVE IS THE HIGHER LAW by David Levithan
While not a comprehensive look, this list will provide readers with a wide variety of great books for teens. It includes many exceptional nonfiction titles (and I will not be surprised to see some of these on the Printz list—five of them are already on the shortlist for the new YA nonfiction prize). We have Asperger’s, mad cow disease, 911, the Black Panther Party, evolution, civil rights, brothers, a graphic poem, steam punk, graphic memoir, forensic anthropology, Alzheimer’s disease, faith healing, Chilean politics, sculpture, art, dystopian fiction, and werewolves represented! If you want to pin me down and ask me my pick to win the Printz…
By all means!
I would have to go with Marcelo. I am in the middle of DAYS OF LITTLE TEXAS by R.A. Nelson and loving this look at this charismatic teen preacher/healer. I mention this because I have not read my typical 200 YA books this year, so I am a bit more reserved with my Printz picks this year (my tongue seems to be stuck to my cheek). Of what I have read, I would predict that the following have the best shot at surviving the consensus problem and emerging as winners, which removes GOING BOVINE from consideration because of the polarizing effect that humor seems to have on committees, even though this is a book that I would pick. And maybe I should add LEVIATHAN? Once again I will add my plea to add about 6 more books to the Printz list. But here is a potential winning list:
Winner: Marcelo in the Real World
Honor: Tales From Outer Suburbia
Honor: The Lost Conspiracy
Honor: Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice
Honor: Charles and Emma
Last question. As a former Caldecott committee member, I was wondering if you knew of some little known loophole that allows a past committee members to choose someone to be on a future committee. If the answer is yes, I have a totally unrelated follow-up question: do you like homemade chocolate chip cookies?
May I answer, “Yes” to the follow-up question first?
Ha – I think your response answers my original question as well.
Thanks for taking my questions, Ed. We’ll have to do it again sometime. See you soon!