75 Years of Caldecott Awards

Nerd that I am, I’ll be following the American Library Association website this morning to see who wins all the awards with a special interest in a significant anniversary, the 75th year of the Randolph Caldecott Medal, honoring the illustrator selected by ALA as the year's most distinguished American picture book for children.  For generations, Caldecott selections have fostered a love for reading among children and have guided educators, parents and librarians in selecting the best in children’s picture books – not to mention grandparents who buy books for their grandchildren.

Presented every year since 1938, the medal is named for Randolph Caldecott, a 19th-century English illustrator known for the action, vitality and humor of his picture books. Receiving a Caldecott Medal practically guarantees that the winning title will remain in print.  

One of the interesting tidbits each year is where the illustrator was and his/her reaction to receiving news of the win.  Today’s illustrators are quite aware of the American Library Association’s award. With internet buzz and speculation, it would be hard to imagine that a children’s artist would not know about the possibility of winning. It hasn’t always been that way – which is my segue to my favorite Caldecott story. Wouldn’t you know it involves Ezra Jack Keats and The Snowy Day?

Fifty years ago, Ezra Jack Keats waited for a phone call from Playboy. He’d received a check for more than the agreed upon amount for an illustration he’d done for them. When he called to report the error, the secretary knew nothing about it but promised to find out and get back to him.

Instead, he received a phone call from Ruth Gagliardo, a very excited stranger, talking about some Caldecott award. He’d never heard of her or the award. [Librarians tend to be more useful than famous.] She said he’d won for The Snowy Day. He could tell she thought it was something special even before she swore him to secrecy until the announcement was made. He did his best to sound knowledgeable and carry on a sensible conversation. Finally, she asked for a quote to put in the press release. Thinking quickly, he said, “Well, I’m certainly happy for the little boy in the book.” [That would be Peter.] She loved the quote and used it as her conclusion for many years afterwards as she enjoyed telling the story of giving the news to Keats.  

After the phone call, Keats had a dilemma. He couldn’t tell anyone, but he did want to know what he had won. Google wasn’t here yet, so he had to finagle a way to work the question into a conversation. His friends assured him that if he could win the Caldecott that was the best award he could ever get.

* Not to leave my readers hanging – Keats later got the call back from Playboy. There was no mistake. They’d decided his illustration was worth more than the amount they’d agreed upon.