Why have male artists won twice as many Caldecott medals as their female contemporaries? I suggested a few answers in my post “American Library Association to Little Kids: Women Are Second Best.” And I’ve since created a one-page display on Pinterest of the covers of 10 picture books by women that lost the ALA’s annual award for “the most distinguished American picture book for children.” Among the books passed over for the prize: Virginia Lee Burton’s classic Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel and Barbara Cooney’s Miss Rumphius, winner of the American Book Award. All have good company in the Caldecott judges’ reject pile, including Dr. Seuss, who won three Honor awards but never the medal. What other titles belong on my Pinterest list?
February 12, 2012
January 30, 2012
Why are women winning fewer Caldecott medals than at any point in the 74-year history of the ALA’s top prize for picture books?
By Janice Harayda
Four out of five librarians are women, but when it comes to children’s book awards, nobody could accuse them of an excess of sisterhood. For decades the American Library Association has had a dismal record of honoring female artists with its Caldecott medal, given each year to “the most distinguished American picture book for children.” That record just got worse.
Last week the ALA named the winners of the 2012 Caldecott medal and three Honor books, all four of whom were men. Long before that shutout for women, the number of female winners had sunk to its lowest level in the 74-year history of the prize. Women won 10 percent the Caldecott medals from 2000-2009 compared with 30 percent in the 1950s and 40 percent in the 1960s. They are also doing worse than men by virtually every other measure of the award. Male artists have won roughly twice as many Caldecott medals and Honor awards overall as their female counterparts. They have won all the Honor awards four times as often. And the women whom librarians have passed over aren’t second-rate artists: They include some of the greatest illustrators, living and dead, who have worked in the field.
This neglect of women is startling given the wealth of female talent that has existed in picture books since Dorothy Lathrop won the first Caldecott medal in 1938 and Virginia Lee Burton soon earned one for The Little House. It is that much harder to understand because women are claiming more awards from others, including 75 percent of the 2011 National Book Awards and 83 percent of the most recent National Book Critics Circle prizes. And outside of library sites, the trend has received little notice, perhaps because it is to some extent masked by the profusion of ALA prizes added since the Caldecott, including the Coretta Scott King (for black authors and illustrators) and Pura Belpré (for Latinos and Latinas). Many of the newer awards have gone to female artists and allow the library association to say that it honors women while denying them its showpiece award for picture books, which has more prestige and impact on sales.
Caldecott judges snub women’s books on other year’s-best lists
Librarians have defended their Caldecott record with arguments that collapse under scrutiny. Some have suggested that women win fewer Caldecotts because they are staying home and having babies instead of working on the next Where the Wild Things Are. If only female artists were all gay and childless like Maurice Sendak! Never mind that in the 1950s – when far more women stayed home – women won twice as many Caldecotts as in the past 13 years. And never mind that in England, where women also have babies, they won 60 percent of the Kate Greenaway medals (“the British Caldecott”) between 2000–2009 compared with 10 percent of Caldecotts.
Other librarians blame publishers for the medal gap. They speculate that fewer picture books by women get published, although they cite no evidence of it. Roger Sutton, editor-in-chief of children’s literature magazine The Horn Book, punted when he heard in 2007 that men had won four times as many Caldecott medals as women in the past two decades. “I wouldn’t argue that sexism is at work here without a lot more information – what percentage of picture books are illustrated by women, for starters,” he said.
The publishing industry offers much to blame in how it treats women, but it isn’t causing the medal gap. Consider the best-picture-books-of-the-year lists in major newspapers and trade magazines. In late 2011 virtually all lists included multiple books by female artists. Every year their editors and reviewers find outstanding books by women: It’s the Caldecott judges who have trouble. Then perhaps librarians have higher standards than the critics for the New York Times or Publishers Weekly? Not likely: This year School Library Journal had several female artists on its best-picture-books list.
The idea that publishers are causing the medals gap loses more ground when you consider the books spurned by Caldecott judges. This year the also-rans included a book that made the New York Times’ Best Illustrated Books list: Brother Sun, Sister Moon, which has unique and beautiful paper cuts by Pam Dalton and a text by Katherine Paterson, who has won the National Book Award and Newbery medal twice each. Librarians also rejected a book named one of the year’s best by School Library Journal and other publications: Mouse & Lion, illustrated by 1973 Caldecott Honor artist Nancy Ekholm Burkert, whose work has appeared in the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art and who is one of the greatest living picture-book artists. The judges instead gave a second Caldecott medal to Chris Raschka for his A Ball for Daisy, which has a bright crowd-pleasing appeal but lacks the depth and originality of Brother Sun, Sister Moon and Mouse & Lion. Past Caldecott committees have withheld the top prize from Carin Berger, Meilo So, Natalie Babbitt, Rosemary Wells, M.B. (Brooke) Goffstein and others, often honoring less deserving books by men.
Favoring books because they’re by men … or because they’re about boys?
Some librarians counter the accusations of favoritism by saying that the Caldecott committees change annually. But rotating the judges doesn’t help if a long-term institutional bias affects decisions. And ALA judges have shown such a pattern: They lean toward artists who are popular with children or who they think should be, so their awards may reflect children’s well-documented prejudices about sex roles. Many librarians are also desperate to promote reading among boys and may honor books by men because they are more likely to depict male characters. This idea gains plausibility from the medal count for Newbery awards for books for older children, which skews in other direction: Consciously or not, the Caldecott judges may be favoring visual images of boys as much as male artists.
None of these reasons is acceptable. If the librarians want to reward books that they believe will interest boys without slighting women, they have a simple way do it: Give more medals. The Caldecott committee has often named four or five Honor Books but this year listed only three.
Whatever the reason for the medals gap, the ALA is sending a message to children that women are second best. Librarians can’t say “We want children to see that Caldecott medals on books have meaning” and, at the same time, “We don’t want that meaning to be: Women are also-rans.” Children will see in the medals what they see.
Caldecott judges don’t discuss their deliberations, so we may never know why they found all women unworthy this year and honored a male artist’s book about a dog that lost its favorite red ball. But judge Michele Farley offered a clue on Twitter soon after the ALA denied the medal to a woman for 11th time in 13 years. Farley tweeted: “I am so happy it was a dog book!”
A note about the sources for this article: The U.S. Census Bureau says that 4 in 5 librarians are women. The 2-to-1 ratio of male-to-female Caldecott medalists came to my attention through a comment by Peter, editor of the Printz Picks blog, on the Fuse #8 blog at School Library Journal, and my math confirmed it. All percentages and ratios come from my calculations and can be confirmed through the winners’ lists on the prize-givers’ sites or on Wikipedia. Some comments grow out of my conversations with librarians and publishing executives.
This is the second of two posts on the 2012 Caldecott awards. The first dealt with the scarcity of Caldecott medals for black artists.
Janice Harayda is a novelist award-winning critic who has been book editor the Plain Dealer and vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle. She has been reviewing books for children and adults for two decades. Jan tweets about books for all ages at @janiceharayda.
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(c) 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
November 20, 2009
October 14, 2009
David Small’s Graphic Memoir of Throat Cancer, ‘Stitches,’ Makes Shortlist for National Book Award for Young People’s Literature
David Small has made the shortlist for the 2009 National Book Award for young people’s literature for Stitches (Norton, 336 pp., $24.95), his graphic memoir of getting throat cancer after receiving high doses of radiation for a sinus condition while growing up in Detroit in the baby-boom era. The sponsor of the awards doesn’t give a separate prize for graphic novels or memoirs but considers them along with other submissions in the relevant category, so you could easily miss that this one has a different format from other books on the shortlist. Small talks about Stitches in a YouTube trailer that shows a generous number of pages from the book. He won the American Library Association’s 2001 Caldecott Medal for So You Want to Be President?, and his work has appeared in The New Yorker and other publications.
August 8, 2009
July 25, 2009
Millions of Cats. By Wanda Gág. Putnam, 32 pp., varied prices. Ages 6 and under.
By Janice Harayda
Thirty years ago, an editor asked Maurice Sendak if he thought picture books were better in the past. Yes, he said, “there was Wanda Gág.” More recently, I asked the children’s author Jan Brett which artists had influenced her work, and she gave a similar answer: “Of course, there was Wanda Gág.”
Gág (rhymes with blog) was to picture books what Julia Child was to French cooking – the first American star in a field that has exploded in her wake. And just as Mastering the Art of French Cooking remains a standard-bearer for a generation, so does Gág’s Millions of Cats, first published in 1928.
Gág’s masterpiece is so unassuming by today’s measures that if you came across it on a library shelf, you might overlook it. Except for the cover, all of the illustrations are black-and-white. The book is relatively small, just over half the size of a typical book by Chris Van Allsburg, with a horizontal format. It has only two human characters — an old man and woman with no children – who might have stepped out of the story of Abraham and Sarah.
But Millions of Cats combines tenderness with powerful themes, including the human longing for companionship and the struggle to survive in the natural world, and it does so in a story 3- and 4-year-olds can understand. The old woman believes a cat would ease the couple’s loneliness, and her husband sets out to find one. But each cat he sees is so pretty, he goes home followed by what looks like a feline peace march. The horde inspires the refrain:
Cats here, cats there,
Cats and kittens everywhere,
Hundreds of cats,
Thousands of cats,
Millions and billions and trillions of cats.
The old man and woman can’t keep them all, so the cats compete for survival, except for a frightened and “very homely little cat” that others see as no threat and ignore. That is the cat that the couple come to see as the “the most beautiful cat in the world.”
Gág’s beautiful pen-and-ink drawing flow across gutters and move her story forward in waves instead of boxes that can make a book look flat or inert. Many of her details recall both folktales and her Bohemian ancestry – a kerchief, a tunic, a tidy fieldstone cottage encircled by flowers. And her humor comes not from visual gags but believable emotions, such as the old man’s astonishment on seeing the “millions of cats” for the first time. All of it makes for a book that a child can read again and again with delight. Millions of Cats was the first American picture book that had both popular and literary success, and it’s still one of the worthiest of its honors.
Best line: “Millions and billions and trillions of cats.”
Worst line: Some critics say it’s illogical that the text suggests that the cats “have eaten each other all up” at the end of their fight while the pictures offer no evidence that they have done this. I think that this view is too literal and the fight is a metaphor for the Darwinian struggle for survival. How “logical” was it for all those millions of cats to follow the old man home in the first place?
Published: 1928 (first edition), 1996 (Putnam reprint)
This is a re-post of a reviews that first appeared in 2007.
© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
March 12, 2009
If Only the Recession Were Like This for Writers and Artists — More on R. A. Scotti’s Forthcoming ‘Vanished Smile: The Mysterious Theft of Mona Lisa’
I’ve been reading R. A. Scotti’s historical true-crime book Vanished Smile: The Mysterious Theft of Mona Lisa (Knopf, April 2009), which I mentioned yesterday. And it’s been a pleasure after trudging through the finalists for the 2009 Delete Key Awards for bad writing in books, the winners of which will be announced Monday. Another quote from Scotti’s fascinating tale, this one about Picasso’s Rose period:
“In those happy days, Picasso would sell his art by the armful – a hundred francs (then worth about twenty dollars) for a stack of drawings; two thousand francs for thirty canvases. A few dealers – notably, Ambrose Vollard, astute and fair, and Clovis Sagot, an unscrupulous ex-clown who sold art out of an old apothecary – were scooping up Picasso’s harlequins and saltimbanques for the price of a meal … money was a luxury, and freeloading was a way of life. ‘You could owe money for years for your paints and canvases and rent and restaurant and practically everything except coal and luxuries,’ Picasso remembered.”
(c) 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
February 28, 2009
Pat Cummings’s ‘Talking With Artists’ Series Lets Children Read About Their Favorite Picture-Book Illustrators and What They Do All Day
Any book in Pat Cummings’s three-volume Talking With Artists series would make a wonderful gift for a 6-to-9-year-old who loves to draw or paint. Each book is a colorful and often amusing collection of more than a dozen interviews (in a Q-and-A format) with well-known picture-book illustrators, typically supplemented by photos of their youthful and mature work and more. Vol. I includes Chris Van Allsburg and Leo and Diane Dillon; Vol. II, Brian Pinkney and Denise Fleming; Vol. III, Jane Dyer and Peter Sis. A winner of the Coretta Scott King Award, Cummings has a gift for getting artists to talk about their work in terms that will engage children. “I love what I do,” William Joyce says in the second book. “It’s like getting paid for recess.”
© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
June 28, 2008
The author of Shrek! also wrote picture book about a boy who can sulk even in a hammock on a beautiful summer day
Spinky Sulks. By William Steig. Sunburst, 32 pp., $4.99, paperback. Ages 3 and up.
By Janice Harayda
Not long ago, I mentioned the “Classic Picture Books Every Child Should Read” series on this site to an English professor and mother of two, who asked immediately if I had written about the late William Steig’s priceless Spinky Sulks. I said I hadn’t, partly because the book wasn’t quite old enough: Spinky Sulks came out in 1988, and the “Classics” series typically covers books published at least 25 years ago. And Steig wrote and illustrated so many good picture books that if I had to pick just one, I might choose Brave Irene, the story of an intrepid girl who doesn’t let a blizzard stop her from keeping her promise to her seamstress mother to deliver a dress to a duchess.
But if Spinky Sulks hasn’t been around quite long enough to qualify as a classic and doesn’t involve the high drama of Brave Irene, it is the hilarious story of an epic bad mood. Spinky is a boy who can — and does — sulk in a hammock on a beautiful summer day: His bad mood is so extreme, it borders on a parody of a sulking. That’s partly what makes his story so funny: Steig exaggerates enough so that children can see the humor in Spinky’s mood but not so much that he ridicules their feelings.
Spinky resists efforts to cheer him up — including his brother’s, “You were positively right! . . . Philadelphia is the capital of Belgium” — until he finds a way to lift his gloom on his own. In that sense, the book is a bit subversive. Steig doesn’t say so directly, but Spinky figures out how to do something that all parents want their children to learn to do: to tame their emotions in ways that suit their temperaments — even if you won’t find their methods recommended by Penelope Leach.
Published: 1988 www.williamsteig.com/spinky.htm
Furthermore: Steig, a cartoonist for The New Yorker, also wrote Shrek!. Spinky Sulks has won honors that include New York Times Outstanding Book and American Library Association Notable Book designations. Steig won a Caldecott Medal for Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, a Caldecott Honor award for The Amazing Bone and Newbery Honors for Abel’s Island and Dr. De Soto. The site www.williamsteig.com/guides.htm has reading guides to Brave Irene, The Amazing Bone, Doctor De Soto, and Amos & Boris.
Your public library has this book or can get it for you on an interlibrary loan for free or a nominal charge. Most libraries with children’s departments also have other good books by William Steig.
© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
June 20, 2008
Tasha Tudor, whose children’s books evoked a gentle bygone world, has died in Vermont at 92. Douglas Martin reports in the New York Times that Tudor often said she was the reincarnation of a sea captain’s wife who lived from 1800 to 1840 or 1842 and was replicating that way of life, which was also reflected in her books. Her son Seth suggested “that his mother’s more colorful remarks might be taken with a pinch of salt,” Martin said. www.nytimes.com/2008/06/20/books/20tudor.html?_r=1&oref=slogin
Over seven decades Tudor illustrated scores of books with pictures that, a Times critic once said, “have the same fragile beauty of early spring evenings.” The American Library Association chose two of them, Mother Goose and 1 Is One, as Caldecott Honor Books www.acrl.org/ala/alsc/awardsscholarships/literaryawds/caldecottmedal/caldecotthonors/caldecottmedal.cfm
A review of Tudor’s A Tale for Easter appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews in March www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/03/22/.
© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.