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A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

Can Photos Win Awards?

It’s a simple enough question: Can a picture book illustrated entirely with photographs ever win a Caldecott Medal?*

In the history of the Caldecott, a long and distinguished history spanning some seventy-two years, there has never been a Caldecott Award or Honor book comprised solely of photographs.  I would like to be corrected on this point (and there may be an obscure Honor book waiting in the wings) so please please tell me I’m wrong about this one.  There were, I will readily admit, two Honor books that used a combination of photographs and illustration.  Those would be Knuffle Bunny and Knuffle Bunny Too by Mo Willems.  Little did Mr. Mo realize that he had turned the world of Caldecott topsy turvy when he took the liberty of combining meticulously constructed photographic images with his own charming illustrations.  One imagines that there may have been some Honor winners that featured mixed media containing photographs (Rosa, perhaps?) but that doesn’t quite count either.

My question to you today is whether or not a book illustrated with photographs, and just photographs, can ever win a Caldecott Honor, let alone an Award proper.

Let us take a gander at ye olde Caldecott criteria here, just to see if there is some stipulation in there that specifically precludes photographs.  Here’s what it says right from the start:

“There are no limitations as to the character of the picture book except that the illustrations be original work.”

Sounds pretty straightforward.  I guess the real question would be whether or not photos are considered “illustrations”.  To find that answer it’s important to take a gander at the criteria close up.  Emphasis my own:


  1. In identifying a ‘distinguished American picture book for children,’ defined as illustration, committee members need to consider:
    1. Excellence of execution in the artistic technique employed;
    2. Excellence of pictorial interpretation of story, theme, or concept;
    3. Appropriateness of style of illustration to the story, theme or concept;
    4. Delineation of plot, theme, characters, setting, mood or information through the pictures;
    5. Excellence of presentation in recognition of a child audience.
  2. The only limitation to graphic form is that the form must be one which may be used in a picture book. The book must be a self-contained entity, not dependent on other media (i.e., sound, film or computer program) for its enjoyment.
The only limitation is that the art must be in a book rather than a, say, video game?  Well shoot.  That means photos are more than legitimate.

So how do we account for the lack?  Certainly photographs can appear in both works of fiction and non-fiction.  So Nic Bishop’s books (Red-Eyed Tree Frog, Nic Bishop’s Frogs, etc.) are just as legitimate as those books by, say, Nina Crews.

One theory was posed to me the other day when we were discussing the books of Tana Hoban.  Hoban is infinitely useful to your average everyday children’s librarian, since she covered concepts like signs or opposites or colors with photographs of objects.  Unfortunately, our copies of her books are severely dilapidated since she worked in the 70s and 80s.  One might wonder where the 21st century Tana Hoban even is.  Then a co-worker pointed out to me that photos age far faster than illustrations, particularly when you show contemporary kids.  There’s something to be said for that.  I know that some of my library’s older titles (J.T. by Jane Wagner, anyone?) find themselves firmly lodged in the year of their copyright thanks to the perfectly preserved hair and fashions in their images.

That said, when has the Caldecott ever concerned itself with the timelessness of a book?  Isn’t there something to be said for a title that roots itself in a specific decade?  You might also point out that photographic technology has sort of reached its peak.  It’s possible that film will be 500% better ten years from now than it is at this precise moment, but I’m having a hard time believing it.  In the past, film was black and white or had that horrible yellow tinge of the 70s and 80s to it.  Now the pictures are sharp and clear and gorgeous.  There’s your timelessness!  Tell me Chameleon Chameleon by Joy Cowley is going to look dated twenty years down the road.

Finally, there’s a question of effort.  There is, in fact, a perception that snapping a photo takes a heckuva lot less blood, sweat, and tears than something drawn.  I don’t know that this is true.  Full disclosure: I was a Fine Arts/English double major with a concentration in photography.  Photography was, in fact, my career plan (with librarianship the fallback) until I realized that I can’t determine an aperture to save my soul.  A great photographer (I’m going to point you to Nic Bishop again) knows how to use the medium perfectly.  Just as there are bad illustrators there are bad photographers, but if photographs can appear in museums then shouldn’t they win children’s book awards too?

I haven’t even gone into books where models are photographed.  For example, there are books like Tony Johnston and Yuyi Morales’ gorgeous My Abuelita or Cynthia von Buhler’s But Who Will Bell the Cats? Those are a simultaneous mix of photography and modeling/cut paper.  Yet such books rarely win either.  I’m distinguishing between scanning and photographs, by the way.  Though I love the quilting of Anna Grossnickle Hines and the cut paper of Ashley Bryan, scanning their art isn’t the same to me as the photography that went into posing Yuyi and Cynthia’s images.

So maybe the time is nigh for a Caldecott to go to a book containing photographs.  Maybe.  Few 2010 titles come to mind, with the possible exception of Here Comes the Garbage Barge.  Like the Yuyi Morales book, that’s a case of modeling plus photography and has, to my mind, a pretty good shot.  I hope to someday see a bright and shiny future on the horizon for photographs in children’s books.  And it would involve f-stops.

*My husband just pointed out to me the irony of my thinking up this post mere days after I dressed up as The Lonely Doll for Halloween.  Touche, mate.

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. I maintain if a book illustrated solely with photographs can win the CSK illustration award, then… heck, why not?

  2. My first thought, too–the beautiful My People, illustrated by Charles R. Smith, Jr.

    Art museums certainly include photos as art, so it seems the Caldecott could too.

  3. My first thought was “Didn’t Alphabet City by Stephen T. Johnson use photographs?” But no, those were just photo-realistic illustrations.
    The whole “effort” debate makes me think of music, where certain styles (hip-hop, electronic) never get credit in particular circles because (and I’ve heard this comment) “they just push buttons.”
    It’s a bit of a vicious cycle. Since photographs never have won, people don’t see photo-illustrated books as legitimate candidates to win.
    Here’s what we need (and I’m kinda not kidding here). What we need is a Caldecott-winning artist to pick up a camera for their next book. That would bring some needed attention. Chris Van Allsburg, can you hear me?

  4. As the proud mother of a photographer (Jason Stemple) who has done over a dozen picture books for children that have gotten starred reviews and have won such awards as the John Burroughs Award and the National Outdoor Book Award, I second the question.

    As a good friend of photographer Shelly Rotner whose photos are also seen in major magazines around the world, I second the question.

    As an admirer of many other photographers who work beautifully in picture books, I second the question.

    Why can’t a photographer win the Caldecott (or even have an Honor Book?)

    Jane Yolen

  5. Dean Schneider says:

    I agree with Tanita. Charles Smith’s MY PEOPLE is beautiful (and sitting right here next to me in my middle school classroom as I type this). I believe the Caldecott criteria allow photographs; they just haven’t competed successfully against other forms of art for the Caldecott, so far.

  6. I love picture books with photos. LOVE them. Something to do with a weird childhood obsession with The Red Balloon. It rings true to me that they don’t win simply because they’ve never won.

    I too thought immediately of Charles Smith. If the photographer is an artist, it’s art.

  7. Just as importantly as Laurel loving picture books with photos :), KIDS love picture books with photos. That whole mirror / window thing – they love seeing kids who look like them, who look a little like them, or who look nothing like them. Barbara Kerley’s One World, One Day is THE most popular thing I have brought into our school libraries in the past 2 years.

  8. You are a neevil, Paula! I heap upon thee a pile of photo-picture-books. Those vaguely-offensive ones from “other cultures” in which a young child may explore the world of the Hopi Indian/Kibbutznik/African child in glorious grainy b&w pictures.


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