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A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

Always Bridesmaids, Never Brides: Caldecott Almosts

There is a phenomenon that I have detected in the wide world of Caldecott Awards.  A phenomenon to which one cannot ascribe blame, but rather occurs in a bubble outside of any logic or comprehension.  It’s something I’ve noticed for a little while but have never put a name to.

Inspiration for this post came when I was reading a recent PW report on the second gathering of Children’s Books Boston.  In the piece (called Why Did That Book Win?: A Children’s Books Boston Discussion) Vicky Smith said something about the newly minted Caldecott winner Brian Floca that I have been turning over in my mind ever since.  Quoth Smith: “He seemed to be a permanent bridesmaid.”  Which is to say, the kind of fellow who might win a Sibert once in a while, but that might, for whatever reason, never be granted the universe’s favor in terms of a shiny gold Caldecott.  When my heart was broken after Moonshot‘s failure to launch (so to speak) I confess I began to feel as Vicky did.  That no matter how brilliant the book, Floca might never attain the title of Caldecott Award winning illustrator.

Is it such a big deal to bemoan?  Consider, if you will the other “bridesmaids” who have never won a Caldecott proper and yet remain some of the brightest lights in the field. Our cannon of children’s books is full of folks who never were properly appreciated in their lifetime (James Marshall, anyone?).  Still, one cannot help but wonder why some of today’s folks, for all that we acknowledge their marvelous talents, never win.  Consider this post then an off-kilter combination of keening lament and high-stepping praise, declaring far and wide that the following folks are brilliant and if there were any justice in the universe (fun fact: there is not) they would each and every one of them be Caldecott Award winners in their own right.  To wit:

Jonathan Bean – He’s still relatively new in his career and he has lots of luscious time before we can truly write him off.  Building Our House was beloved of the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards and his other books have certainly collected accolades.  I think we have not yet seen the last of Mr. Bean and his beautiful books.

Carin Berger – This one baffles me.  How is it that she hasn’t gotten any lovin’ from ALSC?  Consider, if you will, the splendor of her cut paper works.  The joyful beauty of Stardines Swim High Across the Sky.  If ever a cut paper / collage artist deserved it, she would.

Sophie Blackall – One wonders if Caldecott committees tend towards the element of surprise.  Consider recent winners and awards that went to debut artists.  It makes me wonder if, when an artist has a distinctive and easily identifiable style that doesn’t change, if that works against their favor.  Ms. Blackall did get creative with last year’s The Mighty Lalouche.  Ah well.

Bagram Ibatoulline – The mystery of Bagram Ibatoulline is perhaps the starkest case of bafflement I have.  There is not a soul alive who can look at his books and say that the man isn’t rife with talent.  Sometimes it isn’t a question of talent, though, but rather the artist finding the right project to match their prodigious skill (see: Kadir Nelson).  In the case of Mr. Ibatoulline, I thought that requirement had been met when he produced last year’s The Matchbox Diary with Paul Fleischman.  Consider the pedigree!  A Newbery Award winning author and an illustrator that can only be compared to someone like Robert Ingpen in terms of true skill.  Yet the 2014 Awards came and went and for Mr. Ibatoulline there were to be no shiny stickers or glorious 6 a.m. wake up calls.  Boggles the mind, it does.

Barbara McClintock – Another bafflement.  I adore her work.  My kiddo adores her work (truly that Gingerbread Man was a work of art).  She’s akin to Charles Vess or someone similar in terms of true skill.  So why does she never get any medals?  What about Adele and Simon?

Yuyi Morales – I’m not giving up on this one.  She’s brilliant and creative and her style changes all the friggin’ time.  Compare the soft focus of Little Night to the models in My Abuelita to the truly eclectic eye-popping poster style of Nino Wrestles the World.  This woman is a rip-roaring talent and at some point she’s going to get more than just a Pura Belpre Award or Honor (not that I don’t love those awards too, but how cool would it be if she won in both categories?).

Kadir Nelson – When they speak of artists that never win, they are usually referring to Kadir Nelson.  Fortunately the man is incredibly young and has plenty of time to get something shiny before his time on this earth fades to gray.  I truly and honestly believe that he just hasn’t found the right book for his art yet.  Time after time his art arrests the viewer’s eye but the text isn’t quite there.  His latest book Baby Bear aims to change all that.  We shall see.

LeUyen Pham – Still a bit peeved that her art on The Boy Who Loved Math didn’t get proper acclaim.  One would think that the mere fact that she managed to seamlessly incorporate math into the images would have garnered great love and shiny medals alone!  No such luck.  That’s okay.  She’ll get something at some point here.  I feel it in my bones.

Gennady Spirin – In case you were wondering, he lives in Princeton.  He, like Ibatoulline, is a case of me wondering if he’s just too good.  Too talented to ever get the award.  I mean, what would he have to do?  The art is so fascinating and beautiful that it practically screams to be recognized.

Who are your own favorite bridesmaids?  With any luck, by the time a year passes we’ll be able to knock a couple of these folks off the list, easy peasy.

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. Denise Fleming and Lois Ehlert.

  2. Eric Carpenter says:

    G. Brian Karas and Tim Egan are both long overdue.

  3. Gennady Spirin is one of my all-time favorite illustrators. Is it possible that doing Madonna’s picture book put an award-banning curse on him? Is there a Madonna Curse?

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      Hmm. Loren Long did Madonna too and has never won much of anything. If any celebrity was capable of a curse, it would be she.

  4. Myra Oleynik says:

    Jan Brett

  5. So glad you did this post.

  6. Oh, Kadir Nelson. I’m not the first one to say this, but I really, really hope his lack of a medal isn’t because committees realize he’s often likely to win a CSK. (God, the man makes amazing use of light.)

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      No, in my experience with committee’s this isn’t even a thought. Generally it’s how well the words work with the images. And too often his images eclipse the words. What he should REALLY do is a wordless book. I swear to you, if he did he’d win instantaneously. Just a working theory, though.

  7. Hola, Betsy. First, I would like to say that I enjoy reading your blog. I understand what you mean when you write that you hope Yuyi Morales some day wins “more than just a Pura Belpré Award.” It was disappointing that she wasn’t recognized at all by Caldecott for Niño. But it totally bums me out to see this award that a committed group of people worked so hard to create and put so much time and effort into bestowing upon authors and illustrators every year referred to as “just a Pura Belpré.” We know that the Caldecott is in a category of its own because of its history and what it has come to represent in the world of children’s books, but the Belpé is not “just a.” If people view it as “just a” Belpré it’s because that is how the library world treats it (much in the same way that books by and about Latinos are treated as “just” books that only certain people would care to read). Unlike the leg lamp in “A Christmas Story,” the Pura Belpré really is a major award! 😉 To me, to a lot of people, it isn’t “just a Pura Belpré.” Also, I can’t imagine anyone ever writing that an illustrator won “just a” Corretta Scott King Award. I spent way too much time deliberating whether I should even respond because I know that the wording you chose wasn’t intended to diminish the importance of the Belpré Award, but I just had to put it out there (and I feel better now)! The Pura Belpré Award and its winners deserve to be given some props!

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      You know what? You’re absolutely correct. On the one hand here I am talking about how all the ALSC awards are important and then the next minute I turn around and bash it in favor of the Caldecott. That is entirely on my head and I apologize. There is nothing lesser about the Belpre. It’s a magnificent award that goes to truly talented artists. And while it would be nice for Ms. Morales to get a Caldecott, there is no reason in the world why we shouldn’t celebrate the Belpre as well. Mea culpa. Thank you for reminding me what’s what.

  8. Mary Clark says:

    YUYI — “at some point she’s going to get more than just a Pura Belpre Award”…
    Didn’t you mean to say, “at some point she will collect even more honors after winning the prestigious Belpre Award”? I know there is no such thing as bad publicity, but give the award a shout out. Yay!

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      You’re absolutely 100% correct. That is totally what I meant or, at the very least, what I should have said. Clearly I had rocks for brains the day I wrote that part.

  9. Such a great list of talent, and I’m especially happy to see Barbara McClintock and Sophie Blackall on it!

  10. In some of the cases, such as Sophie Blackall, LeUyen Pham, and even Yuyi Morales, there very well could be “taste” coming into play more than we may care to admit. Some would characterize their illustrations as polarizing. While no one would deny the talents of these artists, I suspect that some committee members simply aren’t taken with the art as universally as with others’ illustrations. So if enough of the committee cannot agree that one of these works is medal or honor worthy, they will remain bridesmaids (or groomsmen?)


  12. Steve Jenkins! I just looked at the Caldecott page….just one Honor! I thought he had more than that. I knew he didn’t have the Medal, but was surprised that he just has the one Honor.

  13. You nailed three of my bridesmaids: LeUyen Pham, Sophie Blackall, and Barbara McClintock. Also: Petra Mathers, Giselle Potter, Mark Teague.

  14. Ditto Jan Brett; and Ruth Sanderson.

  15. Well I know I wasn’t alone when they finally called out Marla Frazee’s name and I shouted at my computer screen, IT’S ABOUT TIME. How about something for David McPhail, too? Lord, does anybody draw better bears and little boys? I wholeheartedly agree with the love for Barbara McClintock, too, and for Kadir Nelson, whose work is often breathtaking.

  16. Ashley Wolff? I was bummed Baby Bear Sees Blue didn’t get even an honor.

  17. Elaine Weischedel says:

    It’s too late for Don Freeman and Paul Galdone (did anyone ever draw a better Goldilocks?), but Steven Kellogg and Tomie dePaola are still with us. And another vote for David McPhail.

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      Strega Nona got an Honor back in the day (phew!) but it sure would be nice to honor him again.

      • God if only Di Paola could win another honor and the Gold!

        Loved ‘When Mosquitos Buzzed in People’s Ears’ but decades later I think most of us realized STREGA NONA should have copped the gold.

  18. Richard Moore says:

    How about the authors who inspire the art — but seem to miss the attention when the awards come around — like Paul Janeczko?

  19. Elizabeth, your taste is impeccable, and your polite complaints are more than well-founded.

    I attended the Children Books Boston discussion, driving my wife and one of my kids up to take in the fascinating talk, and we met the delightful Roger Sutton and Martha Perravano at the Simmons College meeting place.

    First off, like you I was completely shocked that Bagram Ibatouline did not win at least an honor for his utterly magnificent THE MATCHBOX DIARY. Surely one of the most stunning picture books of 2013 or of any other year for that matter.

    Like you I was in mourning when Carin Berger did not win for STARDINES, and that Yuri Morales was inexplicably left out of the winner’s circle for the dazzling and wildly popular NINO WRESTLES THE WORLD. I adore Sophie Blackall’s work immensely and could not see how or why the beautiful THE MIGHTY LALOUCHE was similarly ignored.

    Then there is the matter of Peter Brown and MR. TIGER GOES WILD. I have stated my indignation on that bummer, but I have made peace with those I vented my rants at, so I will only say now that I do believe the book deserved an Honor at least.

    Two other illustrators who I believe deserve future recognition are:

    Vladimir Radunsky
    Bob Shea
    Bob Staake

    Both ON A BEAM OF LIGHT and UNICORN THINKS HE’S PRETTY GREAT are brilliant picture books for a host of reasons. BLUEBIRD is another sublime work.

    Despite all the omissions, I think we can agree that the four books that did win Caldecott recognition are all master class:

    Flora and the Flamingo
    Mr. Wuffles

    ……and we can pretty much anticipate some further great work from these masters.

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      Oh, I was pleased as punch by the actual winners. There wasn’t a book amongst them I didn’t think extraordinary. As Caldecott years go, this one was incredibly satisfying.

  20. Oh yes, another fantastic talent is Adam Rex, whose MOONDAY and CHU’S DAY were among last year’s most impressive achievements!