As we celebrate 75 years of the Caldecott Medal (1938-2013), this article offers a compilation of TeachingBooks.net original interviews with a few Caldecott Medalists. Hundreds of interviews, lesson plans, and recordings of Caldecott-recipients pronouncing their names are freely available as part of this celebration at http://TeachingBooks.net/Caldecott. We hope you enjoy watching the 75th anniversary Caldecott video montage, too.
The commemorative logo, designed by 2008 Caldecott Medalist Brian Selznick, gives homage to ten previous Caldecott Medal-winning books. You can learn more about this, as well as access a Caldecott scrapbook, archives of webinars with Caldecott experts, and much more on the official Caldecott Medal 75th Anniversary webpage at http://ala.org/alsc/Caldecott75.
Nonny Hogrogian on her 1966 Caldecott-winning book, Always Room for One More (Holt)
Always Room for One More, written by Sorche Nic Leodhas, is about a poor man who lives in a little house with his wife and ten children in the land of Scotland. In the days when I illustrated this book, we weren’t allowed to use full color in a single illustration. We had to separate all our colors out. So I did the pen and ink work first, which included the little house that Lachie MacLachlan lives in, some of the lines that show heat coming out of the chimney, the few little birds, and the man with the little wagon who’s coming by his house whom he will eventually invite in.
Then I did a wash, which is very watery paint, of grays with a paintbrush. Then, in pastels, on another overlay, I added some lavender and purple color, and a little bit of olive green at the bottom to show there was grass growing, and so on. I also created cloudiness up in the sky with a wash, which is very watery paint. I tried to give this book a feeling of pure joy and simplicity.
I always do a lot of research when I’m doing artwork because children always notice if you’re not accurate. So I do look things up; for this book, for instance, I wanted a reference for the wagon and the little cottage, and what the gores look like. Once I research, I just take off from there—I try to be accurate in every picture, but I also try to do it loosely and in my own way.
Uri Shulevitz on his 1969 Caldecott-winning book, The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship (Farrar)
The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship is a Russian tale retold by Arthur Ransome. During World War II, I spent six years in Russia, from the age of four to ten. I spoke and read Russian, so I had a feeling for Russian tales. When my editor suggested I do a Russian tale, I read the Afanasyev collection of folktales, and there were over 300 stories in it. And when I came upon this particular story, I fell in love with it and wanted very much to illustrate it.
The black line that you see was done in pen and ink, and was drawn on a separate piece of paper from the rest of the colors. It was drawn at half the size you see. That is because when it was blown up to full size, the magnification would give me a coarse line, which I wanted. The rest of the colors were done with watercolor and colored inks, and the colored inks were hatched with a pen.
Gail E. Haley on her 1971 Caldecott-winning book, A Story, A Story: An African Tale (Atheneum)
I first heard about Anansi in the Caribbean island of St. Thomas, where I lived for two years. People selling goods along the waterfront would talk about Anansi as if they were there in his stories, and I began collecting tales about him. When I returned to New York, I decided to create a book about him, but I soon realized there were no kings, queens, leopards, or monkeys in the Caribbean—so the stories must have come from Africa. I traced them back to Ghana on the West Coast.
One of my favorite tales was about how Anansi, the Spiderman, bought stories from Nyame, the sky god, who kept them in a golden box next to his royal stool. I spent a year researching this story during which I studied African dance, music, and culture. I even had a lady from Sierra Leone live with my family and me in New York City. She taught me everything I wanted to know about her life. I spent another year carving the pictures for A Story, A Story out of wood—one wood block for each color, red, yellow, blue, and black. Some pictures required many, many small blocks to get all the colors I needed.
Leo and Diane Dillon, on their 1976 and 1977 Caldecott-winning books, Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears and Ashanti to Zulu (both Dial)
LEO: Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears was one of the first picture books we ever illustrated, and we had in our minds huge graphic images. They would be massive pictures that would seem like fabric. They would be simple to look at, but that simplicity would convey what the words were saying. We looked for an artistic style with the white, linear qualities of African batik. We were going for color and form. We were also thinking in terms of movie editing—creating certain close-up views that would concentrate on the feeling of the characters.
DIANE: And Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears is very different because there there’s no border to hold in the art. It just flows from page to page. In order to not make it boring and to keep everything from the same viewpoint, we came in close and then moved back to show the distance, hoping to make it more interesting from page to page.
LEO: In Ashanti to Zulu, we wanted to portray Africa not as one big place, but a place that, like the rest of the world, is made up of many, many diverse cultures.
DIANE: Also, Margaret Musgrove, the author of Ashanti to Zulu, provided one point about a group of people in the story. We thought, you can’t sum up a whole people with two sentences. So we caused ourselves a lot of trouble with that book by deciding that in each one of those pictures, we’d include a dwelling, a man, a woman, a child and artifact, an animal, some landscape, and a bird. It got to be a massive research problem.
LEO: But we pretty much found the things we were looking for!
DIANE: One of the greatest compliments we received was that an African young man said to us that in Ashanti to Zulu “You’ve shown my country. Thank you.” We hadn’t been there, because we do most of our research through books, so we were very relieved and happy when he reacted that way.
When we start a book we think, “This one’s going to be easy.” But, it never is; no matter how simple or how graphic it looks, it’s never simple. For instance, Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears, looks much more simple than Ashanti to Zulu, but it took twice as long to do each spread in Mosquitoes than it did for Ashanti.
Every time we start a new job, we use a medium that we hadn’t used for maybe two years. So we have to get used to it all over again. We always have the feeling of discovery, but we may get partway through the book before we really get the feel of the medium that we’re using and then we have to go back and redo the beginning again.
LEO: Yeah. And then when the book is over, we forget that style, that medium, that process and start a new one. And it begins all over again.
Chris Van Allsburg on his 1982 and 1986 Caldecott-winning books, The Polar Express and Jumanji (both Houghton)
I think one of the things that gives my art a recognizable quality is that it blends a kind of rationality with fantasy. My art, though it’s fantastical, is really quite rational. Probably the most obvious example is a fantasy like Jumanji, which proposes that a game board can come to life. The rationality comes from the illustrations where I attempt to show that even though this is a bizarre idea, it could happen—and this is exactly what it would look like.
I’m not trying to make my illustrations photographic. I’m simply trying to make them persuasive. There’s an aesthetic rationale that gives the books a compelling quality. If Jumanji had been illustrated in antic, cartoonish images, it would not have resonated and seemed like a real, probable thing.
The same goes for The Polar Express. I believe as a fantasist that once you latch onto a single, slightly bizarre premise, whether it’s a game board that can come to life or a train that can miraculously power itself northward, you still get just one bizarre idea per story. When I write a fantasy, I only give myself one wildcard to pull out, and the rest has to be recognizable reality.
Stephen Gammell on his 1989 Caldecott-winning book, Song and Dance Man (Knopf)
The story of Song and Dance Man reminded me of my own growing up with my grandpa. I had a lot of fond memories of him. When I was older and started doing books, and this manuscript came to me, I thought, this is kind of reminiscent of the fun I used to have when I was four or five years old.
The drawing I particularly like is about a fourth of the way through the book, when grandpa and the little boy go up the stairs into the attic, and they move things around a little bit so he can do his song and dance routine. I like the attic scene because when I was growing up, I used to go up in the attic and play with my grandpa.
There is a lot of color in this book; the whole book is illustrated in colored pencils. I did a lot of colored pencil books during that time, but this is the one that people seem to really like.
Ed Young on his Caldecott-winning book, Lon Po Po (Philomel)
Lon Po Po is a story that I heard when I was small, and I didn’t know then that it was a rare version of the Red Riding Hood story. It wasn’t until I came to the United States and I became a children’s book author that it occurred to me that it was only one version of the widely known story. In the Western or European version, Red Riding Hood needed the hunter to come and save her. The three girls in Lon Po Po actually handle the wolf themselves. This approach not only gives a boost to children that they can handle problems on their own, but it also tells them that they don’t really need an adult around to do the job.
In Lon Po Po, I used panels to help illustrate the story. Oftentimes, panels are useful for me. One reason is because books have a gutter which bridges across two pages, and you don’t want important art to be caught in the gutter. When you use two panels, one on each side of the gutter, it’s almost like looking through a window without looking at the divider. You just look through the window, ignoring what is interrupting your view. Also, having a panel or two in a page lends itself to showing more than one moment at the same time.
When illustrating, I like to compare media to food ingredients. It is the job of the artist to get to know the media so that when he has a dish that he wants to produce, he will know what kind of ingredients to serve. But before he can serve it, he has to pay respect to them and to learn how they would like to be treated. Art education helps the artist get to know each media as much as he can.
David Wiesner on his 1992 Caldecott-winning book, Tuesday (Clarion)
Tuesday grew out of a cover that I did for Cricket magazine, when I was asked to do something with frogs – that simple. This particular issue was March, so they had some St. Patrick’s Day things and they had other stories about frogs. I didn’t really want to do something with St. Patrick’s Day, but when I began to think about frogs, I thought, well, that’s neat; they’re really cool-looking. They’re soft and round and squishy and lumpy and bumpy and funny colors, and just really weird-looking. The image that I came up with, with the frogs flying on the lily pads and rising out of the swamp, immediately suggested there was a book here.
That ultimately is the underlying thing for a lot of my books—what is fun to draw. In the case of Tuesday, I started to get pictures of frogs and made a little model of a frog, and just started to draw. A fun thing to draw will usually lead to something interesting.
Emily Arnold McCully on her 1993 Caldecott-winning book, Mirette on the High Wire (Putnam)
I had just returned from a trip to Paris when I began writing Mirette on the High Wire. I had recently decided that there still weren’t enough courageous, curious, interesting girls in children’s books, so I vowed that my next book should have a spunky girl as its heroine. Mirette is about taking risks in order to succeed. I believe very much in the value of risk and of failing and then getting up and trying again.
The pictures in this book are all made with watercolor on watercolor paper. I originally created the sketches for the book the same way I had done all my books up to this time: by making drawings in pen and ink and then coloring them in. But the art director at my publishing house said, “Well, this is a book about Paris at a time when there were great painters there, and it will look more like the period that you’ve set it in if you paint the pictures and don’t draw them.” So I had to teach myself to create in this manner, and the way I did that was to make about 35 versions of one scene in the book until I felt comfortable just making a picture with brushes and color.
Allen Say on his 1994 Caldecott-winning book, Grandfather’s Journey (Houghton)
Grandfather’s Journey is supposed to be my grandfather’s story. But actually, it’s my own story, and I borrowed my grandfather’s history to tell of my experience in this country. The pictures in it are not actually of my grandfather, but of my most easily available model, whom I found by looking at myself in the mirror, or pulling out photographs of myself.
The page that I’m most fond of is page 18. The illustration shows me looking out the window, thinking about my past in Japan, and I’m surrounded by birdcages. This comes from the fact that my grandfather loved birds, and he always kept birds around him. The text says, “He remembered the mountains and rivers of his home. He surrounded himself with songbirds, but he could not forget.”
And I think this is the feeling that both my grandfather and I shared all our lives. We are one and the same person in a sense, spiritually. And probably this is the whole point of this book. At the end, I say, “I think I know my grandfather now. I miss him very much.”
Mary Azarian on her 1999 Caldecott-winning book, Snowflake Bentley (Houghton)
My process for creating the illustrations for Snowflake Bentley has two important parts. The basic illustration is done with a woodcut. I draw the picture on a piece of wood and then use cutting knives, called gouges, to carve the image. I remove all of the wood with the gouges, leaving only the lines that I’ve drawn. It is important to remember that the image will be reversed when it is printed.
The woodblock is printed in black ink, and after the ink dries—which takes a day or so—I add the colors with a water-based paint. One of the advantages of a woodcut is that once the block is carved, many prints can be made of the same picture. That way, I can vary the color until I get an effect that I think is right for the illustration.
Snowflake Bentley thought that snowflakes in the individual crystals were so incredibly beautiful that it was worth spending almost 70 years of his life photographing them every winter. As I worked on these illustrations, I thought about how wonderful it is to find something you love to do and enjoy working on or learning about for your whole life. Snowflake Bentley left us thousands of beautiful snowflakes that continue to delight and educate people over 100 years after he lived.
Kevin Henkes on his 2005 Caldecott-winning book, Kitten’s First Full Moon (Greenwillow/Harper)
Kitten’s First Full Moon began as part of a failed attempt at creating a young concept book about circles. There was one line from the manuscript I liked: “The cat thought the moon was a bowl of milk.” This line stuck in the back of my mind. I expanded upon it to write Kitten’s First Full Moon.
All along I saw the book as a black-and-white book. I’d long wanted to do a book with limited or no color, and for the first time, I’d written a story that seemed just right for this approach. The text is simple and young, and so I wanted the art to be simple, too.
I liked the idea of having a white cat, a white moon, and a white bowl of milk surrounded by the black night. I experimented; initially I didn’t know if I wanted white on black, or if I wanted to use paper that had a grey tone to it. I did know I wanted it to have a really rich, velvety look. And I wanted it to be square. There’s something about the perfection of the shape. One of the great joys and big differences about doing the art for Kitten’s First Full Moon is that I used a brush, because I could just lay down a nice, thick line.
Chris Raschka on his 2006 Caldecott-winning book, The Hello, Goodbye Window (Hyperion)
The Hello, Goodbye Window by Norton Juster is a story about a little girl who visits her grandparents. I wanted to make the pictures have the feeling of how that little girl might draw.
As an illustrator and writer, I often get letters from young people. One letter I’ve had for many years was written by a little girl named Elizabeth. It’s very scribbly and abstract. I loved that so much that I made my own pictures in this book a little bit like hers.
If you look on the page that says, “When I get tired, I come in and take my nap, and nothing happens until I get up,” I can explain you what I did. The crayons that I used, pastels, give the illustration a kind of flat feeling. You don’t really feel like you’re going deep down inside the page. The thing I wanted was to get scribbly with the picture, but still make it look like a real room. To give the picture the feeling of a bit more space and depth, I added some paint underneath the scribbles. If you look closely, you’ll see some green watercolor paint that kind of glows up through the pastel drawings.
Finally, I added just a little bit of black line in the girl’s face and on the dresser, and I scratched out some of the crayon with the end of a pair of scissors. And that’s how I gave the illustrations in this book the feeling of the artwork of a little girl.
Beth Krommes on her 2009 Caldecott-winning book, The House in the Night (Houghton)
The House in the Night is a simple goodnight story. I like to say it is a book about art, music, books, imagination, family, home, and love. I had always wanted to illustrate a book in black and white, and as soon as I read the manuscript for The House in the Night, I knew that this story was perfect. My editor suggested that I add bright gold in certain spots to make the book even more eye-catching.
I work in scratchboard for my children’s book illustrations. Scratchboard is a piece of cardboard or panel with a think coating of white, topped with a coating of black. My scratchboard drawings start completely black. I draw white lines by scratching through the black with a sharp scratchboard tool. The more lines I draw, the brighter the picture becomes. My scratchboard pictures are so detailed that I have to look through a magnifying light as I am working. To add color, I photocopy my finished scratchboard pictures and paint with watercolor on the copies. This becomes the final art I present to my publisher.
Jerry Pinkney on his 2010 Caldecott-winning book, The Lion and the Mouse (Little, Brown)
I grew up on Aesop’s fables. My parents shared those stories so the heavy morals would hopefully guide us in the decisions that we made. I don’t remember when I first heard “The Lion and The Mouse,” but it seems like it’s always been part of my path.
I have never fractured my adaptations of folk tales because I want to share those stories that I cared about when I was a child. I’m trying to revisit them and speak to the reader about why those stories were important to me.
I’ve worked in coarse pencil and watercolor on paper for the last 30 years or so. Before that, like all young artists, I explored a lot of different mediums. I like to bring a certain sense of humanity and detail to my work, and watercolor allows me to do that. I have fascination and wonder about the line and transparent quality or properties in watercolor. I use watercolor to give voice to what I would like to talk about.
Erin Stead on her 2011 Caldecott-winning book, A Sick Day for Amos McGee (Roaring Brook)
In A Sick Day for Amos McGee, written by Philip Stead, Amos McGee is a zookeeper with a lot of good friends: an elephant, a penguin, a tortoise, a rhinoceros, and an owl. Before I began working on the book’s art, I tried to think about each animal and their different personalities. The penguin, for instance, is very shy.
I thought and I thought about how to draw a shy penguin. I even went to the penguin exhibit at the zoo to watch how they all interacted with one another. Some penguins formed groups and ate fish together, and some penguins liked to swim by themselves. I thought about what the penguin in my story would do. In the end, I tried to draw a picture that showed that even though the other penguins seemed very friendly, our penguin loved spending quiet time with his best friend, Amos McGee.
I made the pictures for this book by creating woodblock prints and then drawing on top of the prints. All of the color you see in the book is stamped onto the page by a piece of wood that I carve the animal shape into. Then after the block is carved, I spread color onto the block and press paper onto it, almost the way you would use an inkpad and a rubber stamp. After the color is dried, I draw on top of the color with pencil.
Jon Klassen on his 2013 Caldecott-winning book, This is Not My Hat (Candlewick)
This Is Not My Hat is a story about a little fish who’s stolen a hat. He tells us throughout the book how he’s hoping to get away with it, while the pictures show his whole plan kind of falling apart behind him. Eventually the true owner of the hat, which is a much, much bigger fish, catches up with him at the end.
Near the beginning of the book, when the little fish tells us that he’s stolen this hat, we see the big fish he stole it from still asleep. The little fish tells us the big fish “probably won’t wake up for a long time.” But the picture shows the big fish’s eye popping open. This is where the story really begins, because now we know what the little fish is telling us and what’s really going on aren’t quite the same thing, and we can kind of guess where this whole thing is headed.
The artwork was done in pieces. For instance, for this “he probably won’t wake up” spread I painted the different parts of the big fish and the plants and bubbles all separately, then I did a whole bunch of bubbles and a whole bunch of plants, and I circled the ones I liked best. I scanned my favorites into the computer and put them together like puzzle pieces. It’s really fun to work on black because everything you do that isn’t black shows up really nicely, and it all has kind of a scary atmosphere to it right away.