Tips for Teachers is a monthly column in which experienced teacher and children’s librarian Emmie Stuart shares book recommendations and a corresponding teaching guide for fellow elementary school teachers.
In late October, I pull out my “It’s the most wonderful time of the year!” wooden sign and prop it up next to my teaching area. My students know that even though the holidays are right around the corner, my most wonderful time of the year is the lead-up to the American Library Association’s Youth Media Awards, which are usually announced in late January or early February. For ten weeks we learn about the Caldecott Medal, read past Medal winners, and then read books that might win that year’s award. The weeks of Caldecott chatter culminate with a schoolwide Mock Caldecott and a Monday morning ALA awards viewing party.
The first year of my Mock Caldecott unit was challenging. I felt inadequate as I tried to explain to students just what it was about a picture book that made it “distinguished.” Six years later, I feel more confident in my ability to teach the art of picture books to students—but each year teaches me new things about picture book art, the Caldecott process, and of course, children! Consider the following a work-in-progress method of teaching Caldecott books.
What IS the Caldecott Award?
Begin at the beginning. Give students a strong foundation by providing basic facts. I have a slideshow presentation with visuals that support my narration, which usually goes something like this:
“The Caldecott Medal is given every year to the illustrator of the most distinguished picture book,” I begin. “Why is it called the Caldecott Medal? Well about 150 years ago, children had to learn how to read with books with no pictures. Why? Because there were not very many picture books! Then along came a man named Mr. Randolph Caldecott. He started making books for children that had artwork to illustrate and extend the stories, poems and songs.” I always show a picture of the medal next to the illustration from Caldecott’s “The Diverting Story of John Gilpin” so that children know why there is a man riding a horse on the medal.
“In order for a book to win, it must have been published this year. Can a book that was published in 2018 win? No! How about 2020? No, of course not! Only books published in 2019 can win. It must have an American publisher and the illustrator must be an American citizen or live in the United States. Each year, only one book can win the Caldecott Medal. These books have a gold sticker. There can be several Caldecott Honor books and these books have a silver sticker.”
“Thousands of new picture books are published each year. Who decides which ones earn a medal? There is a group of smart librarians and teachers called the Caldecott Committee. All year long, the delivery person drops off piles of packages at their houses. These packages are filled with picture books! In early January, each committee member chooses their seven favorite picture books. Just seven! And then the members of the Caldecott committee take a trip so they can gather to discuss the books together. For two days, the committee talks and talks and talks about the picture books. Finally, they vote. The book that receives the highest number of votes is the new Caldecott winner! This year, the Caldecott committee chose Hello Lighthouse by Sophie Blackall!”
I usually finish by reading the most recent Caldecott Medal winner.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Sophie Blackall’s 2019 Caldecott Medal-winning Hello Lighthouse.
Parts of a Picture Book
For the next three to four weeks we learn how to read a picture book like the Caldecott committee.
Week 1: Size & Shape—How is a book’s size and shape important?
- Show examples of various sizes of books and encourage discussion as to why the size is important to the story. I like to use Richard Scarry’s What Do People Do All Day? and Maurice Sendak’s Chicken Soup With Rice to illustrate why size is important.
- Define and provide examples of the three types of picture book orientation: portrait, landscape and square. I hold up a book and ask, “Portrait, landscape or square?” and then, “Why do you think the illustrator chose this orientation?” Students love this exercise and it’s neat to see them realize that orientation makes a difference. A few examples I find particularly strong include Emily Arnold McCully’s Mirette on the High Wire (portrait orientation), Chris Van Allsburg’s The Polar Express (landscape orientation) and Kevin Henkes’ Kitten’s First Full Moon (square orientation).
Week 2: Book Jacket & Cover—“Just like we need jackets to protect us from the rain and wind, books need jackets too. The illustration on the front of the book jacket has an important job. It must grab your attention. It must make you wonder. It must make you want to read this book!”
- Discuss how the back and front jacket images connect or relate to each other. “Is it a wraparound cover? Does the image on the back cover give us a hint of what happened during the story? What about the spine? Why is the spine important?”
- Usually at this point I hand each child a copy of a Caldecott medal or honor book and let them ask and answer these questions.
- “Underneath the book jacket is the book’s cover. Sometimes it has a different picture or pattern!” We call these the book’s “undies,” and for the rest of the year children excitedly show me their latest undie discovery.
Students show off their exciting “undie” discoveries.
Week 3: Endpapers & Title Page
- Discuss front and back endpapers. There are all different types of endpapers and children love examining them. Endpapers can be solid colors, patterns or informational. For some books, the story “changes” the front and back endpapers.
- Identify the elements of a title page and explain that sometimes the narrative actually begins with the title page illustration.
Week 4: Style and Artistic Medium
- I could spend weeks on this category, but I limit it to a single week. We discuss all of the ways illustrators create images and the various tools and supplies that they use. Encourage children to tell you how the illustrations make them feel and how they help tell the story.
- I use Caldecott Award winners to show students the wide variety of different illustration styles and mediums. Some of my favorite examples include Beth Krommes’ A House in the Night (scratchboard and watercolor), Simms Taback’s Joseph Had a Little Overcoat (collage, watercolor, gouache, pencil and ink), Erin E. Stead’s A Sick Day for Amos McGee (oil ink woodblock prints and pencil) and Chris Van Allsburg’s Jumanji (conte pencil and dust).
Now we can be the Caldecott Committee!
For the next four to five weeks, we read the books that are on our Mock Caldecott ballot. I usually choose 12 to 15 books and make sure to create a diverse list, with respect to both artistic mediums and illustrators/characters. The first time I read each book, I simply read the story straight through without stopping to discuss the parts of the book or the art. Next, we circle back and examine the elements that we have discussed in the weeks prior. I’ve created “parts of a book” flashcards cards that help students remember and use the vocabulary.
I took the ALA’s Caldecott criteria, translated it into child-friendly vernacular and then created four questions to consider about picture books. These questions are also in rubric form on one side of our Mock Caldecott ballot.
- Are the illustrations amazing, different, beautiful and detailed? Are they special?
- Did the illustrator pay attention to book details, such as endpapers, text placement, feel of pages and so on?
- Are the illustrations necessary to understand the book? Do they help tell the story?
- Will children like this book? Would you check it out from the library?
I create a ballot with pictures of the books one on side and the Caldecott questions on the other side. I create a voting table in the library with ballots, pencils and star stickers. The tables around the voting table have several copies of each book. Throughout the day, students come to the library and vote. Most of them spend time rereading or looking at books before casting their vote. On the ballot, they put a gold star sticker on top of the book they think should win the award and silver star stickers on their second and third choices.
The Mock Caldecott winner is announced over the school’s morning announcements, and the library is open for students who want to watch the announcements with their excited librarian. I usually provide snacks that coordinate with our Mock Caldecott award and honor books. I have Caldecott stickers (these can be purchased from ALA) and after the awards have been announced I make a big deal about put the stickers on the newest Caldecott books.
My 2020 Mock Caldecott Ballot
Here are the titles included on my Mock Caldecott ballot this year. The Horn Book magazine’s Calling Caldecott blog can be a great resource for discovering more Caldecott-eligible titles.
- Another by Christian Robinson
- Bear Is Awake: An Alphabet Story by Hannah E. Harrison
- Daniel’s Good Day by Micha Archer
- The Fisherman & the Whale by Jessica Lanan
- Gittel’s Journey: An Ellis Island Story, written by Lesléa Newman, illustrated by Amy June Bates
- Hey, Water! by Antoinette Portis
- The Little Guys by Vera Brosgol
- My Papi Has A Motorcycle, written by Isabel Quintero, illustrated by Zeke Peña
- Rabbit and the Motorbike, written by Kate Hoefler, illustrated by Sarah Jacoby
- River by Elisha Cooper
- Saturday by Oge Mora
- Truman by Lucy Ruth Cummins
- What Is Given From the Heart, written by Patricia C. McKissack, illustrated by April Harrison
- ¡Vamos! Let’s Go to the Market by Raul the Third
- Vroom! by Barbara McClintock
- You Are Home: An Ode to National Parks by Evan Turk