Reflections on a Banquet: Newbery/Caldecott/Wilder 2016
While I acknowledge that the logical way to write about the ALA Annual 2016 Conference in Orlando would be to do it chronologically, on the cusp of the banquet and all that it entailed, it makes more sense to me to write that part up first and then circle back to the conference in the coming week. Your patience with my erratic nature is appreciated.
It had been some time. Maybe just little more than a year but too long in any case. The last time I had attended a Newbery/Caldecott Banquet I had worn a tuxedo, a hat wearing a hat, tiger gloves, and had tucked a small stuffed carrot in my breast pocket. That was the year that This Is Not My Hat [hat wearing hat], One Cool Friend [tuxedo], Creepy Carrots [carrot in breast pocket], and Sleep Like a Tiger [tiger gloves] had won the Caldecott. For whatever reason, as the years have gone by, I’ve had a penchant for kooky Banquet costumes. 2016 would be no different.
It’s difficult to come up with original costuming ideas, though. For my part, it all started simply, inspired a bit by incoming ALSC president Nina Lindsay’s fabulous concoctions (one year she was Martha from the George & Martha books, wearing a gray shirt, a colorful skirt, and a single red flower behind her ear) and partly by the NYPL librarians of yore who would wear thematic hats to honor the Caldecott winners. I still remember stumbling on one of their Office Buckle & Gloria police hats with furry ears in a box at work. So you see, there is a precedent.
Having already covered temporary tattoos of book covers, temporary quotes from books, Shrinky-Dink jewelry of the winners’ covers, and the aforementioned tuxedo combination, I had only the grain of an idea at hand. What if I made a dress out of old card catalog cards? It was an odd idea. Just cards? A skirt alone or a full dress? How do you go about sewing paper together? I toyed with the notion, purchasing some children’s book catalog cards off of Ebay. Then providence entered into the equation some months later when I passed a recycling bin at work and found inside a slew of fantastic children’s literature catalog cards, slated for destruction. And not just any cards either. Newbery and Caldecott winners in abundance! Snowflake Bentley. Trina Schart Hyman’s Snow White. Always Room for One More. So You Want to Be President? And then, the crème de la crème: A Visit to William Blake’s Inn. Which is to say, one of the most highly discussed past winners of the season, due to debate as to whether or not IT was the first picture book to win a Newbery or was, instead, a poetry book.
This discovery clinched the deal, as it were, so I went to my closet to figure out what already existing dress might serve to display the wares. I found an old ModCloth number with a floaty filmy veil of black transparent fabric over the stretchy dress beneath. Perfect! My hope was that the overlying fabric might obscure the cards somewhat from a distance. I like a little flash but this isn’t Library Comic Con or anything. Decorum must be maintained. Card catalog cards already come with pre-made holes, so it was just a question of sewing them on. This left the question of what to do with my hair. I had a brief notion of fanning seven or eight cards into a perfect circle, hot gluing them to a large barrette. This plan was abandoned pretty quickly when I saw just how large eight cards are when fanned together. However, if you cut a single card apart and then glue IT to smaller barrettes, you get very much the same effect. Add in an old pin featuring E. Shepard’s Winnie-the-Pooh characters which I was given years ago for working with the original Pooh toys at NYPL and voila! Your outfit is complete:
God help my soul, what I do next year is unclear. I worry I might get a little crazy. Shave the names of the winners into my hair or something. Hmm….
Because I’m not a complete fool, I changed in to this dress in a restroom that was near to the reception for the event. I was also invited in for a little pre-dinner mix n’ mash n’ nosh in a room secured by Little, Brown & Co. After this we proceeded to the dinner where I found myself not far from the high table of winners, seated beside Nina Lindsay (the aforementioned incoming ALSC president), Jonda McNair (three-year term as chair of the Coretta Scott King Book Awards Committee), some Caldecott committee members, Horn Book’s Editor-in-Chief Roger Sutton, and John Schumacher. Immediately to my left was Lindsay Mattick, the author of this year’s Caldecott Award winning book. She had the somewhat eerie experience of knowing that every single place, at every single table, was set with a program featuring Sophie’s illustrations of Lindsay and her son Cole. At some point I yelled across the table to Roger a question about whether or not a Caldecott Award winner (or Honor book, for that matter) has ever featured an illustration of the author within the story itself. Roger didn’t know, but upon further reflection I could think of one case where a Newbery Award winner did. Show Way by Jacqueline Woodson, in case you’re curious. It’s times like these I particularly miss Peter Sieruta. He would have known in a heartbeat. UPDATE: Resident brilliant children’s librarian Brian Wilson has pointed out to me that Peter Sis illustrates himself in the Caldecott Honor winner The Wall. Well spotted, Brian.
Lindsay, as it turns out, was a charming dinner companion and after I subjected her to a lengthy story of the sordid history of the Winnie-the-Pooh toys (something I should turn into a blog post one of these days) she told me about her own history of writing the book. As it turns out, this is a very rare case of an author of a picture book being allowed to help select her own illustrator. It was Lindsay’s idea to reach out to Sophie in the first place. That Sophie accepted is due in large part to a series of remarkable coincidences. It appears this book was meant to be.
If you’ve never been to a Newbery/Caldecott/Wilder Banquet I should explain that there are a couple givens. First off, the food is awful. This is not a slight against the organizers in any way. You walk in expecting the food to be bad and, when some aspect of it is particularly nice, you are pleasantly surprised. To sit at a table you have to buy a ticket, but that’s only if you want to eat. In the back of the room is a series of chairs. You are more than free to eat your own dinner beforehand and then sit in the chairs to listen to the speeches. Many do, as it turns out.
Between each course of the meal you may stare up adoringly at the winners and the Chairs of their committees at a high table. It’s sort of like a triple wedding, only the brides and grooms are required to give speeches that will set the world on fire. No pressure or anything, though. No pressure. So you eat, and between courses you amble over to tables where your friends are. Then you mosey back for more food. Amble. Food. I don’t know how long this particular format has been in existence. It’s nice not to masticate during the speeches, which are only given after everyone has had ample time to devour their desserts. Knowing the friendly nature of the children’s literary world, the organizers probably learned years ago that you may as well just allow folks to mix and mingle at length early on.
When at last the speeches did begin they were kicked off by outgoing President, and all around superhuman/fellow Chicago-area resident, Andrew Medlar. In the event of my death I would like to request that Andrew conduct my funeral services. He seems capable of moderating in every situation with apparent ease and wit.
Now the order of the speeches is Caldecott chair, Caldecott winner, Wilder chair, Wilder winner, Newbery chair, Newbery winner. You get a recording of each speech, since they do formally record them beforehand. In the past this has taken the form of CDs, but this year there was a code to access it online. We were also informed that past speeches are going to be digitized for easy access in the future. One wonders how many will be available! I have visions of librarians trading bootleg tapes of early impossible-to-find speeches like Madeline L’Engle’s or Ezra Jack Keats or, the rarest gem of all, Stephen Gammell’s.
Rachel Payne (an old BPL buddy) was the Caldecott Chair who introduced Sophie Blackall. Now I’ve seen Sophie speak in public before. The stereotype of the artist who fears public speaking, while not without truth in some areas, has been eclipsed over the past years by remarkably loquacious illustrators. Just look at the recent winners: Floca, Klassen, Santat. The list goes on and on, and they’re all remarkably capable of pitch perfect eloquence. Sophie was no exception. Early on she began to get choked up, and was swift to shut herself down with a hasty, “Right. More jokes now.” She thanked her shockingly attractive children, her partner, her studio mates, Lindsay Mattick, her editor, her agent, and many more folks. I particularly admired that she kept her thanks as selective as she did. A good speech doesn’t need to thank everyone and the moon. A simple “you know who you are” is sufficient to thanking the masses anyway. And yes, I did get choked up myself a little. Sophie had a hard year (in addition to the mess-which-shall-not-be-named, a close friend passed away). You may read the speech in its entirety here.
By the way, there was a theme to the Newbery/Caldecott speeches this year: Audience participation. At one point editor Susan Rich seamlessly read her email to Sophie about Finding Winnie from her seat in the audience. A brilliant move that I suspect has never been done at a banquet before. As for Matt . . . I’ll get to that.
Next up was the Wilder Award, a biennial award that for the first time has turned annual. This year it went to Jerry Pinkney, who held the distinction of being the first and only person to win a Virginia K. Hamilton Award and a Wilder Award in the same year. He may also be the first great-grandfather to win both awards, since that is precisely what he is (though you wouldn’t know it to hear or look at him). He was introduced by Chrystal Carr Jeter who wore a magnificent hat. Undeniably the best hat in the room, no question at all. After lauding the man properly, Mr. Pinkney stood up and began to tell the story of his life. Some of it I had heard once long ago when he gave a speech after being honored by the Carle Awards. Some was new. And some hit a chord for a very particular reason.
An odd digression that has a point: Each week the shelvers in my library put together a cart of damaged materials and wheel it up to my desk. There I determine whether or not to reorder, discard, and/or repair the books. One day someone included a MAD Magazine collection that mocked syndicated cartoonists (bear with me – there’s a point to all this). It always kind of depresses me when MAD Magazine collections appear because they’re often beyond repair and yet they’re also out-of-print. As I flipped through the piece (which fortunately was salvageable) I saw the usual jokes made at the expense of Dick Tracy, Dagwood, L’il Abner, etc. Then I saw one making fun of the comic strip Henry. Do you know the strip? It was a funny piece about a kid with a big round head and his small suburban adventures. The style was distinctive, sort of what you’d get if you added Peanuts to Chris Ware with a hint of Crockett Johnson thrown into the mix. The joke in the MAD Magazine bit was the Henry never grows up and has, from the start, actually been a strip about a middle aged man. Why am I telling you all of this? Well, I’d heard in Pinkney’s Carle speech lo these many years ago that as a child he befriended a syndicated comic strip artist. As Jerry tells it, he was working at a newspaper stand and, when business was slow, his boss let him sketch for fun. One day a man asked to see his art and when he saw what Jerry could do he confessed that he was an artist himself. The boy and the man became friends and the man turned out to be John Liney the second creator of the comic strip Henry. In the vast world of syndicated comics, I do believe that Henry has been forgotten to a certain extent. Yet Mr. Liney has gone on to be remembered by Jerry, and by extension we have many wonderful books. So, in a strange sense, Liney’s legacy lives on in his kindness to others.
Jerry talked much more than just about Mr. Liney of course. He spoke at length, and with feeling, about the limited options for African-American men when he was growing up, making it clear that there is still a long road ahead. He talked about his mentors, both the good and the bad. The ones who believed he could go far, and the ones who didn’t. He spoke of African-American art instructors who had shelved their own dreams in a time when the future seemed impossible. His was a speech that took note of the changes in the African-American landscape over a vast number of decades, using his own career to highlight the changes. It was superb, as you might imagine. You can read it in full here.
By the way, has Mr. Pinkney ever been recorded in conversation with Ashley Bryan? Wouldn’t that be the most interesting of discussions? Just putting that out there.
After Jerry it was time for Matt de la Peña. Ernie Cox, the chair of the Newbery committee, introduced him. Not much was made of a picture book’s win of a Newbery Award and how extraordinary and unprecedented (unless you believe A Visit to William Blake’s Inn was a picture book) it was. I was curious to hear Matt speak, of course. I’ve seen him do it twice, once about Last Stop on Market Street at a librarian preview in NYC, and once to a group of librarians about his career, but only in brief. This speech was different in tone, and depth, and content, and feeling. You might not know it was the same guy.
Matt came up, took his award, and then said apologetically that this was lovely but he needed to give the award to his mom. He then proceeded to run down to the audience level, handing his mother the large heavy medal in its velvet lined case to his mom. Then he leapt back to the podium to speak in earnest. Matt talked about his youth, growing up Mexican-American and not much of a reader. He credited the teachers and librarians that fed his reading, even if it was sports magazines during a time when he was supposed to be reading books (his description of how he’d claim to be enjoying War and Peace with all that war and then all that peace is great). He spoke of how he became an author, though not at any particular length. Instead he talked about getting “the call” and how confusing it was for him. As he tells it, he wasn’t expecting to win anything, but he knew that Christian might win a Caldecott proper and that if he did their agent (they share an agent) would ring him up. So he turned on his ringer and a couple hours later a call came in. Only it wasn’t the call he was expecting exactly. Ernie Cox explained to Matt that he’d won a Newbery Award. What picture book author would ever expect such a thing? After Matt hung up he describes it this way:
As soon as we hung up, I called my wife. “Caroline,” I said, in an even voice, “I have something I need to tell you.” I paused for a long time, trying to keep myself in check. Like I have all my life.
“What?” she said. “Is everything okay?”
“I think Last Stop just won the Newbery.”
She paused. “Wait, are you sure?”
“No,” I answered.
She fired up her iPad and went onto the ALA website and looked up the 2016 award committees and asked me, “Okay, was it a man or woman on the phone?”
“Holy shit,” she said. “The chair of the Caldecott is a woman.”
And he could have stopped right there. Could have closed the speech with the usual congrats and approbation and thanks, but to my surprise he kept going. Discussions of “the call” often end acceptance speeches. Matt had more to say. More to say about the kids who read his books who might think that they are worthless and who can find value in themselves by reading. Amongst his stories he told one about visiting a school and giving a copy of his book to a boy who was sitting just a little to the side. And when the boy confronted him later, asking why Matt would have given the book to him, of all people, Matt just told him that he didn’t know why. There just seemed to be something special about the kid. The boy started to cry at this, and his classmates rubbed his back and comforted him, telling Matt that the boy was new to their school. Matt said that’s how he felt like when he got the call about the Newbery. That this group of people thought that there was something special about him. And that the librarians and friends and other members of the children’s literature community out there were the ones rubbing his back and propping him up and telling him it was okay. And let me tell you something, ladies and gentlemen. There was not a dry eye in the house when he said this. You can read the speech in full here.
After that it was receiving line time. The winners all trooped outside while we watched a little of the most recent Weston Woods Award winner . . . I’m sorry. The Carnegie Award winner, That Is Not a Good Idea. Sadly they only showed a little. I would have liked to have watched the whole thing again. Mo Willems, as the fox, does a delicious cackle.
But there were lots of fine and fancy people to talk to, so I lingered and spoke with various folks. And when it was very late, and I was very tired, I was still able to have a tasty root beer float with friends before drifting off to beddy-bye. It was a nice banquet this year. One of the best, really.
A thank you to Little, Brown for my nice ticket and meal.
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy 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.
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