Not In Any History Books: Digging Deep Into the Past of the New York Times Best Illustrated List
Some time ago I was contacted by librarian Cecilia Horn, currently the Juvenile Collection Development Librarian for the Kenton County Public Library in Northern Kentucky. Cecilia was researching the New York Times Best Illustrated List, which is presented yearly to ten different picture books. It’s a remarkable award in many ways, and I had the pleasure of serving on its committee twice within a span of four years. After Cecilia and her partner-in-crime Terri Diebel (a Children’s Librarian at the Covington Branch) finished their research they presented their findings to the Mazza Museum for the award’s 60th anniversary. This year the award will be experiencing its 65th anniversary so, naturally, I wanted to have this information disseminated as widely as possible. But how?
Alas, Powerpoints translate poorly to the old WordPress blog format. That said, Cecilia and Terri were willing to answer my questions about their work and the award itself. Today, I am sharing with you their findings. I dare say you will have a difficult time finding this information anywhere else. Consider it your early birthday present (unless today is your birthday, in which case, Happy Birthday!).
Betsy Bird: What was the impetus for the New York Times Best Illustrated list to begin? What sparked it and why?
Horn & Diebel: According to a New York Times article written in 2002 by Eden Ross Lipson, Children’s Book Editor of the Times from 1984-2005, the first special children’s books issue of the Times appeared in the fall of 1947. In 1950 the Book Review asked a panel of experts to name the ten best children’s book illustrators of the previous fifty years. Images from those books appeared in the paper in November of that year. In 1951 the editors came up with the idea of having children illustrate scenes from their favorite books. However, in 1952 they convened another jury of experts, representatives of the education departments of the MoMA and the MET and the NYT art department. This panel selected seven outstanding illustrated books from that year. This evolved into the annual event that we know today.
1947 marked the beginning of a golden age of children’s books. With these post-war years came a growing audience of children, and by the early 1950’s many of the baby boomers were of kindergarten age. In our opinion, this growth in this particular population demographic led to an increased demand for children’s books. This demand was met by the visionary editors, mainly women at the time. Names such as Ursula Nordstrom and Margaret K. McElderry come to mind.
Other contributing factors leading to this interest in children’s literature included the growth in personal income at this time, making the purchase of books possible. Additionally, the ongoing space race of the 50’s and 60’s spotlighted the importance of education which also led to an expanded market for children’s literature.
BB: What is the criteria for the list?
H&D: The books need to have been published in the current year. They are judged solely based on their art. The text is irrelevant. There is no nationality or residency requirement for the illustrator. Additionally, there’s no requirement that the artist even be alive since several artists have been honored posthumously.
BB: If you could spotlight some of the winners through the decades, who do you feel are the true standouts?
H&D: In our opinion, the standouts are the ones that have withstood the test of time. So many of these names should be familiar to anyone in the field of children’s lit.
- 1950’s: Ludwig Bemelmans, Leo Lionni, Roger Duvoisin, Alice and Martin Provensen, H.A. Rey, and Maurice Sendak
- 1960’s: Ed Emberley, Anita and Arnold Lobel, Tomi Ungerer, and Brian Wildsmith
- 1970’s: Byron Barton, Barbara Cooney, Leo and Diane Dillon, Stephen Kellogg, James Marshall, Uri Shulevitz, William Steig, and Chris Van Allsburg
- 1980’s: Trina Schart Hyman, David Macaulay, Jerry Pinkney, Allen Say, Rosemary Wells, Ed Young, Paul O. Zelinsky, Peter Sis, Lane Smith, Donald Crews, and Demi
- 1990’s: David Diaz, Lois Ehlert, Chris Raschka, Faith Ringgold, Raúl Colón, David Shannon, Walter Wick, Barbara McClintock, Peter McCarty, Emily Arnold McCully, Lisbeth Zwerger
- 2000’s: R. Gregory Christie, Bryan Collier, Ian Falconer, Brian Floca, Douglas Florian, Kevin Henkes, Betsy Lewin, Jim McMullan, Christopher Myers, Kadir Nelson, Matthew Reinhart, Robert Sabuda, Laura Vaccaro Seeger, Brian Selznick, David Wiesner, and Steve Jenkins
- 2010’s: Peter Brown, Henry Cole, Oliver Jeffers, Jon Klassen, Patrick McDonnell, Erin Stead, Aaron Becker, Sophie Blackall, Christian Robinson, Duncan Tonatiuh, Greg Pizzoli, E.B. Lewis, Sydney Smith, and Evan Turk
BB: What illustrators have won the most times repeatedly?
Arnold Lobel has been honored six times. Chris Van Allsburg and Peter Sis have each made the list seven times, while the Provensens have been on the list eight times.
And the indisputable leader, having been honored 23 times from 1952-2013 is …. Maurice Sendak!!
There are some names to watch though … Sophie Blackall, Christian Robinson, and Duncan Tonatiuh have appeared more than once in recent years. And Sydney Smith has been honored the last three years in a row.
BB: Do you feel that including artists as judges makes this award special? What are some of the challenges involved?
H&D: Three judges are selected by the NYT Children’s Book Editor who oversees the panel. The panel of judges includes: a children’s book illustrator, a professional in the library or book field, and a literary critic or someone with a background in design. In our opinion, this makes the panel well rounded. Since the award is based on the artwork, it only makes sense to have an artist as one of the judges. In our opinion, the bigger issue is that all the judges tend to be from one geographical region of the country. We’d love to see a librarian included from the Midwest (hint, hint!).
The biggest challenge that we see is the fact that there are SO many books to consider in addition to the fact that basically there are no set guidelines. The task at hand is very loosely defined. And though the panel is somewhat well-rounded, there are only three judges. Reaching a consensus among just three people, of different backgrounds (with the possibility of little or no background in children’s lit) must be difficult at best.
Another concern is that even though the panel often recognizes new talent, the possibility exists that certain well-established illustrators might get overlooked, perhaps because their artwork and/or style is so familiar.
BB: The Best Illustrated Awards are some of the few awards to be handed out in America to artists from other countries. This distinguishes it significantly from the Caldecott. Do you feel this gives the award an advantage over the Caldecott? Are there problems with this?
H&D: We don’t really see an advantage or disadvantage of one award over the other. They are really two different animals, unique in their own way. Opening this award up to all nationalities provides books with global representation and unique cultural perspective. The NYT list also exposes us to artists, and oftentimes small, independent presses, that we might not have had the chance to encounter and makes these books accessible to American readers.
BB: Were there any books in 2017 that you would have liked to see win? Where would you like this award to go in the future?
H&D: Here are some of our favorites of the year that we would have loved to have seen on the list:
The Antlered Ship by Dashka Slater, illus. by Eric Fan and Terry Fan
Before She Was Harriet by Lesa Cline-Ransome, illus. by James Ransome
Blue Sky White Stars by Sarvinder Naberhaus, illus. by Kadir Nelson
Chirri & Chirra: In the Tall Grass by Kaya Doi
Her Right Foot by Dave Eggars, illus. by Shawn Harris
Little Fox in the Forest by Stephanie Graegin
Red and Lulu by Matt Tavares
Robinson by Peter Sis
That is My Dream! by Langston Hughes, illus. by Daniel Miyares
Tony by Ed Galing, illus. by Erin E. Stead
And two that we really love (though one might say we are a little biased as these illustrators both live in our area!!):
Good Day, Good Night by Margaret Wise Brown, illus. by Loren Long
Look! What Do You See? by Bing Xu, illus. by Becca Stadtlander
This year marked the 65th anniversary of the Best Illustrated Children’s Books Award and the first year of the New York Times’ partnership with the New York Public Library on this honor. The name of the award has in fact been changed to The New York Times/New York Public Library Best Illustrated Children’s Books Award. And this year a family-friendly reception was held at the Times Building to honor the award-winning illustrators. We’d like to see public libraries across the country get on board to promote and celebrate the art of children’s picture books.
BB: Absolutely. And thank you both for joining me on my blog here today.
Cecilia Horn is currently the Juvenile Collection Development Librarian for the Kenton County Public Library in Northern Kentucky. Terri Diebel is a Children’s Librarian at the Covington Branch. Both hold Masters of Library Science degrees and have worked in the field of Children’s Literature for many years. In recent years, they have collaborated on presentations at local, state, and national library and literature conferences
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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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