Just One Reason Why THIS ONE SUMMER’s Caldecott Honor Matters A Lot

This year the Caldecott committee chose six honor books (and Milford Command Central favorite The Adventures of Beekle, the Unimaginary Friend for the medal HECK YEAH BEEKLE!!).

This year’s awards were Interesting, with a capital I, for many reasons. One of the big reasons, a huge surprise (and for some, a horror) of this year’s ALA announcements was the inclusion of This One Summer, a story of girls trying to navigate that awkward time when childhood fades and adolescence begins, as a Caldecott honoree.

Now, for those who stumbled here from Twitter or Facebook or whatever and might not know, I write middle grade fiction, and when not doing that, I’m a kids’ bookseller. I have a little bit of a specialty in picture books, due in part to my undying love for the form and in part to my almost 20-month-old son, Griffin, so I naturally have opinions on both the Newbery and the Caldecott, and from multiple points of view: author, bookseller, mom. But this one I have special feelings about–feelings strong enough to get me writing a blog post, which I haven’t done since, what, September or something?

Won’t somebody think of the children?

So first: the controversy, such as it is. This One Summer isn’t a picture book. It’s a graphic novel. And while it is intended for young readers, it’s not a book for young children–it touches on some fairly grownup themes. There seem to be some folks who are angered because This One Summer doesn’t fit the form, the demographic, or the subject parameters that seem to be called for in a book given the same honor that was bestowed on Anatole, If I Ran the Zoo, Madeline, and Blueberries for Sal.

I get it, people. It’s easy to be nostalgic about awards that have been around, it seems, since time immemorial. It’s easy to feel that there is a particular kind of book that deserves that kind of award, and to believe that the books that win it ought to evoke the same feelings, by and large, as the Caldecott winners of our childhoods. For something so unlike the rest to be chosen, a book that is so clearly more grown up and meant for an entirely different subset of readers, and a book that contains material guaranteed to make some adults twitchy on top of all that–of course that seems weird, if not actually inappropriate. For most adults, whether moms or dads or just nostalgic readers, the Caldecott means something very specific, something that belongs to the comforting world of little kids tucked in for one last story before bedtime. And yes, many of us in kidlit believe fervently that the ALA needs an award for graphic novels, but that’s neither here nor there.

Here’s my rebuttal, in two parts.

Part the first: we have to get over our “feelings” about what the Caldecott is for and read the actual rules.

If you go to the ALA’s Caldecott guidelines here on the Terms and Criteria page of the ALA/ALSC website, you find the following (emphases mine):

From the “Terms” section:

The Medal shall be awarded annually to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children published by an American publisher in the United States in English during the preceding year. There are no limitations as to the character of the picture book except that the illustrations be original work. Honor books may be named. These shall be books that are also truly distinguished.

From the “Definitions” section:

  1. A “picture book for children” as distinguished from other books with illustrations, is one that essentially provides the child with a visual experience. A picture book has a collective unity of story-line, theme, or concept, developed through the series of pictures of which the book is comprised.
  2. A “picture book for children” is one for which children are an intended potential audience. The book displays respect for children’s understandings, abilities, and appreciations. Children are defined as persons of ages up to and including fourteen and picture books for this entire age range are to be considered.
  3. “Distinguished” is defined as:
    1. Marked by eminence and distinction; noted for significant achievement.
    2. Marked by excellence in quality.
    3. Marked by conspicuous excellence or eminence.
    4. Individually distinct.

And from the “Criteria” section:

The only limitation to graphic form is that the form must be one which may be used in a picture book. The book must be a self-contained entity, not dependent on other media (i.e., sound, film or computer program) for its enjoyment.

There’s more, of course, but by reading the actual rules that govern what is and is not eligible for a Caldecott Medal or Honor, we find that a graphic novel for any age would be squarely within bounds, and an illustrated work of any kind intended for a pre- or young teen audience is also squarely within bounds.

So if you have somehow formed an opinion that the Caldecott “ought” to be defined differently, I’m sorry, but it simply isn’t defined that way. Nobody changed or even bent the rules this year for This One Summer. The fact that books for older children aren’t honored as often doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be, if they are truly distinguished. The rules say unequivocally that they are to be considered. And isn’t that great? One of the most venerable awards out there is more inclusive than you thought. It recognizes that older kids also read visually and seek out visual storytelling experiences. I think that’s great. I think that’s incredibly important. More on that below.

Part the Second: Who’s thinking of the poor children that might accidentally pick this book up because it has a Caldecott sticker and be subjected to characters thinking and talking about things like (gasp) sex? 

Honestly, do you think booksellers and librarians are idiots and just because it has a Caldecott sticker we’re going to shelve This One Summer in with the picture books? No. It goes with the big kid books, and by big kid books, I mean the books we understand to be intended for kids in the 12 to 14 year-old range. (Where those books go is another issue, but let’s not get into that here.) Booksellers are not idiots, by and large; nor are librarians, teachers, or parents, generally speaking–nobody would pick This One Summer up and get confused about who it’s for. I mean, really. You cannot get confused. It is obviously not for six year olds. If you look at this book and think, wait, this looks like maybe it’s for older kids, maybe even teenagers, but it’s got a Caldecott sticker, so…I guess that means it is okay for my first grader…well then, respectfully, reader, you are at minimum having an idiot moment, and it’s not reasonable for the entire world to reconfigure itself so as to prevent anyone from ever doing a stupid thing during an idiot moment.

And that isn’t even to say it’s for all kids aged 12-14 or so, but it is for some of them, which gets into another sticky area, which is what I really want to talk about here. (I know, right? Talk about getting to the point way too late.)

Why it’s Really Important (to Me, Kate Milford, and Probably a Couple Other People) That This One Summer Won an Honor.

The sticky area I referred to just then is the question of whether you, dear horrified reader, think kids of this or any age ought to be reading books that acknowledge the presence in the world (and in their lives) of things that make you uncomfortable and wish they wouldn’t learn about until they were at least old enough to legally order a beer in a state that considers you a minor until age 35. Things like alcohol, for instance, or abuse, or sex, or violent death, or whatever. Fill in the blank with whatever you’re most upset by the idea of a thirteen year-old kid thinking about.

Do you believe books should be fundamentally positive and uplifting, improving children’s lives for a few stolen hours by removing them from reality and transporting them to a world where the dangers are few, the stakes low-to medium in height, love (if present at all) is chaste and fulfilled by a kiss on the cheek, the way forward is generally clear and uncomplicated, and good is guaranteed from page one to conquer all? Great. You have so many choices. Lots of kids would agree with you, and thank goodness there are so many wonderful books that can give them exactly that experience: a safe, soothing read. At age 38 I still have books I go to for this, and many of them are books I’ve been reading since age 10. But not everyone wants that from every book. Not every adult, and certainly not every kid.

Now, I and people much wiser than I, have written in other places about the importance of difficult and dark books for children–and for purposes of this post, let’s keep defining “children” the way the Caldecott does: up to about age 14. But here’s my thesis in brief: books give kids a chance to experience things they have questions or concerns about in a safe way, and in conditions they can choose to leave at any time, simply by closing the cover. You may not want to believe, as a parent, that your kids are experiencing or even thinking about things that make you uncomfortable, but the likelihood is that they are. Hopefully they’ll come talk to you if they have questions. I certainly hope my son will. But I also know not every kid does, despite the best intentions of his/her parents. Maybe they’ll talk to friends or older siblings, but maybe they’ll feel too awkward, in which case, thank goodness there are books that tell them they’re not alone in their questions and concerns and fears.

And guess what a really tough age for those kinds of questions and concerns and fears is? Twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen. This is why books for this age, and especially really wonderful, sensitive, occasionally challenging and uncomfortably realistic books, are critically important. Twelve, thirteen and fourteen year olds might browse the middle grade section and find they want something that addresses the feelings and experiences they’re facing in their real lives a little better. Then they might go to the young adult section and browse and find they’re not quite there yet. Ages twelve to fourteen make up a really specific time in a kid’s life. It really is its own weird transition.

But guess what? It’s not only really hard to write a book with a kid in that transitional period, it’s incredibly hard to sell them. I think this is mostly because it’s really hard to know, as a publisher or bookseller, how to market them and where to shelve them. My second novel, The Broken Lands, suffered from this problem, but I was lucky and had an editor who bought it anyway and took a chance on the book finding its audience. I know plenty of authors, though, who either couldn’t sell books with protagonists in that 13-15 age range, or were asked/required to age them up or down to make the books more clearly MG or YA, and therefore easier to market.

But thirteen and fourteen and fifteen year old kids need books for them, too, and if they’re going to have them, we have to write them and publishers need to buy them. Bookstores and libraries need to make room for these transitional stories (although full disclosure: we tried a “tween” section at McNally Jackson for a year or so and it failed, largely, I think, due to the fact that no kid self-identifies as a tween because it sounds ridiculous, so it’s got to have a better name, whatever it is). And parents need to understand that difficult books–which stories for that age often are, because that age itself is difficult–may be uncomfortable, but may also be really important to young readers in their lives.

This One Summer is, in addition to being a truly distinguished book, a very brave one. Its protagonists are twelve (I think I’m right about that, but someone correct me if I’m mistaken), but reading about them is not at all the same experience as, for instance, reading about also-twelve Rosalind Penderwick. And this is good, because there is room and a need for both representations of twelve, since both kinds of twelve (and many others) exist in the real world. Maybe, hopefully, the Caldecott honor for This One Summer–an honor it absolutely deserves on the merits of its visual storytelling, which really is tremendous–will help us all embrace the importance of and need for books for stories like this, for readers of this age–that awkward 12-14 period. I hope so, anyway. 

*Edited to fix two typos and one instance of Rosalind/Rosamund character name confusion. -KM

5 Comments

  1. I served on this year’s caldecott and I just want to thank you for such an eloquent post. I will be sharing it on my fb page!

  2. Kate, thanks for writing this – what a beautifully articulated post. You know the work I do (youth suicide prevention) and one of the things that comes up over and over and over and OVER again is essentially that parents are working too hard to protect kids from things we think are too uncomfortable or scary or sad or hard or painful or weird. It seems reasonable to want to protect kids from these things, right? But the down side of this behavior is two-fold: 1) we are implying that they are not capable individuals and that they cannot handle these things; and 2) we deprive kids of very necessary experiences that allow them to form their own values and sense of self, to think about how they fit into the world at large, and – perhaps most importantly – develop resilience and good coping mechanisms. Without giving kids the opportunity to experience or talk about these kinds of things – loss, failure, death, pain, anxiety, etc. etc. etc. – we are leaving them woefully unequipped to deal with the world around them and making them vulnerable to the very things we fear. Pretending they don’t exist or that kids aren’t aware of them (or don’t think about them or talk about them or want to understand them) is a fallacy, and a potentially dangerous one.

    I, too, applaud the ALA for making such a great choice and perhaps exposing a whole slew of kids to a book that might be really helpful or insightful as they work through that first awkward phase of adolescence. For any parents “afraid” of this book or its contents, I strongly encourage you to read it – and have your kids read it – and then use it as a springboard to TALK ABOUT THE SCARY STUFF. Maybe you’ll find that it isn’t nearly as scary as you thought, and/or you’ll gain new-found insight into the way your kid’s brain works, while letting them know that even these things (scary or uncomfortable though they may be) can be talked about and examined in the light.

    Better that than the alternative, right?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *