The Caldecott Medal: Darien librarian helps choose

caldecott medal kiera parrott darien library librarian head of children's services

Darien Librarian Kiera Parrott was part of the committee that chose this year’s Caldecott medal winners in Seattle. (Darien Times/Yevgeniya Davydov)

Children’s books are often recognized for their writing, but the Caldecott Medal — awarded since 1937 — shows that the illustrators are just as vital to storytelling.

This year Darien Library’s, Kiera Parrott, head of children’s services, served on the Caldecott committee, a yearlong task that requires reading hundreds of books and choosing only a few to be recognized for their art work. The gold Caldecott Medal goes “to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children,” according to the American Library Association’s website, its parent organization.

The committee is always composed of 15 librarians or children’s literature experts, Parrott said — seven chosen by the Association for Library Service to Children’s president, and eight elected, like Parrott was.

Out of seven hundred books sent by publishers, Parrott was required to nominate seven for discussion. In January, she flew to Seattle for two full days of discussion with the committee to choose the Caldecott awardees.

“It was hours and hours of intense discussion,” Parrot said.

She introduced a few books and discussed them with anecdotal evidence from parents and other librarians. No one outside of the committee was allowed to know about books in the running, so Parrott had to do “a lot of under the radar” work — using a potential winner at “story time” at the library and inviting librarians and parents to choose from a specific shelf discreetly stocked with Caldecott books.

There was a lot of pressure on her and other committee members because the award has a “life-changing effect” on the winner and the book’s sales, she said.

It was important to look at the relationship between the art and the text, and the book’s child appeal, as the award can be given to a book for newborns to fourteen-year-olds, she said.

“You are judging artwork so there is a little bit of background knowledge you have to have for art history,” she said.

To prepare for sifting through the many books, Parrott took an eight-week online class taught by Kate Horning, author of a book about reviewing children’s books.

There were other resources available to her, as a resident of New York City and a Connecticut commuter, she said. Parrott’s husband has a master’s degree in of fine art, and in the city, she is “surrounded by art.”

“It was important to go to museums and read art history books,” she said.

“It’s such a rigorous process,” she said. “You learn to talk about books in a way that’s really meaningful.”

The committee chose “This is Not My Hat,” which was written and illustrated by Jon Klassen. Three books — “Creepy Carrots!” “Extra Yarn,” also by Klassen, and “Green,” “Sleep Like a Tiger,” and “One Cool Friend,” were given silver “honor” medals. The Caldecott committee traditionally chooses a few honors every year.

The winning story is about a “brazen” fish who steals a hat from a bigger fish and describes how he will get away with the crime, Parrott said. There is an “opposing narrative between artwork and text,” she said. The small fish believes he will get away scot-free while the art work reveals the larger fish lurking behind him.

“I’ve read this story aloud with multiple age ranges,” she said. “They get the joke and they find it so funny.”

On the last day of the meeting in Seattle, the committee called Klassen, the winning illustrator, to let him know about their decision, and to remind him he could not publicize it until the awards ceremony, Parrott said.

Illustrators generally know that they should get a call, if they have won, that specific morning.

Klassen received the call right before stepping through an airport’s security gates, she said, and asked if he could at least share the news with the officer nearby.

They called one minute later to congratulate him on the silver medal for another book, “Extra Yarn.”

The committee members had no previous contact with the artists and were very excited, Parrott said.

The experience of choosing a Caldecott Medal winner was an “eye-opening experience,” because although she frequently discusses children’s books at work, it is in a “utilitarian way,” she said.

Parrott also brings back new practices from other librarians from across the country. One librarian she met, who works at an American school in Singapore, did a mock Caldecott award with a group of fifth graders. Since English isn’t their first language, it provided for interesting evaluations of the books, especially those that have “strong culture references that are American or Western,” Parrott said. This gave her the idea to bring international children’s literature to Darien.

Claire Moore, assistant head of children’s services, also flew to Seattle last month. She served on the school age programs committee, which finds the best, innovative programs, Parrott said.

Krishna Grady, a Harold McGraw Fellow at the library, was selected as an “emerging leader” this year, by the library association.

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