Ringing in the Newbery (and Caldecott): An awards-trivia smackdown with Betsy Bird and Travis Jonker

Who is the kid lit nerdiest of them all? Putting their knowledge to the test, Betsy and Travis square off in this romp through Newbery/Caldecott history.

Illustration by Kat Leyh


Betsy: Travis! It’s the most wonderful time of year. Which is to say, January. The month we can finally kiss bye-bye to awful 2020. Ptoo! Ptoo! Begone foul 365 days!

Travis: I’m picturing you and me walking away from the 2020 fireball in slow motion. And do you know what we’re walking toward? The Newbery and Caldecott Medals.

Betsy: I’m gonna stop you right there, buddy. I, uh, don’t know if you know this, but I’ve studied up on my Newbery and Caldecott Awards. Yep. And it’s not like I’m trying to impress you or anything, but did you happen to know that the Newbery was established long before the Caldecott? Yep. Way back in 1922, it was a Newbery-only show. Wasn’t until 1938 that they thought about awarding the pictures. Betcha didn’t know that one.

Travis: You do realize you’re talking to someone who made Newbery and Caldecott infographics, right? So I know things. For instance, I know that Leonard Weisgard (1947) and Jon Klassen (2013) are the only people to win a Caldecott Honor AND Medal in the same year. And that E.L. Konigsburg did the same on the Newbery side in 1968. And here’s the ultimate crossover—William Steig won a Newbery Honor and a Caldecott Honor in the same year: 1977.

Betsy: Well shoot, dude. If you want to get crazy, let’s do this thing! I mean, let’s talk numbers. All I have to do is draw your attention to Mr. Kevin Henkes over here. You know how artists are always talking about winning EGOTs? Well, Henkes has won an NCG (Newbery Honor, Caldecott Medal, and Geisel Medal).

Travis: But there’s only one person to receive Newbery, Caldecott, Geisel, and National Book Award recognition. That person is…

Betsy: Grace Lin! Were you gonna say Grace Lin? Because it was totally Grace Lin. Here, let’s tackle this from a different angle. Now, do you know which artist holds the record for most Caldecott Honors before a win? There's actually two! Jerry Pinkney and Maurice Sendak. Pretty nice, right?

Travis: Sure. But do you know the youngest Caldecott winner of all time? That’s Plato Chan, who was TWELVE when he illustrated The Good-Luck Horse, which won a Caldecott Honor in 1944.

Betsy: I would totally tell you the youngest Newbery winner. I just . . . don’t feel like it right now. Cause…uh…it’s a secret. But you know what? All this talk of Newbery and Caldecott, it makes them sound like they’re competing or something. But they’re two entirely different awards! I mean, once in a while someone wins both, but it’s not that common. Hey! Here’s a quiz question for you. This artist wished to win a Caldecott. Instead, they won a Newbery and even illustrated the cover of another author’s Newbery Award–winning book. Who was it, and what were the books?

Travis: *Steeples fingers* *Smiles wryly* Oh, you mean Ellen Raskin? She who won the Newbery Medal for The Westing Game, and also illustrated the iconic cover for Newbery Medal winner A Wrinkle in Time? Uh—yeah, I knew that. She said in her Newbery speech, “I had dreamed of this moment many times, but this is nothing like my dream. There, in vain reverie, I would stand before a cheering but faceless crowd, outside of time, outside of space, flaunting the Caldecott Medal.” But let’s not get distracted here. Do YOU know the Caldecott Medal winner who was married to the man who caught Al Capone?

Betsy: Easy peasy. It’s all in her name. Evaline Ness was married to Eliot Ness, the man who got Capone on tax evasion. Heck, he encouraged her to go to art school. And speaking of crimes, did you know we have a Newbery Award winner that’s been sent to federal prison? Yep! Good old Jack Gantos, who won a 2012 Newbery for Dead End in Norvelt, was thrown in the clink for transporting hashish from the Virgin Islands to NYC in 1971.

Travis: But Jack wasn’t our only Newbery winner who spent some time in the slammer! A decade before Will James won the 1927 Newbery for Smoky the Cowhorse, he served time in the Nevada State Penitentiary. The crime? Cattle rustling. Maybe he was just doing research?

Betsy: Horses! Shoot, that reminds me of good old Misty of Chincoteague. She’s probably the only horse to actually attend a Newbery/Caldecott Banquet. Did you know she was the guest of honor when her book won? Speaking of the banquet, that’s a good place to get stories! Did you know that Robert C. O’Brien was so shy that he couldn’t deliver his own Newbery acceptance speech in 1972 for Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH? Heck, that wasn’t even his real name! He was actually Robert Leslie Conly, and he never made public appearances to publicize his books. When Mrs. Frisby won the Newbery Medal, O’Brien asked Jean Karl, his editor, to read his words instead.

Travis: Well, I propose a shy-off between O’Brien and William Steig! Steig was terrified to deliver his Caldecott Medal speech for Sylvester and the Magic Pebble in 1970, saying “I would almost rather die than have to formally address a group of people larger than two in number.” He made it through the speech, but he kept it short. Steig said, “[T]o reduce my discomfort, and yours—I shall make this a short speech… as a matter of form, it should not be as long as the little book that landed me here.”

Betsy: The shy-off is ON! I’ve heard that the only person to top these guys in reluctant-speech-giving was E.B. White. Not that he ever won the Newbery Award proper, but he got an Honor for Charlotte’s Web. Heck, when the George G. Stone Center for Children’s Books awarded him the Recognition of Merit in 1970, he wrote, “I’m sorry I can’t be there bodily…but perhaps it’s just as well; you may recall the story of Charlotte, that when Wilbur, the pig, was given the Award of Merit at the county fair, he fainted dead away…I wouldn’t want to put the Claremont conference through an ordeal of that sort.” I think he was more comfortable with animals than people sometimes.

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Travis: Perhaps E.B. would have been more comfortable with Misty there. Did he ever meet her?

Betsy: I’m not sure, honestly. But interestingly, YOU can still visit Misty anytime you want! They stuffed her and put her on display in the Museum of Chincoteague Island in Chincoteague, VA.

Travis: Sounds like Misty would be right at home at the Rabbit Hole Explor-a-storium, opening soon in Kansas City, MO. They’ll have all kinds of Caldecott-y and Newbery-ish exhibits there, including a reproduction of the bus from Last Stop on Market Street (which, since we’re talking trivia, happens to be one of the very few picture books to win the Newbery Medal). If this librarian gig falls through, you might find me knocking on the door of the Rabbit Hole asking for a job.

Betsy: Who wouldn’t want to work there? I mean, you and I write books for kids. It’s not crazy to think about a job change. Heck, authors often do it within the genres. Did you know that two of our Newbery Award winners used to write adult romances? Katherine Applegate and Laura Amy Schlitz have that in common.

Travis: Katherine Applegate was NOT in love with the manuscript for The One and Only Ivan, though. We wouldn’t even be talking about her as a Newbery Medal winner if she’d tossed the manuscript in the trash—something she was seriously considering.

Betsy: You think that’s bad? Esther Forbes, who wrote Johnny Tremain, stuck it in a desk drawer after she finished it. Her husband submitted it to a publisher without her even knowing what he was up to. Suddenly she gets a letter in the mail saying they want to publish this book that, as far as she knew, sat moldering in a drawer somewhere. Next thing you know, America’s entered in World War II, and patriotic books of any stripe are the hot new item. Politics and children’s books, man. It’s a weird combination.

Travis: Yeah, and one of the weirdest is the theory that Richard Nixon is on a duck boat in Robert McCloskey’s 1942 Caldecott Medal winner Make Way for Ducklings. But it ain’t true, folks. Nixon would have been a pretty anonymous 28-year-old at the time the book was published, and the guy on the boat is clearly older. And it’s not like McCloskey would have added him later.

Betsy: You want to talk about presidents getting added in? What about when David Small put Obama into So You Want to Be President? Is that the first time a Caldecott Award winner had its art changed later? I know some had their offensive texts changed (I’m looking at you, They Were Strong and Good), but the art?

Travis: There are definitely some controversial texts that have NOT been changed.The Higher Power of Lucky drops “scrotum” on page one, while This One Summer made ALA’s Most Challenged Books list for multiple F-bombs (a first for a Caldecott honoree).

Betsy: Oh man. Do not even get me started on profanity. We should totally continue this conversation via Zoom.

Travis: I feel like this is a setup.…

Betsy: I mean, it’s only a setup if you know that the name “Zoom” comes from a book written by the son of a Caldecott Award winner. You did know that Clement Hurd’s son Thatcher Hurd wrote Zoom City and that that is where we get the name Zoom, right? Sorry, man. I just had to work in that one last point there.

Travis: All right—you got me on that one.

This article has been corrected to note that two artists, Jerry Pinkney and Maurice Sendak, share the record for most Caldecott Honors before a win.

Betsy Bird blogs at “A Fuse #8 Production,” and Travis Jonker blogs at “100 Scope Notes.”

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Sharon Verbeten

You guys are seriously amazing! I can't wait for the smackdown! Super fun; I'm an awards junkie, but you guys take the cake! Bring. It. On!

Posted : Jan 07, 2021 03:50



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