An Interview with Caldecott Medal Committee Member Ms. Catherine Sorensen
I'm Catherine Sorensen and I'm the school librarian at Heathcote School. I'm a member of the American Library Association, which most professional librarians in this country are. I've participated for many years going to conferences, getting professional development from them, as well as serving on a variety of committees to provide some service to my my co-workers. We're a national organization so it's really big so it's nice to get to meet some people face to face and work together and I actually took a course on book evaluation which is recommended if you would like to be on an evaluation committee which was one of my goals. So I took a seminar on children's book evaluation, I also took two online courses with the American Library Association, and I was assigned to be on the committee. Every year you volunteer for the different companies you'd like to be on, but I was actually assigned to be on the Randolph Caldecott Selection Committee for 2021, which is actually looking at the books from 2020. That was a surprise and a delight! It was a once in a lifetime experience for sure.
They emailed me. In fact, I got the email on a Sunday. I remember thinking that was a surprise to get an official email on a Sunday and I almost couldn't believe it was true! But it was true! I got to meet my committee once in person before we had to change everything to virtual for the pandemic
I don't want to get emotional. I truly have been so honored to get to work with the people that I did. I'm sure every committee thinks they had the best committee but because of the pandemic and having to meet virtually we actually got to meet more often than the committee generally gets to meet. They generally get to meet two or three times maximum because they have to meet at the conferences that we hold every six months. Because we had to meet virtually, we decided as a committee that we would speak to one another on a monthly basis between June and the decisions that we had to make in January. We didn't discuss the books that we had to deliberate over we simply talked about the process and what we were reading and what we knew about the art that we had seen. So different librarians were able to talk about maybe they've been to a virtual book talk about one of the books or they had experience with the art technique that was being used, so we got to spend a lot more time getting to know one another. So as I said I really grew to understand how this process works and why the 15 committee members is so vital to get enough viewpoints to make sure nobody's being blinded by their own bias or their own point of view. That really helped me relax a little bit. The Caldecott Medal is a life-changer for the book creators who win it. It essentially guarantees those books that got a medal and the honor medals are going to be in print for probably the next hundred years. So it's not a small decision to make, but I really got to trust everyone that I was working with and I knew that between all of us, we all cared so much about the committee and about the books, most importantly we care so much about the young readers who are going to be given access to these books for the next hundred years because it's won an award. That really put my mind at ease to making a good decision since I probably won't ever make this decision again. This is something that many librarians are anxious to do just as I was so it won't be my turn again if ever, or possibly you know many many years down the road. But it was wonder a wonderful learning opportunity for me no doubt and it definitely makes me feel connected to my students, not only now but the students that are coming, the students that have already passed through, but are going to see this book that I helped select. I'm very proud to be part of it!
My colleagues have been so wonderful and supportive I could not have been on this committee without the support of my principal and my vice principal, because of the way that we are running school under the pandemic and the way this committee was working on the pandemic we really had to think outside of the box. Normally I would have been away from school a maximum of two days, possibly I could have done it with just missing one day and having our deliberations all day and then into the weekend. Because we needed to meet virtually, we decided to meet for four hours every day in a week so I was teaching my regular classes in the morning and then passing that on to a substitute teacher for the afternoon while I moved on to committee deliberations. It was truly a group effort to make sure that I could participate in the Caldecott Committee and I am so grateful to my principal for making sure that happened.
So for these selection committees there are so many books that are eligible. It's an award for children's books in the United States so almost every picture book that's published and many graphic novels and some illustrated chapter books are eligible for the Caldecott Medal. So throughout the year the 14 other people on the committee along with myself were reading, reading, reading as many books as we could get our hands on and sending reports to one another about books that we thought would be eligible for further discussion. Then we only got to nominate, I think each person got to nominate eight books that we thought were extraordinary. We did exactly what my students do in class, which is what I told them. We had book talks with one another, we needed to use text evidence for our opinions about the books. This is an art award so we were specifically talking about the illustrations, the pictures. I did some research on art techniques to understand what different artists were doing and it culminated in deliberations which is where we had discussed every book that had been nominated by a member of the committee. Then we went through a few votes to see how close we were in opinion because we did need to come to an agreement about which book would get the award. Then we could choose how many books would get honors and which books those would be so this year. We chose to have four honor books along with our medal. It was difficult to come to a consensus because there were so many wonderful books that we wanted to honor, but it was surprising how unified we were in the end, after all of the discussion we had with one another. This committee is made up of librarians from across the country in school libraries and public libraries so we all brought something different to the table. We even had some of the librarians who had art as one of their hobbies. It was really nice to get that viewpoint. So between us, having grown to respect and know each other we actually came to our ultimate decision surprisingly quickly. Those deliberations are actually top secret so only the American Library Association will know exactly how many books were this close to winning the award, but I always like to tell my students if your favorite book didn't win an award it was probably one of the ones that was this close.
We Are Water Protectors is our Caldecott winning book for 2021 and it is a beautiful book. Anyone that looks at it will not wonder why it won an art award. It's especially wonderful because both the author and the illustrator are Native American women. One lives in Baltimore and one lives in Alaska, so they collaborated virtually just like our committee ended up collaborating. It's a book that was inspired by Standing Rock so although it's a work of fiction, it has wonderful conversation starters for children of all ages about respecting and conserving our environment. The imagery is really breathtaking and memorable.
When my people first spoke of the black snake they foretold that it wouldn't come for many many years. Now the black snake is here. Its venom burns the land, courses through the water making it unfit to drink. Take courage. I must keep the black snake away from my villages water. I must rally my people together to stand for the water, to stand for the land, to stand as one against the black snake. We stand with our songs and our drums. We are still here. It will not be easy. We fight for those who cannot fight for themselves: the winged ones, the crawling ones, the four-legged, the two-legged, the plants, trees, rivers, lakes, the Earth.
It was intense but it was also a true blessing. During such a time of uncertainty and unrest, particularly in the spring when we didn't get to be in our school buildings and I was only seeing my students on the computer, I absolutely found solace in children's literature. Having so many beautiful children's books to pour over in the way I did. You know I was a little bit jealous of the committees that got to do the traditional experience and see one another face to face, but I truly loved the time I spent with the books. We got to do a Zoom call to our winner rather than just a regular phone call which it has always been in the past, so we got to see her face when we said to her, "You've won this life-changing award," and she cried and she was so gracious and so thankful and I will never forget that.
My students very luckily are very independent readers and when we talk about book awards like the Caldecott or the Newbery, we talk about them as recommendations for books because reading's very personal. So sometimes my favorite book wins an award and sometimes it doesn't, and we we all have that situation. So my students definitely know about some of the larger children's book awards, and that when they see that medal on the cover of a book, it's a good book to take a look at and consider. But they also know that their opinion as a reader is just as important as any librarian on the committee, so they take it for what it is and what we want it to be which is just a recommendation of some extraordinary books that we want to make sure everyone gets to consider. I always tell my students, think about being a librarian because my colleagues are the best colleagues in the world, and we get to do everything! You know being a librarian you get to learn about anything you want to learn about. I learned more about art in the past year than I have in my life! I'm so grateful for that opportunity and I'm only going to have more opportunities in the future to learn in libraries and school libraries in particular, They're my favorite
If you ever need help please go to your librarian. Not only your school librarian, your public librarian is your librarian too. That is truly our favorite thing to recommend something interesting to read, to help somebody with a research question, that is what we live for. We are your advocates and we are your friends and whenever you see an award on a book, or email the public librarian on a Sunday night for a research question, just know that that's what we're there for and we're thrilled to do it.