Each year, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC), a children’s literature library of the School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison, bestows the Charlotte Zolotow Award to the author of a picture book deemed to have outstanding writing and which is published in the United States the preceding year. The Award is named in honor of Charlotte Zolotow, a renowned children’s book author and editor, who attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison on a writing scholarship from 1933-36.
This past Saturday I attended the Charlotte Zolotow Award ceremony at which Patrick McDonnell received the Charlotte Zolotow Award for his book, Me … Jane, the story of the young girl who grew up to be Dr. Jane Goodall.
Patrick McDonnell Receiving his Award
I’ve often wondered about the process of choosing the award-winning book, and along came someone who could answer my questions.
Jean Elvekrog had the opportunity to serve on the 2007 and 2008 Charlotte Zolotow Award committees. She has a passion for children’s literature and more energy than anyone I know. She volunteers at local schools, was a former elementary school librarian, and later worked at the Waunakee Public Library. Jean currently is a trustee for public library, is on the board of the Friends of Waunakee Public Library, volunteers as the church librarian at St. John the Baptist Parish, and is involved in several other civic and library organizations, including the Catholic Library Association. Jean is also a member of the Friends of the CCBC, Inc., and has agreed to tell us what happens behind the scenes of the CZ Award committee.
Jean, tell us a bit more about yourself and why you have such a passion for reading and promoting reading for children? I fondly recall that, as a child, I would always receive books as gifts from a great aunt of mine. (She worked as a bookseller in Milwaukee for over forty years). Frequently, the books were Newbery Award winners. I used to read and re-read those books and looked forward to the next gift. I guess I’d say it’s because of Margaret that I became such a lover and promoter of reading for children.
The Charlotte Zolotow Award committee is composed of children’s literature experts. What qualities make a children’s literature expert? I hesitate to use the word, “expert,” but I do know that everyone on the committee has a passion for reading and a deep interest in promoting quality literature for children. Yes, some of the committee members work in school and public libraries serving children. However, others are educators or day care providers and some work in higher education or social services. They represent a nice cross section, which is great. It is important that each of them has the opportunity to be able to read to/with children on a regular basis during the judging period.
Approximately how many books do committee members review? Shipments from publishers would arrive almost daily during the three to four months we deliberated. It rapidly became apparent that as a committee member, we needed to organize the titles in our homes or offices so they could readily be accessed for examination and re-examination! I’m sure we received 750 books, but many of those didn’t meet the award criteria.
What is the ratio of fiction books to nonfiction books that are reviewed? It’s hard to determine the ratio, but I can say without a doubt that fiction greatly outnumbered nonfiction. The reason is that more fiction is published for children each year than nonfiction. However, it’s important to note that while the number of nonfiction titles is less, the nonfiction that is published continues to increase in quality and much of the fiction has become “marginal.” This is a good time to point out that the winner of the 2012 Charlotte Zolotow Award is nonfiction; it’s the outstanding childhood story of chimpanzee researcher Jane Goodall. I was very pleased with the committee’s choice.
Patrick McDonnell Signing Me … Jane
What was it you personally looked for in choosing a winner? I not only looked for outstanding writing, but also appreciated it when the writing and the illustrations worked together. You’d think this would always be true, but it isn’t!
Can you give us some insight into the inner workings of the committee? In 2007 and 2008, we gathered at the CCBC approximately every 4-6 weeks, and we always met face-to-face. I’ve heard that now the committee meets virtually during the first few months and doesn’t get together until near the end of the deliberations. As a result, the pool of persons to be considered as members is greater because geographic location is no longer a barrier. Conference calls, skyping, and e-mails can make virtual meetings possible. It’s a great example of making technology work for us.
When the winner is finally chosen, does everyone on the committee have to agree with the decision or is it majority rules? I can only speak from my experience, but I do recall that when we narrowed our choices for the final voting in 2007 and 2008, we all were very pleased with the winners: Peter McCarty (Moon Plane, Henry Holt, 2006) and Greg Foley (Thank You Bear, Viking, 2007). It’s important to note that the committee can also name up to five honor books and up to ten highly commended titles.
Do you have some advice you’d like to impart to aspiring picture book writers? I’ve always believed in “quality” over “quantity” in writing. That is a trait instilled in me by my high school journalism teacher, and it has remained with me ever since. A children’s picture book author needs to be clear and concise or he/she will lose the reader very quickly. I maintain that one author who has succeeded in doing this in all of his picture books is Kevin Henkes. I’ve never “lost” children from my audiences when I’ve read Kevin’s books to them!
Thank you, Jean, for your sharing your knowledge of the inner workings of the Charlotte Zolotow Award committee.