Given the sense of humor that’s present in so much of Dan Santat’s work, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that his first tweet after being named the winner of the 2015 Caldecott Medal reads as follows: “I’m so bummed the Patriots won the #SuperBowl last night. My whole day is ruined.”
Speaking to PW from his home in Los Angeles, the author-artist behind the winning book, The Adventures of Beekle: An Unimaginary Friend (Little, Brown), confessed that he was “running on sheer excitement and the rush of the announcement.” Having gone to bed at two in the morning on Monday, he was awoken by a phone call from the Caldecott committee only a couple hours later. “When I got the call, I hate to admit it, but I started crying. I crumpled to the floor and started crying.”
Santat was well aware that the awards were being announced today – on a recent trip to Houston for a book event, he got the sense that “a lot of people I was talking to were holding their tongues, not wanting to jinx anything.” As for himself, “the thought of possibly getting some kind of recognition was always in the back of my mind,” he said. “But you never want to get those kinds of hopes up. From reading mock Caldecott lists online, I never really thought that I had a chance.”
The Caldecott win comes just over a decade after the publication of Santat’s first picture book, The Guild of Geniuses (Scholastic/Levine), and in the years since, he has illustrated more than 20 books for children, including Crankenstein, Carnivores, and Oh No!: Or How My Science Project Destroyed the World. But The Adventures of Beekle, in which an imaginary friend (who later gains the name “Beekle”) ventures into the world to find his human companion, is just one of a couple books that Santat has both written and illustrated. It’s also, perhaps, his most personal – “beekle” was his son’s first word, for “bicycle.”
“The book is a metaphor for the birth of my son,” he explained. “When my wife was pregnant, as the expecting father-to-be, the first thoughts in my head were imagining, ‘What is he going to be like? What will his personality be? What traits will he and I have in common?’ The book is this journey of expectation, and then meeting this person for the first time.”
Among the first people Santat spoke to after the Caldecott committee was his editor, Connie Hsu, now a senior editor at Roaring Brook Press. “I honestly feel like I couldn’t have done it without her,” said Santat. “I tend to overcomplicate things, sometimes, and she was this great vessel to sharpen and clarify what I wanted to say.” Santat also called his agent of several years, Jodi Reamer of Writers House. “She has known for a long time that writing my own work is something I wanted,” said Santat. “She pushed me to take fewer other jobs and focus more on what I really wanted to do. I don’t have that discipline – that discipline to say no.”
He also spoke to his parents, if briefly: “I called my father and said, ‘Dad, I won the Caldecott Medal.’ And he said, ‘OK, OK, I’ll tell your mother when she wakes up.’ Click.”
Santat is looking forward to seeing the Caldecott committee in person when he receives the medal at the ALA’s annual meeting in June, held in San Francisco this year. Santat calls the location “kind of perfect,” because five years ago he had considered accepting a job with Google, in the department that designs the “Doodles” for their homepage. “Should I take this job and make money to support my family, or should I chase my dream?” he remembered asking himself. He turned down the job and was determined not to regret the decision. “It pushed to do more of my own writing and motivated me to use the other side of my creative brain, to write more.”
Santat has been open about the difficulty of keeping up an exhausting pace of producing work, writing a long post on his website this past fall about reaching his physical, mental, and creative limit. “I was always the kind of person who felt like I could get where I needed to go by sheer hard work,” he told PW. “Last year was so grueling that I actually felt like I reached that limit. I saw that limit and I crossed it. And the only way out was to get the work done.”
For now, though, Santat is giving himself a break from deadlines and said he was looking forward to picking up his son from school, taking him out to an “old retro arcade,” and maybe getting some ice cream. “I’m so jazzed, so filled with energy I can’t do anything. I’m just basking in the glow and talking with friends online. I never thought an opportunity like this would ever happen.”
To read our interview with 2015 Newbery Medalist Kwame Alexander, click here.
To read our interview with 2015 Printz Medalist Jandy Nelson, click here.