Sunday night, Kadir Nelson turned off the ringer on his phone and planned to sleep in. When his wife awakened him to suggest he check his text messages it was already 10 a.m. in California—nearly five hours after the rest of the world had learned that The Undefeated (HMH/Versify), an ode written by Kwame Alexander and illustrated by Nelson, had won the 2020 Randolph Caldecott Medal for the most distinguished American picture book for children.
“[The committee] called several times, but they called at 3 a.m. so I just slept right through it,” said Nelson, who has received “the call” twice before—in 2007 when Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom was named a Caldecott Honor book and in 2008 when Henry’s Freedom Box was also given an Honor. Nelson said he wasn’t aware the awards were being announced on Monday but said he makes a deliberate effort not to pay too much attention or get his hopes up. “You don’t want to set yourself up for heartbreak.”
The Undefeated, a paean to the struggles and accomplishments of African-Americans throughout history, was also recognized for both illustration and text by the Coretta Scott King Awards, and Alexander won a Newbery Honor for the text. It is only one of three titles since the institution of the Newbery and Caldecott medals to be cited for distinction in both artwork and writing. The other two were A Visit to William Blake’s Inn (Harcourt, 1981) by Nancy Willard, illustrated by Alice and Martin Provensen, and Last Stop on Market Street (Putnam, 2016) written by Matt de la Peña and illustrated by Christian Robinson.
The awards, announced Monday at the American Library Association’s midwinter conference in Philadelphia, are considered the top prizes in young people’s literature. The selection of The Undefeated represents another achievement for Alexander, who published the book on his first list from his new diversity-focused imprint, Versify.
It is also Nelson’s first book with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. He did not know Alexander before they worked together on the book; they are good friends now after having toured together in support of the title. The original artwork for The Undefeated goes on its own museum tour next, beginning February 1 in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Author and illustrator spoke briefly today about their respective victories. “We were patting each other on the back,” Nelson said. “We’re looking forward to celebrating in June.”
June is when ALA will formally hand out the awards at its annual convention, this year in Chicago. It’s also when Nelson, who has attended the Newbery/Caldecott dinner twice before, will have to deliver a speech.
“I’ve received those Caldecott Honors twice and it’s very nice. You only have to hold out your hand and say, ‘Thank you,’ ” he said. “So this time I’ll be busy writing my speech. That’s the cross I have to bear, but it’s very welcome.”