Except that he was there alone, which is somewhat unusual, January 29, 2023, was an ordinary Sunday night at Doug Salati’s shared Brooklyn studio, started by Sophie Blackall and Brian Floca, which he “had the incredibly good fortune to join a few years ago.”

Salati said that he was “catching up on some emails and getting a project I’m working on in order before the new week began” when the evening took a turn for the extraordinary. In what he described as “a once-in-a-lifetime moment,” he answered his phone to hear Robert Bittner, chair of this year’s Caldecott committee, inform him he had won the award for Hot Dog (Knopf).

When the call came, Salati recalled, “I was overwhelmed, and I couldn’t immediately respond—all my words left me! Other committee members were in the room as well, and I knew that I should hurry up and say ‘Thank you!’ for this incredible honor, for even considering, and then actually choosing, my book out of the many, many amazing books published, but I’m afraid that I was pretty shocked. I just hope that I adequately conveyed my gratitude.”

Salati didn’t have to make the decision about who he would tell the happy news to first, since he had been on a phone call with his parents (in upstate New York) when the Caldecott call beeped in—and they were still on hold. “We had been chatting about what could happen the following day—what the awards outcome might be—and then I heard the beep,” he said. “After I got back on the phone and told my parents what had happened, they were beyond thrilled!”

After that conversation, the newest Caldecott Medalist said he thought about “all the amazing people I wanted to share the news with, though I was aware that the idea was to keep it under wraps until the following day.”

Still, he spoke to several individuals straight away, including his two nieces in Portland, Ore., devoted fans to whom he dedicated Hot Dog; his agent, Erica Rand Silverman at Stimola Literary Studio; and the book’s editor Rotem Moscovich and art director Rachael Cole, whose guidance and support, he said, resulted in “a wonderful collaboration among the three of us.”

Salati tactically did not talk to his partner, Matthew, before returning home (via train and an enthusiastic jog) to deliver his Caldecott news in person, and received “an absolutely shocked, happy in the most wonderful way” response.

Hot Dog is the third picture book Salati has illustrated (after In a Small Kingdom by Tomie dePaola and Lawrence in the Fall by Matthew Farina), and is his debut solo work. In the near-wordless story, an overheated dog’s refusal to move from the middle of a busy New York City street on a sweltering day inspires his empathetic owner to take her pup (using various modes of transport) to the beach to cool off.

Salati credited Moscovich for urging him to create a book on his own. “Honestly, I may not have attempted this without Rotem’s encouragement,” he explained. “I am a drawer—drawing is where my comfort zone is in terms of communicating a story. For me, what sets a picture book apart is that incredible dance between text and image, and trying that was an intimidating thing. But I started to do a bit of writing to see what that would bring.”

In addition to earning him the Caldecott, spreading his creative wings taught Salati a lesson worthy of passing along. “In a way I still feel very much in the apprenticeship stage and know I have so much to learn, but I think that a good takeaway for all of us making books and for kids reading books is that it is worth trying new things and telling the stories you want to tell.”

Salati, who is currently trying another new thing—creating the illustrations for Words with Wings and Magic Things, a book of poetry by Matthew Burgess for Tundra—is grateful for the ongoing, protean lessons his profession delivers. “Every project is different, and you have to play around with it until you figure out the best way you can do it,” he noted. “And the incredible thing is you can try and try again, and each time you learn more about yourself and about the messages you want to bring to others. Having the opportunity to do that is really an extraordinary gift.”