Bank Street College hosted its annual ceremony for the honor and award winning recipients of two prestigious prizes on May 18. The Irma S. and James H. Black Award for Excellence in Children’s Literature and the Cook Prize for Excellence in Presenting STEM Principles were presented to children’s authors and illustrators who accepted their awards both in person and remotely, via video. The awards, as explained by Jed Lippard, dean of children’s programs at Bank Street, are unique in that the final judges are child readers who “read, discussed, and advocated for their books.” For each award, there were three honor books and one winner.

The Irma S. and James H. Black Award is given to books that embody a harmonious integration of “words and pictures together,” said Shael Polakow-Suransky, president of Bank Street College. Author-illustrator Stephen Savage, who gave the morning’s keynote address, elaborated on the importance and power of pictures, questioning why an author’s name typically comes first when introducing a picture book. He reasoned that “people are more familiar with what an author does, are more comfortable,” and that individuals can often be “overwhelmed and puzzled by images.” And yet, pictures came long before words: “it is our primary language... our oldest form of storytelling,” Savage said. He spoke about his own visual literacy, tracing it back to a formative experience he had while visiting the Louvre as a child. He admitted that his immediate response to the works of art surrounding him was excruciating boredom. He also recalled looking up at Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa and having the image be utterly lost on his child self. Regardless, “there was something about The Raft of the Medusa” that would ultimately stay with him long after seeing it that day at the Louvre.

Savage said that many of the basic principles at work in an image—including “visual rhymes,” “weight,” and “shape”—are the same principles that he uses in his own artwork today. When looking at images, whether The Raft of the Medusa or a spread from Savage’s picture book Where’s Walrus?, he advised approaching “with the heart,” rather than with the head: “When you feel you are on a raft at sea, lose yourself in the story instead,” he said.

Accepting her Irma S. and James H. Black Honor for her picture book, Quackers (Knopf), was author-illustrator Liz Wong. She spoke about experiencing her book’s transition from an idea in her head to a published work in the hands of readers: “Once it’s out in the world, it takes on its own life. It no longer just belongs to me,” she said. In the months following the publication of Quackers, Wong was often surprised at how readers perceptively approached the story: a group of second graders saw themes of queer and transgender identity in Quackers and a girl with immigrant parents voiced to Wong how she could relate to Quackers’s experience of not neatly fitting into any one category. “This book is not about me. It’s about the collaboration between pictures, words, and readers,” she concluded.

Author-illustrator Lucy Ruth Cummins then accepted her honor for A Hungry Lion, or a Dwindling Assortment of Animals (Scholastic Press). “It’s a weird year to have written a book about a big, orange bully,” she kidded. She thanked her editor Justin Chanda, saying “This book has heart in large part because you insisted. It could have been a much bleaker book.” She went on to thank her parents for instilling in her a love of libraries (“I still owe for a copy of Super Fudge,” she admitted) and making her a lifelong picture book devotee: “I was raised with picture books and moved to college with picture books,” she said. She also offered a confession: “The animals in my book dwindle in the order of how much I enjoy drawing them. So, I really don’t like drawing that sheep.” She added that a reader once told her that she really liked dogs and wished they had been in the book: “I really like dogs too, which is why there aren’t any in the book,” she joked (one by one, the animals in the book become a meal for the eponymous Hungry Lion).

Hungry lions ruled the stage, with the next honor given to Little Red and the Very Hungry Lion by Alex T. Smith, who was unable to attend the event in person. Michelle Campbell of Scholastic accepted the award on behalf of Smith and the book, which a child judge reported liking “because I think the pictures match the words!”

The winner for the 2017 Irma S. and James H. Black Award was presented to The Night Gardener (Simon & Schuster), written and illustrated by the Fan Brothers, who thanked Bank Street and readers via video from Ontario, Canada. Eric Fan shared that the collaboration didn’t initially begin as a book, but as a stand-alone illustration that strongly resonated with them both after its completion. Terry Fan explained that their father had inspired that initial image and the book itself. “He was the real night gardener,” he said.

The Cook Prize

Next in the program were the presentations of the Cook Prize Honor Books, beginning with Follow the Moon Home: A Tale of One Idea, Twenty Kids, and a Hundred Sea Turtles (Chronicle) by Phillipe Costeau and Deborah Hopkinson, illustrated by Meilo So. Accepting the honor on behalf of Costeau and Hopkinson was author Elizabeth Segel, who read a statement from Hopkinson. She shared that she has been heartened to see readers’ level of enthusiasm for Follow the Moon Home; it has taught her that “students are eager to participate in environmental conservation efforts. I believe that community action projects help to nurture interest in STEM and STEAM,” Hopkinson said. Illustrator So provided a mostly wordless and musical thank-you via video from her home in the Shetland Isles of Scotland.

Also receiving a Cook Honor was Solving the Puzzle Under the Sea: Marie Tharp Maps the Ocean Floor (Simon & Schuster) by Robert Burleigh, illustrated by Raúl Colón. Editor Paula Wiseman read Burleigh’s acceptance speech, which thanked Bank Street for the honor: “I think that your help in [advocating for books about] science and especially women in science is an endeavor that merits the greatest praise,” Burleigh said in his statement.

Raúl Colón next accepted his award. The illustrator spoke about how art and science are often interconnected in that both involve the imagination. Science did not highly appeal to him when he was in school, he said, in part because of the way teachers would simply present information, without framing it in a storytelling fashion. He admits to being somewhat intimidated by the idea of illustrating a book involving “science and measuring the deep ocean.” He found his way into the story initially by deciding to focus on “making the visuals interesting,” and including “Winslow Homer-type waves.” But illustrating the surface of the ocean, which he had seen many times before, was one thing; creating what lies below the waves was much more difficult: “We can’t see what’s underneath!” The process of illustrating the book led Colón to conduct his own research into the science—or is it the art?—of mapping the ocean floor, allowing him to learn along with readers.

The final honor book for the Cook Prize was given to Whoosh!: Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions (Charlesbridge), by Chris Barton, illustrated by Don Tate. Unable to attend the event due to a school visit in Texas, Barton spoke via video. Barton’s story focuses on the successes of African-American inventor Lonnie Johnson but Barton described how readers tend to be most impacted by the moment in the story “when all of Lonnie’s plans fall apart—even the ones for the water gun.” Barton believes that the book conveys to readers “the necessity of determination, of persistence, of perseverance, and problem solving when it comes to overcoming obstacles.”

Kristin Freda, director of library services at Bank Street, read a statement from Don Tate accepting the honor: “I was especially gratified to learn that the winners and finalists were selected by students—third and fourth graders. What an empowering opportunity for readers,” he said. He also expressed how, when he was growing up, he didn’t see examples of scientists and engineers “who looked like me.” He added that “had a book like Whoosh existed, who knows—maybe I’d be a multimillionaire inventor of a popular toy.” He concluded that the readers who selected the book have helped to ensure that “more diverse young readers may be inspired to pursue a career as an astronaut-scientist-inventor-mathematician.”

The 2017 Cook Prize was given to Journey: Based on the True Story of OR7, the Most Famous Wolf in the West (Little Bigfoot), by Emma Bland Smith, illustrated by Robin James. Kristin Freda read a statement from Robin James, who was unable to attend. She stated that it was a privilege “to be the illustrator of this wonderful book,” and added that she hopes the book will continue to “inspire readers to further conservation efforts for wolves.”

Smith then spoke about OR7 and how she first became interested in writing about him. She learned about the gray wolf who had been fitted with a tracking collar and whose movements were being monitored by scientists—in the way many others did: by following news reports. OR7 would travel 2,000 miles and become famous as the first gray wolf to return to California since 1924. Though she had always been a fiction writer, the idea for a story based on OR7 began to take hold, but she struggled with how to present the story in a way that was “compelling and engaging for kids.” She then learned about a contest sponsored by the organization Oregon Wild that asked children to name OR7—the idea being that having a name would make OR7 “too famous to kill.” That’s how OR7 became “Journey.” Smith created a child character who follows the gray wolf’s trek from Oregon to California, as did Smith herself, and takes part in the efforts to protect him. As the book was being finalized, there were late-breaking developments: Smith learned from the news that Journey had found a mate and, next, that she had given birth to their wolf pups: “We’ve got to add this!” she told her editor.

In sharing the book with groups of readers, Smith said she is struck by how they react once they “make the connection that Journey is real.” Finally, Smith said that, while researching the book, she discovered a very personal connection to Journey that she wasn’t aware she held. She learned that at one point during his trek, Journey had actually crossed the road by her family’s cabin in Northern California where she spent summers as a child and continues to visit today. Though Smith may have started out as a fiction writer, the experience of writing Journey has taught her “what a powerful tool nonfiction is,” she said.