On Tuesday afternoon, Maria Russo, children’s books editor at the New York Times Book Review, hosted a three-hour conference celebrating the 65-year anniversary of the publication’s annual award for illustrated children’s books. The prize, which was launched in 1952, came out of the publication’s art department, which is why it focuses exclusively on illustration. The discussion encompassed the history of the prize and touched on current trends in children’s book art.
Initially billed as a discussion with Leonard Marcus, the event became a spontaneous panel as Brian Floca, Paul O. Zelinsky, and Steven Guarnaccia, all former judges, were called to the stage to discuss their experiences in picking the prize winners. Asked if there was a particular style of illustration that was more “award-worthy” and dominated children’s book publishing today, the panelists agreed that there was no one aesthetic taking precedence, but it is important to acknowledge that there are “camps” who favor particular styles.
“There is the Jon Klassen” camp for example, said Guarnaccia. And, Marcus noted, “there was the Lane Smith camp, which kind of started with The Stinky Cheese Man,” which, when combined with Jon Scieszka’s writing, also introduced a sly wit that had heretofore been uncommon in picture books.
When asked by the audience what judges looked for when awarding the prize, Zelinsky said that he approached the process entirely as “someone who loves kids’ books, and not as an illustrator.” You just “try to find what you love the most,” said Floca. But there was no prescription for what would work. Zelinsky added, “When you start to think children need this, or children need that, you are being didactic, and that is something you want to avoid.”
Seated amid the four judges—all white, all male—Russo also observed that “so many of the winners have also been men and white,” that when looking for judges in the future, she’ll be looking for “diversity first.”
“I think that might help us better reflect what is out there now,” she said.
A later discussion featured a panel of publishers whose books have won prizes, including Deirdre McDermott, picture book publisher and creative director, at Walker Books in the U.K.;
Anne Schwartz, publisher of Schwartz and Wade Books at Random House; and Neal Porter, publisher of Neal Porter Books at Holiday House.