The Bank Street College Center for Children’s Literature presented the winners of the 2018 Irma Simonton Black and James H. Black Award and the Cook Prize, as well as the semi-finalists, during an awards ceremony held at Bank Street College on May 10. The Irma Black Award is given each year to a book that demonstrates excellence through a harmonious interplay between words and images. The Cook Prize is awarded to a picture book that integrates science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) and is intended for readers ages eight to 10. Child readers serve as final judges for both prizes each year.
The winner of this year’s Irma Simonton Black Award was 7 Ate Nine: The Untold Story by Tara Lazar, illustrated by Ross MacDonald (Disney-Hyperion), and the Cook Prize went to Beauty and the Beak: How Science, Technology and a 3D-Printed Beak Rescued a Bald Eagle by Deborah Lee Rose and Janie Velkamp (Persnickety Press).
Before the winners were welcomed to the stage, author-illustrator Laura Vaccaro Seeger delivered a keynote address. She offered attendees a behind-the-scenes look at her creative process, by showing pages from her journals and reflecting on the frequent, nagging sense she has when working on a piece of art or story, that “it needs something.”
Seeger recalled one of the first times she experienced this feeling as a child. She had stayed up late one night creating a collage, discovering at a certain point in the process, that it was missing a certain ingredient: sparkle and shine. All out of glitter, she improvised by cutting up her mother’s golden necklaces and adding the pieces to her collage. While her mother was certainly not pleased about the fate of her necklaces, her reaction was not one of anger: “I don’t remember her yelling at me,” said Seeger. Remembering this incident often leads Seeger to think about the many individuals who ultimately do turn away from creativity because of feelings of inadequacy, uncertainty, or negativity associated with their work.
When Seeger visits classrooms with very young children and asks “who wants to be a writer or artist?,” all the hands typically go up. Over the years, something happens and, when Seeger asks that same question of older kids, fewer and fewer individuals respond positively. Why do so few children continue to persist in their artistic endeavors, while others put art and writing aside? For Seeger, in addition to having positive reinforcement in their lives, it also comes down to “trusting the process” of creation, even when it is “sometimes painful and discouraging.” It is by asking the question “what does it need?” and not being afraid to sit with the discomfort that can come when the answer isn’t clear, that an artist continues to grow.
When working on a collage as an adult, Seeger again went looking for that “something” to add, finding just the right item among her husband’s assortment of paper souvenirs and scraps. Like her mother following the necklace incident, her husband wasn’t too pleased when he discovered that the something was his World Series ticket that Seeger had cut into pieces, but “we’re still married,” Seeger said—and she still trusts in her creative instincts to take her work where it needs to go.
Next, the Irma Simonton Black semi-finalists were announced. Connie Hsu, author-illustrator Dan Santat’s editor, accepted the honor for After the Fall: How Humpty Dumpty Got Back Up Again (Roaring Brook) on Santat’s behalf. She read a statement from Santat, in which he described the book as “a love letter to my wife” in regards to her “lifelong struggle with anxiety.”
Gilbert Ford spoke about his picture book, How the Cookie Crumbled: The True (and Not-So-True) Stories of the Invention of the Chocolate Chip Cookie (Atheneum), which presents several different explanations for who invented the chocolate chip cookie. When it came to publishing the book, there were also “several cooks in the kitchen,” he said. Ford thanked his publishing and editing team and commented on how seeing his book alongside the other books on the stage—as well as in classrooms—“makes life all the more sweet.”
Jalissa Corrie, marketing and publicity assistant at Lee & Low, accepted the honor for Sparkle Boy—about a boy who loves to dress in sparkly clothing—on behalf of Lesléa Newman. In a statement that Corrie read, Newman wrote that she hopes the book will help make the world “a safer place for Sparkle Boys and for everyone.” Todd Zinn of the Young Reviewers' Program, read a statement from illustrator Maria Mola. She wrote about the importance of ensuring that “every child—your child, my child—feels represented in literature.”
Author Tara Lazar accepted the Irma Simonton Black Award for her book, 7 Ate 9: The Untold Story, illustrated by Ross MacDonald. Lazar commented that “it takes a village to make a book.” She expressed gratitude for the award, saying, “You work for years with absolutely no promise of anything. I’m so thrilled my book was chosen and selected by children. That’s why I write them.” Illustrator MacDonald spoke briefly via video, saying that after reading the manuscript for the first time, he knew right away that he would do it, “because it answers a question that has bothered me since I was a kid.” He concluded by saying “it’s a huge honor; I’m so thrilled,” and urged readers to “keep reading!”
Cook Award semi-finalists next accepted their honors. Neal Porter accepted the honor for Grand Canyon (Roaring Brook/Porter) on author Jason Chin’s behalf. He read a statement from Chin, who praised the Cook Award for allowing children to choose the honorees and winner each year, saying that the judging process for readers “turns reading into a social experience,” adding that “children, it turns out, know what they like better than we do.” He also addressed the importance of books that tap into children’s natural curiosity to excite them about science.
Next to speak was author and photographer Doug Wechsler, who accepted a Cook Honor for The Hidden Life of a Toad (Charlesbridge). Wechsler shared that his picture book arose out of “my long tradition of going out to seek toads on my birthday in April.” He said that in his book, he wanted to capture the experience for readers of being in nature, saying that “nature needs more allies.” He also addressed the importance of research when writing nonfiction which, in his case, included “reading everything about the subject” and raising and closely observing tadpoles.
Via video, author Anita Sanchez spoke about Karl, Get Out of the Garden!: Carolus Linnaeus and the Naming of Everything, illustrated by Catherine Stock (Charlesbridge). Sanchez reported that the book “started out as an informational text about scientific classification,” but as she was learning about Karl Linneaus, “I fell in love with him as an individual.” She was taken with Linneaus’s curiosity about nature and, by conveying that curiosity, hoped to encourage readers to also explore the natural world. She concluded by sharing Linneaus’s personal motto: “omnia mirari etiam tritissima,” which translates from the Latin as “find wonder in all things, even the commonplace,” saying that “it is a good motto for all of us.”
The book’s illustrator, Catherine Stock, spoke via video from her home in rural France, where she lives with dogs, cats, and a “resident hedgehog.” She commented that, “I think Karl would approve of my life choices.”
Jane Veltkamp, raptor biologist and co-author of Beauty and the Beak: How Science, Technology and a 3D-Printed Beak Rescued a Bald Eagle, accepted the award remotely. “It took team collaboration to make Beauty’s beak, and so did the book,” she said. Veltkamp, who took in the eagle, Beauty, after she was shot by a hunter and her beak was shattered, commented on the power of books that “call on fact and imagination” to engage STEM learning and emotional learning. Beauty still lives with Veltkamp today at her raptor center in Idaho.
Last to take the stage was Beauty and the Beak’s other co-author, Deborah Lee Rose. She discussed the impact that the book has on young readers, who are amazed to see how “a small functional part can change a creature’s entire life.” She said that she had known very little about bald eagles before starting the project, but did not see this lack of knowledge as an impediment. “Children are also starting at square one,” she pointed out. I “It was a bonus to experience the sense of wonder and discovery that readers would.”
Rose said that she began her career intending to work as a translator for the United Nations, but she’s since learned that “science writing is translation.” In Beauty and the Beak, Beauty begins the story as a bird that has been broken, but through human compassion and intervention becomes whole again. In regards to the writing process, Rose reflected that “it doesn’t matter where you start, as long as you finish with the best version that you set out to create.”