On January 22, the 2024 Youth Media Awards were announced, anointing the top titles of the previous year. Prize-winning publishers and author-illustrators weren’t resting on their laurels that day. Behind the scenes, creative teams were managing a dreamed-of design challenge: where to put the award stickers.
Two inches in diameter in all its golden glory, the Caldecott Medal seal signifies “the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children,” according to the ALA. Yet the fancy embossed, metallic label—a sticker applied by hand, not inked on—takes up real estate on a picture book cover and often obscures part of the artist’s work. We asked creative teams to share how they negotiate the precise location of the seal.
“I mean, who’s complaining?” asked Rotem Moscovich, editorial director of Knopf Books for Young Readers, who edited author-illustrator Doug Salati’s 2023 Caldecott Medal-winning Hot Dog. The seal affects the original composition, Moscovich said, “but we’re so happy to have this beacon” shining on the jacket, attracting library patrons and bookstore browsers.
She noted that publishers purchase stickers from the ALA, then affix them one by one. “A person does that,” Moscovich said, explaining that “the labor cost is practically the same as the actual sticker cost.” Every book jacket is adorned with glory by someone at a printer or distributor. Moscovich’s colleague, art director Rachael Cole, added that “the jackets are put on by hand as well. People just don’t think about” the individual handler behind every copy.
Moscovich and Cole’s observations are echoed by Aram Kim, art director at Macmillan Children’s Book Group, who worked on 2021 Caldecott winner We Are Water Protectors, illustrated by Michaela Goade and written by Carole Lindstrom. “Having the physical stickers on the cover is always eye-catching and helps find more readers,” Kim said. “Many people will be surprised to hear that the publishers purchase the stickers from ALA for the books that won awards. But it’s worth the cost,” because it’s such an unmissable badge.
A Good Problem to Have
In 2020, illustrator Kadir Nelson won the Caldecott Medal and Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award for The Undefeated, written by Kwame Alexander and published by Versify, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. The Undefeated also received a Newbery Honor, necessitating placement of not one, not two, but three stickers.
“When I composed the cover, I didn’t have any thoughts about the book winning any awards,” Nelson said. After the announcement, then-HMH art director Whitney Leader-Picone sent Nelson an image with suggested medal placements. “She was very pleased that the Newbery Honor medal fit perfectly over one of the circular graphic elements in the existing artwork, which was inspired by the artwork of Harlem Renaissance artist Aaron Douglas,” Nelson said. “The Caldecott and [King] medals also fell beautifully into place in a way that didn’t crowd the artwork.”
Margaret Raymo, now executive editor at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, worked with Nelson and Alexander on The Undefeated when she was senior executive editor at HMH. “Those books that win more than one award are a bit more of a challenge, especially when you have gorgeous art by Kadir Nelson,” Raymo said. She then pointed to the airy negative space on the cover of a newly consecrated Little, Brown title by Vashti Harrison, saying: “Luckily, Big has lots of room” to accommodate its Caldecott Medal, King award, and National Book Award finalist seals.”
Little, Brown v-p and creative director Dave Caplan called Harrison’s Big cover award placements “a wonderful puzzle to solve!” Not only did they need to affix the Caldecott; they had several competing stickers. “We tried every combination we could think of, even trying to place one of the medals inside the negative space of the G in the title,” Caplan said. “In the end we felt the best option was to group all the medals towards the bottom of the cover even if it meant part of the title would need to be obscured. We presented three options to Vashti, and she chose the [one] she felt was the most visually balanced.”
Dana Fritts, senior art director at HarperCollins Children’s Books, concurred: “It’s trickier if there are multiple medals to fit on a cover, but that is also a good problem to have!”
Watercress, written by Andrea Wang and illustrated by Jason Chin, faced a similar conundrum. In addition to Chin’s 2022 Caldecott, Watercress received a Newbery Honor and the Asian/Pacific American Award. Neal Porter, publisher of Neal Porter Books at Holiday House and Watercress’s editor, found it “fortuitous that there’s a fair amount of space on either side of the figure in the middle of the Watercress jacket.”
After working with designer Jennifer Browne to arrange the seals vertically, and deciding a right-side placement was most appealing, Porter sent a mockup to Holiday House v-p of marketing and publicity Terry Borzumato-Greenberg and executive v-p and general manager Derek Stordahl. Once they approved the design, Chin and Wang weighed in. “We quickly got their thumbs-up, and we were off the races,” Porter said.
Choosing the Perfect Spot
A Caldecott seal is kind of like a tattoo on a book cover: once its location is decided, it’s permanent. That makes publishing perfectionists uneasy, Porter explained, because sometimes “there’s no place to put a sticker that doesn’t obscure a significant piece of art.” While he was editorial director of his own imprint at Roaring Brook Press, Porter edited Erin and Philip Stead’s 2011 Caldecott-winning title, A Sick Day for Amos McGee. “I wouldn’t say it’s a busy cover, but there’s a lot of imagery,” Porter recalled. “When you look at the book now, it seems inevitable” that the seal is in the upper left corner, just touching the elephant’s head. “But I remember having a tough time figuring out where the seal could go.”
Perfect solutions come along once in a while. In 2019, Little, Brown creative director Caplan saw two options for the seal’s placement on Sophie Blackall’s Hello Lighthouse. Blackall liked the one “above the horizon, like a sun,” Little, Brown editor-at-large Susan Rich recalled, and that’s where it went. But in 2016, Blackall’s book jacket for Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear, written by Lindsay Mattick, was a puzzler. “Designer Saho Fuji created four options,” Rich said. “When I shared them with Sophie, first she replied with, ‘Never thought I’d be having this discussion!’ and then ‘Definitely top right corner.’ We wanted to avoid having the seal intersect with the art.”
At Little, Brown, Javaka Steptoe’s 2017 Caldecott and King Illustrator award-winning Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Dan Santat’s 2015 Caldecott-winning The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend, provoked debate as well. “Both covers feature full-bleed art without obvious spaces” for stickers, Caplan said. “We knew art would need to be covered up.” On Radiant Child’s jacket, designers wanted to “avoid overlapping [with] the portrait of Basquiat.” On Beekle, the seal hides the legs of a seated person so that it doesn’t clash with the posed woman and dog, “who are integral to adding that special bit of humor.”
At Knopf, Hot Dog faced another dilemma when author-illustrator Salati won both the Caldecott and Ezra Jack Keats Award. The Caldecott is announced in January; the Keats needs to stay under wraps until March. Knopf editorial director Moscovich and art director Cole huddled with Salati until they’d found a place for the Caldecott seal, high enough on the cover to include the red and silver Keats sticker. “If we hadn’t known about the EJK, we might have made a different call,” Moscovich said. “But all future reprints would have both, so we had this intermediary.”
Roaring Brook art director Kim recalls weighing several possibilities for the seal on We Are Water Protectors. Originally, Kim said, “We explored placing the sticker within the light blue wave so the circular water would envelop the circular medal, but that caused the sticker to overlap our main character’s hair” and compromised her “powerful pose.” Ultimately, the team shifted the sticker into the wave, echoing but not interrupting the circle motif, then checked in with Goade, Lindstrom, “the art director, creative director, editorial director, managing editor, production manager, and the publisher. There are a lot of people who are behind making a great book!”
Above All, Don’t Make Predictions
Considering how sticky award placement can become, why not design book covers with potential award seals in mind?
Perish the thought. Susan Rich, editor-at-large of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, replied, “Never! If you think, even for one second, that a book might win an award, that would be the best way to ensure it does not.”
Rich might as well have been speaking for everyone. “We publishers are very superstitious, and we don’t talk about potential award winners,” said Porter at Holiday House. “That is just a happy thought lurking in the background.”
Knopf’s Cole, art director on Hot Dog, expressed a horror of leaving a special spot aside. “I just can’t go there in my head,” Cole said. “Every once in a while [when designing a cover], I’ll be like, ‘Oh, that would be a good place for something.’ And then I’m spitting three times” to undo the jinx.
Little, Brown’s Caplan referenced award-season magic too. “No one has a crystal ball,” he said. “Only after a book has won an award, and by some miracle happens to have the perfect spot on the cover to hold a seal, we will of course take credit for having planned that well in advance!”
Everyone agreed that creative teams have to focus on creating the strongest cover designs possible, avoid making predictions, and scramble if award fortune smiles upon them. “It’s a very happy thing [when a book rockets to Caldecott fame], but it’s an onslaught of extra work” to revisit the design, Cole said. “It’s kind of a wild ride when it happens.”