The 2014 ALA Award Winners: The Tip of the Iceberg

The ALA award winners were just announced yesterday, including the Caldecott winner (Locomotive by Brian Floca) and the Newbery winner (Flora & Ulysess by Kate DiCamillo).

The most popular question bantered around since the announcements has been: Did the Caldecott and Newbery committees get it right?

With all due respect to the award committee members, my answer is no.


Journey by Aaron Becker was predicted by many to garner the top honor.

The Caldecott and Newbery committees could not possibly have gotten it “right.” These two committees were charged with impossible tasks.

The Caldecott committee was charged with identifying “the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children.” The Newbery committee was charged with identifying “the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.”

These committees were tasked with identifying the one best picture book and the one best chapter book published within the past year…as if it were possible to identify such books…as if the ALA committee members have some direct line to the children’s book gods.

There is no one picture book that is definitively better quality than any other picture book published within the past year. Locomotive by Brian Floca is not that book. Journey by Aaron Becker is not that book. Mr. Tiger Goes Wild by Peter Brown is not that book.


A spread from Journey of a Mixteco, a graphic novel by Duncan Tonatiuh. Yesterday, Tonatiuh won Pura Belpre honors both as an illustrator and author for Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote. Tonatiuh’s illustrations are inspired by pre-Columbian art from the 12th century.

Children’s books are works of art, and, like all art, individuals’ responses to individual works vary dramatically. I can divorce my assessment of a book’s quality from my personal response to the book to some extent, but not completely. And, I do not believe that the Caldecott and Newbery committee members — as smart and knowledgeable and professional as they are — can do so completely either.

Serving on two Cybils award committees (both for nonfiction children’s books) illuminated for me how differently individuals react to children’s books. Both times I served as a Cybils judge, I was impressed with the thoughtfulness of my fellow judges. Yet, each committee member on the Cybils committees I served on walked away from the process knowing that several of their favorite books would receive no recognition at all.

In the field of Caldecott and Newbery contenders, the echo chamber effect gives those following the discussion the illusion that it is possible to narrow the field down to fifteen books or so that really were the best quality books published within the past year. But, absent the blogosphere banter, if each children’s book critic were left to evaluate these books independently, we would collectively identify many more than fifteen books worthy of being considered Caldecott and Newbery award contenders.

This all goes to say that the books recognized yesterday represent just a small fraction of the excellent books published within the past year. For those of us in the business of finding the right book for the right kid, it seems so important to seek out excellent books that were not recognized by the Caldecott or Newbery committees:

To that end…

A few of my favorite books published this past year that did not receive recognition yesterday:

How Big Were DinosaursHow Big Were the Dinosaurs? by Lita Judge. How did others miss this gem? How Big Were the Dinosaurs? is a tour-de-force in the children’s book world, combining dinosaurs + humor + fantastic illustrations by Lita Judge. Perhaps others mistakenly assumed that there are enough books in the world about dinosaurs. In my view, Judge brings something new to the table. How Big Were the Dinosaurs? is both entertaining and informative and pitched perfectly for elementary school students. Ages 4+

On a Beam of Light by Jennifer BerneOn a Beam of Light by Jennifer Berne and Vladimir Radunsky. This beautifully designed book introduces young readers to Albert Einstein and celebrates curiosity in a way that will be appreciated by readers of all ages. See my full review here. Ages 5+

The Boy Who Loved MathThe Boy Who Loved Math by Deborah Heiligman and LeUyen Pham. This book introduces kids to mathematician Paul Erdos, which, to be frank, does not sound like a subject with much kid appeal. However, Heiligman does a fantastic job of hooking kids. She incorporates neat math facts and quirky (and completely true) details about Erdos into this biography. Pham’s illustrations are stunning and incorporate math concepts throughout. Pham sets a new bar for quality of endnotes by an illustrator. For those interested in reading more, see Betsy Bird’s full review here. Ages 6+

Five books that I am excited to read that won ALA awards aside from the Caldecott and Newbery awards:

The Watermelon SeedThe Watermelon Seed by Greg Pizzoli. I am always on the lookout for excellent books for kids who are just learning to read. The Watermelon Seed won the Geisel Medal yesterday. This book features humor (I am told) and irresistible illustrations. It is a book that I will definitely check out. Ages 4+

Knock KnockKnock Knock by Daniel Beatty and Bryan Collier. This book has been on my radar for some time. Illustrator Bryan Collier received the Coretta Scott King award for this book. Collier’s illustrations are always fantastic. That said, the subject matter, about a child whose father suddenly disappears, is what really makes me want to read this book. Julie Danielson reviewed Knock Knock here and shared illustrations from this book at Seven Imp here. Ages 4+ 

Pancho Rabbit and the CoyotePancho Rabbit and the Coyote by Duncan Tonatiuh. Duncan Tonatiuh received Pura Belpré honors both for his illustrations and for his writing. That alone makes one stand up and take notice. Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote is a modern fable about the immigrant experience. I enjoyed reading about this book and watching Duncan Tonatiuh’s TED talk at his website here. Ages 5+

Better Nate Than EverBetter Nate than Ever by Tim Federle. I want to read this book for several reasons. First, the cover makes me smile. Second, the storyline — a boy runs off to New York City with dreams of making it big on Broadway — is one I would have enjoyed reading as a kid. Author Tim Federle has danced on Broadway, a good background for writing about this subject authentically. Third, there are not enough books written for kids of this age range with characters questioning their sexual identity. This book received award recognition from multiple committees, garnering an Odyssey award and a Stonewall book award. Ages 9+

P.S. Be ElevenP.S. Be Eleven by Rita Williams-Garcia. This work of historical fiction focuses on the relationship between three sisters. P.S. Be Eleven won the Coretta Scott King book award. I plan to read this book’s prequel — One Crazy Summer — first. One Crazy Summer garnered a Coretta Scott King award, Scott O’Dell award and Newbery honor in 2011. Ages 11+

With regards to the books that did win…

  • I was happy to see Splash of Red by Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet win a couple of awards yesterday, namely a Schneider Family Book Award and a Sibert Honor.
  • I would not have chosen Locomotive for the Caldecott. While it was nice to see a nonfiction book win and Floca’s illustrations are formidable, in my view Floca’s writing falls flat. I would love to see Floca, with his amazing illustration skills, collaborate with another writer. Ditto for Kadir Nelson and Don Brown. (Note: Brian Floca, Kadir Nelson and Don Brown all seem to be doing fine without my input. See exhibit #1: Floca’s shiny new Caldecott.)
  • It was interesting to see two books that I thought of as contenders for children’s book awards — Courage Has No Color: The True Story of the Triple Nickels by Tanya Lee Stone and Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool — receive recognition from YA award committees.

What other books are worthy of recognition?

  • What excellent children’s books were overlooked by the ALA committees?
  • After perusing the full list of ALA award winners, which books are at the top of your to read list?

Please, share your favorite titles below!

This entry was posted in Ages 4+, Ages 5+, Ages 6+, Ages 7+, Ages 8+ and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to The 2014 ALA Award Winners: The Tip of the Iceberg

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  5. Heather says:

    Living in Australia, I’m not familiar with these awards or the books, but I do love what you said. I find it near impossible to separate myself from a book and review it subjectively. What a difficult task to be given.

    • Amy says:

      What are the top book awards given out in Australia?

      We have other awards here in the U.S. — the Horn book awards, the NYT best illustrated book awards, the Gryphon etc. The Caldecott and Newbery have the longest history.

      • Heather says:

        The main one for children’s books is the Children’s Book Council of Australia Awards. They’re the only ones I know about or pay attention to. I think they’re the only major awards (so sorry if I’m wrong Australia).

      • Swati says:

        We read Roll of Thunder as a whole class, and I wanted to make the perusasive writing unit relevant instead of test prep. So I asked the question, Does Roll of Thunder deserve the Newbery Award? My librarian put together a wiki for the assignment, which is pure brilliance! Then I asked the kids to research the award and interpret the criteria the committee uses to rank books. The kids also learned about the nomination process and honor books through their research. The final piece of phase one was to judge Roll of Thunder against the criteria.Now we’re onto phase two, finding out about other awards and developing our own.Once we get to phase three, nominations. I want the kids to read as many of the books the students nominate for their own award in order to make an informed vote. Of course, I don’t know how many books they will decide to nominate. One young man suggested that everyone in the class be required to nominate one book. So there’s 20+ books right there. I plan on giving them about 2 months to read their nominations, and then we’ll get to the voting process. I can’t wait to see how this turns out.Initially, I wanted them to read multiple Newbery books to make the decision, but after many conversations with my librarian, we decided that keeping this essay simple focusing only on Roll of Thunder would be best for the kids. As I conferenced with them throughout the process, I realized that it was good decision. They did a beautiful job with the perusasive essay even drawing on information from the pre-reading webquest.

  6. You are right in so many ways. I’m not sure you are about Locomotive. I wasn’t thrilled to see it win the medal but I wasn’t disappointed either. My students, who read the book on their own did not particularly enjoy it. The students who I read the book to liked it much more. That being said, I do with some other books were honored but it really is an impossible task.

    • Amy says:

      I was feeling a little disappointed about Locomotive receiving top recognition. It did not hold my kids’ attention either. But, obviously others really like the choice. I hope it will make its way into the hands of some train-loving kids who will eat it up.

  7. You bring up so many good points in this post, and I definitely agree that choosing the best in children’s literature is an impossible task, tainted by human emotions and personalities. There is no way to be completely objective, and I think every committee has a slightly different emphasis (in spite of the criteria).

    I have to admit, I disagree with you about Locomotive . . . I was thrilled to see it win the Medal. I loved everything about it, including the writing. But there you go, personal opinion coming through! :-)

    But I DO agree with you about On a Beam of Light. I love that book, and I wish it could have received some recognition. It would be a terrible shame if people only relied on the award winners for all their books suggestions. We loved so many books from last year that didn’t receive any attention.

    I wrote about my own thoughts on the awards here (although not nearly as eloquently as you!):

    • Amy says:

      “It would be a terrible shame if people only relied on the award winners for all their book suggestions.” Exactly! I hope librarians, in particular, as well as teachers and parents are looking beyond the big winners to find the right book for the right kid.

      I read your post. I love Clare Vanderpool’s writing too!

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