Charlotte Zolotow Award for Picture Book Writing

An Interview with Children’s Book Expert Ginny Moore Kruse

This interview was inspired by Ginny Moore Kruse’s comment on the internet discussion group CCBC-Net during May 2000, when she wrote that, “As a jury member for the 2000 Charlotte Zolotow Award, I was astonished to realize how few of the picture books published during 1999 for children through age seven are well written. Relatively few!” Ms. Kruse responded to questions via email in June 2000.

Ginny Moore Kruse, director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center in the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is one of the premier experts in children’s literature today. She has been a public school teacher as well as a school and public librarian. She is currently a teacher of undergraduate children’s literature and adult continuing education courses. Her achievements include founding the CCBC Intellectual Freedom Information Services and participating in the development of the Charlotte Zolotow Award. She has also chaired or served on many national children’s literature award committees including the John Newbery, Randolph Caldecott, Mildred L. Batchelder, May Hill Arbuthnot, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Pura Belpré, Coretta Scott King, Boston Globe-Horn Book, and Teachers’ Choices committees. She currently coordinates the Jane Addams Children’s Book Awards. Ms. Kruse’s contributions to children’s literature have earned her several awards.

The Charlotte Zolotow Award is presented “annually to the author of the best picture book text published in the United States in the preceding year.” The award is named in honor of the distinguished children’s book author and editor Charlotte Zolotow. It’s administered by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

How are books nominated for the Zolotow Award?

Publishers may submit books for committee members’ consideration, but the committee members are also supposed to look for possible considerations on their own and suggest them to others on the jury.

Was this your first time to judge?

During its first year, I served as a consultant for the Zolotow Award Committee. We were trying out the tentative guidelines, and my role was to keep track of how the committee functioned, which operational guidelines needed tweaking or re-thinking, etc. I was part of every discussion, but I was not a voting member of the committee. My first actual year as a voting member of the committee was the year we considered books copyrighted 1999. This was for the 2000 Charlotte Zolotow Award.

If it wasn’t your first time, readers may be interested in how the different years compared.

That’s a difficult question to answer because the discussions are confidential. I would say that having two years of winners, honor books and highly commended books had set a standard for the committee.

We understood the importance of using the books under consideration with young children. The children’s responses were one part of our deliberation, not the only part, but an essential one. We looked closely at books of poetry for children through age seven and also at books for babies.

How many books did you read and review for consideration?

Frankly, I didn’t keep track. I looked at hundreds. I was also a member of the 2000 Caldecott Committee, so I was able to think about the Zolotow Award at the same time. The Zolotow Committee most certainly stresses visual excellence, but it is not looking at “distinguished” illustration in the same way as the Caldecott Committee does. Also the Caldecott Committee is looking at illustration in books for children through age fourteen, which is quite different from the Zolotow Committee.

What sorts of qualities in writing did you note, pro and con? Or rather, what do you consider the earmarks of excellent, mediocre, and poor picture book writing?

Take a look at the books brought to visibility in this way, and you’ll see that there is no single type of writing we considered to be excellent. There are many ways in which writing can be excellent, just as there are many ways writing can be mediorcre.

When you say “relatively few,” could you perhaps guesstimate a percentage to that? Do you consider, say, 20 percent relatively few or five percent?

Maybe if I had kept track I could respond to that question. Perhaps 20 percent is high.

What have you observed about the range of quality in picture book writing over the past few years?

Overall the quality of picture book writing declined as picture book technology became more sophisticated. The more that visual elements could be manipulated and original art could be replicated electronically, the less the writing seemed to be important. So 1999 wasn’t a low point, it represented just another year in which picture book writing seemed to be less important than the often lavish visual elements of books for young children.

Do you expect this to continue as a trend? Why or why not?

Well, we hope it won’t continue to decline, and we hope that the Charlotte Zolotow Award will make a difference. We hope this award will be one writers will want to win. We hope its presence will cause editors to take a second and third look at picture book manuscripts, and not assume – if they do – that visual elements will “save” or “make” the book.

What two or three children’s picture books of the past year would you recommend as favorite examples of great writing? What distinguishes each of them?

See the books written by Charlotte Zolotow herself. She is a genius at writing picture book narratives for young children. For decades children have had her books read and re-read to them. Many of them are being re-issued with new illustrations. Her words have stood the test of time, even though the original illustrations often have not. See the her most recently reissued book MY FRIEND JOHN for evidence of how her writing has stood the test of time. See the three winners of the Charlotte Zolotow Award so far. Each is distinctive and highly original. The 2000 winner WHEN SOPHIE GETS ANGRY – VERY, VERY ANGRY . . . by Molly Bang is so different from each of the other two winners, just as it is compared to the Honor Books and Highly Commended Books in each of the three years since the award was created.

Some people out there may be thinking: “What difference does it make? Art sells a picture book.” or “The picture book audience is too young to appreciate excellent writing anyway.” How would you respond to them?

Experience with language in a wide range of ways makes a huge difference for all babies and preschoolers’ facility with spoken language and with their emergent literacy. To develop to their greatest potential, young children must have opportunities to hear a variety of language patterns and words put together in a variety of ways. They gain these opportunities through hearing the spoken language of the people in their lives, through being talked with as well as through what is read and sung to them, what they sing and talk about. What is read to them will be more varied than the spoken language of everyday life. Both types of experience are needed.

Young children are not be able to articulate the idea that “this is excellent writing.” They will respond in their own ways to excellent writing, for example, by asking for the same book to be read repeatedly, by “reading” a book they love to a stuffed animal, etc.

What is now known — about the development of the infant brain, the importance of the first four years, about coming to school “ready to learn,” etc.—makes adults all more aware of the ways in which young children’s development can be enhanced through heightened experiences with language.

Picture book language can rich and inventive without being complex or sophisticated. Look at the first two winners LUCKY SONG by Vera B. Williams and SNOW by Uri Shulevitz. These books appear to be simple, as if they could have been written during someone’s lunch break. Hardly!

Many of my newsletter subscribers are parents or other child care givers, and for them, the process of sorting through the thousands of children’s books published annually is a daunting process. They aren’t regular readers of the professional review journals or members of the “inside” children’s literature community. But along with teachers and librarians, they are perhaps our greatest direct facilitators of quality literature to children. What should they consider in evaluating the quality of picture book writing for the child or children in their lives? Why is this worth their time and money when a less expensive, more familiar, TV or movie tie-in product is available?

Child care givers and parents don’t need to sort through thousands of books on their own. Awards such as the Zolotow, Caldecott, Coretta Scott King, Pura Belpré, Américas, and others do this for them. Public libraries do this for parents and child care givers, by selecting the best books for children for anyone to borrow at no cost. The use of a public library is the best bargain in any city or town.

At the CCBC we hope someday to find a grant or to be given a bequest or large gift to make it possible every year to provide every day care center, nursery school and Head Start with complimentary copies of the Zolotow winner. We would like to be able to put this fine book into the hands of these adults on a regular basis, because we know they are the key to significant developmental experiences for young children. So far we don’t have the capacity to do that, but we want to dream we will, someday.

At this time, the CCBC has created a handsome seal for the Zolotow Award winning book. We know an award seal makes a difference on a book. We want the Zolotow seal to stand for excellence in the minds of child care givers and parents. We hope that when parents and child care givers see that seal on the Zolotow Award winning books in their public libraries and bookstores, they will have instant recognition, knowing that this book is one to which to pay attention. We hope they will have confidence that books with the Charlotte Zolotow seal are tried and tested, wonderfully written (and illustrated) books for the young children in their care in their professional and personal lives.