Caldecott Award Books As “Society’s Child”

Caldecott Award Books As "Society's Child" - Anthropologists analyze culture through art and literature. Since adults desire to inculcate their values into their children, even subconsciously, I see a fascinating connection between illustrations chosen for 63 years of Caldecott Awards and the changing moods and attitudes of American life. #NoSweatLibraryIn the 1990s, during a graduate class toward my library degree, I perceived a fascinating connection between children’s literature and social culture that had not previously (nor since) been explored. I present that analysis here, for your consideration.

Long intrigued by history, I’ve become aware that anthropologists observe changes in a culture through its arts and literature. Adults desire to inculcate their values into their children, even subconsciously, so I surmise that a design analysis of the illustrations chosen for 63 years of Caldecott awards could provide a glimpse into the changing moods and attitudes of American life. Since Caldecott awards the illustrator, I looked at the illustrations in all but four Caldecott Award books between 1938 and 2000.


The first ten years of Caldecott books coincide with U.S. emergence from the Great Depression and involvement in World War II. The two-tone line drawings (black/white or brown/white) of four of the first five years reflect the lack of funds to produce (or for parents to purchase) costly colors, but the lush, round, child-like shapes of ‘38 and ’39 show the growing optimism toward the end of the depression. The addition of some color and the spare folk-art style of 1940’s Abe Lincoln indicate more affluence tempered with caution. The years ’40 – ’43 highlight the confusion of the country during the years preceding U.S. involvement in WWII, with their contrast between the safety of line, shape and color and the textual material—honest Abe drawn into war, our debt to our European heritage, policemen assisting innocent ducks. The Little House of 1943 reflects a turning point – a happy situation becomes dark indeed with final rescue to a brighter future – and by this time the mood of America was shifting to pro-involvement, culminating in the bombing of Pearl Harbor and U.S. entry into the war. book cover "The Little Island"

The next four years, 1944 – 1947, are filled with new line styles (active and impressionistic—one frenzied squiggles and zigzags, another dynamic) and a variety color (bright, clean, almost intellectual, one heavily saturated) certainly reflecting U.S. conviction and eventual victory. Does anyone else wonder if the bright, lush illustrations in 1947’s The Little Island might be a subconscious effort to obscure conditions on that other “little island” where two nuclear bombs were dropped?


The next seven years of awards appeared during recovery from WWII, the Korean War and the McCarthy era. The return to black/white drawings with flat primary colors of ’48 – ’51 shows the demanding transition of the economy from war production to peacetime and returning soldiers, while the pictures themselves beautifully express the desire of America to return to normal—in fact, most pictures show NO ACTIVITY AT ALL, while the stories are about safe, recurring seasons and events. I missed 1952, but 1953’s The Biggest Bear and 1954’s Madeline’s Rescue are clearly indicative of the Communism/Korea/McCarthy mood of America, and I digress slightly to more fully examine the stories and pictures of these two books.

book cover "The Biggest Bear"Most of us are aware of the Cold War and America’s fanatic fear of Communism. If The Biggest Bear wasn’t an attempt to indoctrinate young children with the specter of Russian Communism and justify the Korean War, I can’t possibly imagine what was. The “bear” (symbol of Russia as Uncle Sam is of the U.S.) starts small, being “brought home” (after WWII) for “aid” by the boy (a small soldier with his little gun), becomes “biggest” by “eating” everything it can get its hands on, “invades” the neighbors for more, is always back no matter what the boy does. Finally, boy and bear are “trapped” together, are rescued by big zoo “caretakers” (in uniforms), who “cage” the bear so everyone is safe and happy. It can’t be an accident that, as the story progresses, the drawings also become larger and more dominating on the pages. I could continue to elaborate, but I hope you get the point.

book cover "Madeline's Rescue"Then there’s the Madeline story, surely similar to Arthur Miller’s covert effort to criticize McCarthyism with The Crucible. Besides the story about looking for the “lost dog,” illustrations by a Swiss/Frenchman surely aim pen and brush at the fear and censorship of McCarthyism. If you have any doubts, I urge you to look at the drawing of the park (p 37 in the book I read), and review the names that appear on the memorials: Heloise and Abelard, Balzac, Sarah Bernhardt, Bizet, Chopin, Gemonde, Victor Hugo, La Fontaine, Moliere, and Oscar Wilde, to name a few—names not even vaguely familiar to a child, but which might generate questions and undoubtedly impress on the adult who reads to the child. In a child’s book, hopefully safe from the notice of censors, they shout freedom of expression. And, I can’t help but think the sweeping use of yellow and white is a subtle criticism of the cowardice brought about by government hearings and blacklisting.


Read this anthropological survey of 62 years of picture books awarded the Caldecott Medal. | No Sweat LibraryReturning to the survey of books, the years 1955 – 1960 reflect the dreamlike sameness of the late 50’s (Ike’s “Do Nothing” presidency). Drawings are impressionistic, nature-oriented or anthropomorphic, almost caricature-ish, with clear or soft colors, sweeping across only parts of the drawings. Cinderella in 1955 introduces those persistently “modern” colors, Gold, Paprika, Avocado, and Wedgwood, and in 1960’s Nine Days to Christmas everything is beige and white, including the people—their clothes are color but have a flat, paper-doll quality. Everything about the books, stories and illustrations, conveys an attitude of similarity, safety and complacency.


Suddenly, America is confronted with a decade of turmoil, revolving around three political events: the Space Race, the Civil Rights movement, and the Vietnam War, all three necessitating …demanding …that everyone take notice and take a stand. One need only look at the profusion of new styles in the 1961-1970 Caldecott book illustrations to perceive that huge changes occurred, accompanied by profound freedom of expression—magic-marker, woodcut, “Matisse,” wild creatures and colors, color without line, wash of “make believe”, totally graphic—no two years are the same among these ten books.

  • Some demonstrate the illustrator’s craft quite apart from the story: 1961’s Baboushka, whose vocabulary and sentence structure seem way above a young child’s (“meager home” and “swirling snow drifted and deepened outside”) and 1968’s Drummer Hoff, whose text is incidental and even missing on several pages,
  • and some show the growing effort to establish an emotional mood with the story: 1962’s Once a Mouse and 1967’s Sam, Bangs & Moonshine,
  • but by the end of the decade, when hippies and psychedelica had taken over youth culture and were scaring the daylights out of adults, the last two choices mark a distinct return to more typical, “safe” children’s book illustrations.

I find it interesting that the 60’s Caldecott choices begin and end (‘61 & ‘69) with a story about Russia—Sputnik to Lunar landing, they were ever on our minds—however, three books in particular deserve mention as clear indicators of the Sixties political climate.

book cover "The Snowy Day"In 1963, The Snowy Day shows the first and last real effort during the 60’s to portray an African-American character, but he’s obviously living in the north and enjoying a “white” activity—the early Civil Rights movement is characterized by gradualism, and was generally “approved” by white Americans. By 1965, the 24th Amendment and the strongest Civil Rights laws in history had been passed, and the movement was becoming more militant and controversial.

May I Bring a Friend? is a noble effort by the illustrator (and, I hope, the Caldecott committee) to gently and subconsciously infuse acceptance and understanding of differences into young minds (and maybe even their parents) to perhaps avoid a future of hatreds. The king and queen live in a dull black/white flat-line world, but when the “friends” (in the guise of diverse animals) are shown, there is riotous color and happy activity. Initially the “friends” visit the king and queen (did this remind anyone else of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?), but when the king and queen realize how rich their world is with the “friends,” they finally go to visit (accept) them.

Picture of Maurice Sendak's book "Where the Wild Things Are"The 1964 award book, Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are, has become a classic, and marks a distinct departure from other children’s books. The illustrations begin very “normal,” almost boring, but then come his drawings of very weird-looking creatures in a very unreal world—even the color scheme is very wild and strange—only to return to “normal” once he returns home. In 1964, many young American boys were being sent by boat to a very unreal place to fight and conquer “wild things.” If Maurice Sendak and some Caldecott committee members hadn’t been in Vietnam, surely they knew those who had been. The anger of powerlessness, the horrible fighting, the accepting domination, growing tired, coming home to a rewarding supper (an “all-is-forgiven” token)—all reflect the impact of the Vietnam War on Americans, both pro-war and anti-war, better than more sophisticated adult attempts. If you have never considered this book from the perspective of early 60’s Vietnam and the “average American,” I urge you to reread it with that in mind. I remain anti-war, and someday, not as penance but in heartfelt sympathy, I hope to place a copy of this book at the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in Washington D.C.


If an alien from another planet landed in the U.S. and did nothing except look at the illustrations in books given the Caldecott award from 1971 through 1979, he would perceive what a multicultural planet we are. Seven of the nine stories from the 70’s are ethnic: three African, two Native American, one English and one Japanese. These awards reflect America’s new respect for racial, ethnic and cultural variety brought about by racial and ethnic movements of the 1960’s and by Nixon’s unprecedented 1972 trip to Peking and his détente with Russia. All the illustrations are genuine and successful efforts to portray the artistic styles of those countries or ethnic groups:

  • the two Native American books show the hot bright climate that inspired the designs of Pueblo Indians and the bright colorful geometric designs reminiscent of Indian blankets and pottery of the West;
  • the hot plains and desert of Africa and its lush bright-colored Western jungles show up in two books;
  • and even drawing and colors of the fulsome, odd-looking characters of Duffy and the Devil bring England immediately to mind.

book cover "Ashanti to Zulu"Of particular excellence is 1977’s Ashanti to Zulu, a portrayal of 26 tribes throughout the continent of Africa. Each picture carefully and richly shows the landscape of the area, the lifestyle, and the clothing of a man, woman and child of each tribe —it’s better than a travel brochure and probably a better teaching tool than many books for older readers.

Clearly the 70’s was a time of blossoming global awareness in the U.S. and such concentration and authenticity of ethnicity in illustration is not seen in the awards before or since.


The post-Watergate years also mark a desire for healing and honesty for the U.S. The two awards for 1980 and 1981 highlight that time period. The clear spare folk-style drawings in the Ox-Cart Man are surely a tribute to “gentleman farmer” Jimmy Carter and the child-like anthropomorphic illustrations of Fables, coupled with its stinging aphorisms show America’s desire to trust its “born-again” president, but remain cautious of politics in general. Noah’s Ark of 1978 might also be included in this small section. Elaborate, detailed but homey illustrations of a Bible “savior” is marked by the honest inclusion (finally) in a children’s book of Noah’s three sons as adults, and with wives.

It’s easy to see that America’s attitude in the 1980’s was business-like and traditional. While America seemingly focused on itself, becoming more conservative with its stress on business and family, it was heavily involved in covert activities abroad. The awards for 1982 – 1989 are energetic, but not particularly adventurous (as in the 60’s and 70’s), with crisp lines and clean, traditional colors. Drawings are very sharp and geometric (1982, 1983, 1985, 1986, 1987), or light and simple (1984, 1988, 1989)—no soft, hazy, indefinite effects here. Pictures are larger-than-life and pull one into the activity, with clear, cool colors, and attempt to bring deeper meaning to the story by having the illustrations set the tone and tell as much or more of the story than the text. book cover "Hey, Al"

One notices the strong sense of nostalgia in such choices as 1984’s The Glorious Flight, 1985’s St. George and the Dragon (with its use of Art Nouveau), 1986’s The Polar Express, 1988’s Owl Moon, and 1989’s The Song and Dance Man. One can’t overlook two stories: the crusading St. George and the Dragon, and Hey, Al which is particularly interesting with it’s portrayal of a boxed-in, neutral life, and after experiencing some fantasy and color, finally adopting a do-it-yourself determination to enjoy life.


The years of the Bush administration were filled with confusion, both economic and political, resulting from the backlash of the Iran contra scandal, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of Communism in 1989, and the Persian Gulf War in 1991. The Caldecott awards of 1990 – 1993 highlight this atmosphere of ups-and-downs, with the soft, hazy dreamlike quality of 1990’s Lon Po Po, the four-styles-in-one of 1991’s Black and White, the floating fantasy of 1992’s Tuesday, and the lush painted look of 1993’s Mirette on the High Wire. I loved Tuesday, but it sure reminded me of those news videos of U.S. missiles flying over Iraq.


book cover "Smoky Night"Of the years 1994 – 2000, I only viewed four of the seven, but the booming prosperity and freedom of America in the 90’s is surely reflected by a return to the artistic adventurousness of the 60’s and 70’s with the heavy collage and acrylic, Gaugin-like pictures about the 1992 Los Angeles riots after the Rodney King trial in 1995’s Smoky Night, with the layered paper cutouts of 1997’s Golem, and with the total color saturation and peek-a-boo effect in 2000’s Joseph Had a Little Overcoat. With 1996 Officer Buckle and Gloria and its bright cartoon-like illustrations, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Bill and Hilary and the Monica episode, but then, I sometimes make bizarre connections.

Unfortunately I’ve not looked at Caldecott books since that time, but I’m convinced they would reflect the social climate of the U.S. during the ensuing years. Perhaps some day I’ll zip over to the public library and look at recent years to see if they continue to highlight social & cultural beliefs we wish to inculcate into our young children. 

line of books laying down


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2 thoughts on “Caldecott Award Books As “Society’s Child”

  1. Wow, this is fascinating, Barbara. I keep thinking about your premise that adult illustrators consciously or subconsciously desire to inculcate their beliefs and values to the children of the next generation. Hmmm…I’ll have to ponder that for awhile.

    I would have thought that they are just mirroring what they see in society. They are making art, and of course, it is influenced by the mores and beliefs of the society in which they reside and where those who will read it reside. (Of course, they want to sell books, so on some level they want to please the public.) You have given me food for thought this week, though, as I consider your words and examples.

    Yes, please! Go to the library and check out the last 16 years worth. I will look forward to Part 2 of this great topic!


    • Thank you, Denise, for your comments. I agree, indeed that artists mirror what they see as the mores & beliefs in society. But my premise is that the Caldecott choosers, who are especially concerned about what children learn, will choose to award illustrators according to their [the Caldecott choosers] desire to inculcate either acceptance or rebellion of society’s culture of the particular time the award is being given.

      Do you have any particular favorites from the past 16 years of Caldecotts?

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