Monday, March 10, 2008

Testing their medal: The best children’s books of the year crossed this Waterford librarian’s desk in her time on the Caldecott Medal selection commit

As soon as Rhonda Puntney finished reading “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” by Brian Selznick, she knew she had to read it again. The 500-plus page book — with its suspenseful story and cinema-inspired illustrations — was just that good.Selznick’s book is so impressive, in fact, that it was named the 2008 Caldecott Medal winner in January. And Puntney, a librarian with the Lakeshores Library System in Waterford, had a hand (or, more accurately, an eye) in that decision. Puntney, who is the youth services and special needs consultant with the Lakeshores system, was one of 15 people nationwide who served as the 2008 Caldecott Committee, Together, they decided which children’s picture book received this year’s prestigious medal, as well as the four Caldecott Honors awards, the runners-up to the medal winner.As a member of that committee, Puntney read close to 800 picture books in a year’s time, making notes, prioritizing lists and meeting with the rest of the committee for discussion, as she went along. While such tasks were a pleasure for Puntney, who has loved children’s literature throughout her life, the yearlong process was also very serious and time-consuming work.“I found myself evaluating books in my sleep,” said Puntney, whose office in the Waterford Public Library building is brimming with stacks of books and colorful characters. “I kept a notebook by my bed so I could write down thoughts that came to me in the night. I didn’t want to forget anything.”
Lifetime opportunityPuntney, who has worked with the Lakeshores Library System since January 2000, said she was surprised and thrilled to get the phone call from the Association for Library Service to Children (a division of the American Library Association), asking her to serve on the Caldecott Committee. She and six other committee members were appointed to the task by the president of the ALSC, whichadministers the Caldecott Medal.
In addition to those who are appointed, seven other members, plus the chair of the committee (for a total of eight), are elected by the general membership of the ALSC, explained Diane Foote, the ALSC’s executive director.It is a job that some committee members through the years have described as the highlight of their career, Foote said. It is also one that the ALSC obviously thought Puntney would do well.“Rhonda’s done great things for ALSC and it has been an honor to work with her,” Foote said.In addition to her experience as a librarian, Puntney brought her background in art with her to the committee, having earned her undergraduate degree in art history from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. One of the classes she took during that time — illustration in children’s literature — made her realize how much she enjoyed picture books and eventually she returned to UW-Madison to get her master’s degree in library science.Those things, coupled with her lifelong love of reading (“I was the librarian’s best friend all through school”) seem to make her a perfect candidate for choosing winners of the Caldecott Medal — an award given each year to the artist who has created “the most distinguished picture book” in the nation, named in honor of the nineteenth century English illustrator Randolph J. Caldecott.Picture book partnersHer time on the Caldecott Committee not only allowed Puntney to study hundreds of wonderful new picture books, but to travel to places ranging from Seattle to Washington, D.C., and to meet and share her passions with other children’s literature enthusiasts from all over the country. One of the highlights of the year, she said, was attending the midwinter meeting of the American Library Association, at which the winner of the Caldecott, as well as the Newbery and other children’s literature awards, were announced. A couple thousand people attended the event, which took place in Philadelphia, she said.“It was like being at the Academy Awards,” Puntney said. “The crowd just went crazy when they announced that Selznick was the winner.”What makes “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” such an exciting read?“It’s the whole package,” Puntney said about the book, which tells the story of a young orphan named Hugo who lives in the walls of a train station, where he labors to complete a mysterious invention left by his father.Selznick really stepped outside the box in his presentation of the illustrations and text in this book, she explained.“The way the book is put together is very cinematic,” Puntney said. “The page turns are perfect.”When considering a book for the Caldecott Medal, committee members look at everything from the book jacket to the end papers to how consistently the colors are printed, Puntney explained.“We looked at whether or not the illustrations fit the text; the drawing style; how the colors blend together; and how the story flows from page to page and illustration to illustration,” she said. “You have to look at the entire package.”All of that adds up to a lot of hours of reading and evaluating ‑ which Puntney said she devoted some part of every day to for a year. Every minute of that time was worth it, she said.“I thoroughly enjoyed it.”Enough to do it again if she was given the opportunity?“I’d love to,” she said.

Article By LEE B. ROBERTS Journal Times
Monday, March 10, 2008 12:25 PM CDT

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