Debatables: Criminally Caldecottless!

Hi everybody! It is time once again for Debatables, the monthly column where esoteric kid-lit questions are argued with way too much passion!

My Debatables sparring opponent is, as usual, my colleague, friend, and collegial frenemy, Cricket Muse.

Here are the Debatables ground rules: Each debater is allowed one brief argument (fewer than 300 words) on a previously agreed-upon topic. These brief arguments will be followed by a briefer rebuttal (fewer than 150 words).

So! On to this month’s topic:

Which Overlooked Illustrator Most Deserves the Coveted Caldecott Medal?

Cricket has selected the always illustrious Barbara McClintock.

And I have chosen the fluid pen of Michael Frith.

So! Let’s get started! Cricket, take it away!


I am stunned to discover Barbara McClintock has yet to receive a Caldecott Medal. She has at least forty amazing books to her credit, and yet zippo zilch for the Caldecott. What? Why? I could go on profoundly about her attention to detail, her ability to bring humor to the scene, the fact that she is self-taught, that her books are entertaining and informative, but I have to think Caldecott Merit requirements and not overall distinction. So, I will concentrate on one of her books. That would be Nothing Stopped Sophie: The Story of an Unshakable Mathematician.

Sophie, published in 2018, written by Cheryl Bardoe, is illustrated by the very capable McClintock. It’s a marvelous picture book biography about the little girl from long ago Paris who defied social expectations and overcame so many obstacles to stick with her dream to become a mathematician. Bardoe’s text is wondrous—it really sings. YET McClintock’s illustrations are genius. They absolutely burst off the page in colorful, glorious excitement. Numbers joyously bounce all over. Bright, detailed double spreads expand Bardoe’s story to inspiring heights of appreciation for Sophie and her dream.

Barbara McClintock has been overlooked for too long. Her illustrations for Sophie solidifies her contribution to children’s literature and highlights her capabilities and meet the criteria in many ways: excellent quality, conspicuous excellence, most certainly distinct. So, c’mon Caldecott folk, wake up, and let’s get that medal properly acknowledged for Barbara.


The best way to determine your favorite book illustrator is to subject his or her work to an experiment I call “The Basement Flood Test.”

Imagine that all of your beloved children’s books are packed away in your basement. A hurricane sweeps through town and turns this reliably dry basement into an indoor swimming pool.

What would be the first book you’d rescue from the rising tide?

As you’ve probably guessed, I was subjected to this test for real—and the first book I lunged for was the Bert and Ernie saga The Perils of Penelope, largely because I found Michael Frith’s illustrations to be a feast for the eyes. As far as I’m concerned, Frith is the only artist who can properly depict Muppets on the printed page. His designs have whimsical, cartoony appeal. His Bert and his Ernie are far more dynamic and expressive than their felty doppelgängers, but they never, ever lose their quintessential “Muppetishness.”

Frith understood Muppets inside and out—literally. For decades he worked alongside Jim Henson as a Muppet designer. But his talents extend well beyond Muppets; he also served as the editor-in-chief of the Dr. Seuss imprint Beginner Books, lending his artistic talents to Because A Little Bug Went Cachoo!, Prehistoric Monsters Did The Strangest Things, and many other titles, adjusting his style to best reflect each book’s subject.

And yet, Frith have garnered no significant awards for his work! It’s an oversight that feels almost criminal. Come on world! I rescued this man’s book from a flooding basement! Surely that must account for something!

Cricket’s Rebuttal

While Mike’s Basement Flood Test is a commendable measurement of appreciating illustrative merit, it is unfortunately not part of the Caldecott standards for excellence. It would be difficult to argue against an artist who captures the essence of Muppet; however, is Michael Frith’s work distinguished by Caldecott definition? That’s the real issue. Is it marked by eminence and distinction? Is there excellence of pictorial interpretation? Perils of Penelope is fun, kids no doubt enjoy Bert and Ernie, yet the illustrations must distinctly resonate to pass Caldecott muster.

In point, Barbara McClintock’s illustrations leap and cavort off the page. She captured Sophie’s persistence to become a mathematician through innovative and imaginative rendering with lively, colorful detail. She captured how essential numbers were in Sophie’s life. Now, that is distinctive interpretation. Mike, the Muppets are great, but you can’t deny McClintock’s numbers add up to a Caldecott winner.

Mike’s Rebuttal

I like Barbara McClintock’s work very much—but she and Frith illustrate very different kinds of books. It’s like comparing apples to oranges, right?

Actually, no! McClintock illustrated Muppet books, too! And when she goes head-to head against Frith on this level battlefield, the winner is beyond obvious.

Compare this:


Artists who place an emphasis on comedy don’t get the respect they deserve. This is certainly true when it comes to selecting Caldecott honorees. Frith’s books might not feel as important as McClintock’s, but his characters have an appeal that that hers often lack. McClintock’s books are easy to admire and beautiful to look at, but her Sophie, Fraggles, feel a little too formal and a little too stiff for readers to connect with them emotionally.

My argument for Frith, I think, can be summed up this way: His talent makes me invest in his characters.


And that’s the debate! Who made the best argument? Which of your favorite illustrators most deserves a Caldecott? Leave a comment and let us know. Let’s get a conversation started! Let’s get the Caldecott jury to right some wrongs! WOO!

59 Replies to “Debatables: Criminally Caldecottless!”

  1. What an interesting debatable! I’d never considered an illustrator who hasn’t won; only looking at those I like who have.

    I also do not like either of the ones you picked, at least not the way they drew for the books you show. Perhaps Mike is correct about comedy book illustrators -except I’d argue I like Don Wood and tolerate Quentin Blake.

    Makes for tough deciding, but I’m going to cast in with Cricket Muse. I think her illustrator is more of the sort to win a Caldecott.

  2. I learned a lot about illustrators and illustrations from your debate. I’m sorry, but I must defer any answers regarding a winner. You both make great points, but seriously, these are two wonderful illustrators. I have a hard time with “awards,” because so many excellent authors/illustrators aren’t awarded a thing, despite the fact that their work is tremendous. I’ve heard many readers (of children’s books) say they only pick books for their kids/grandkids/relatives/friends of relatives etc. that have some kind of award stamped on the upper corner. Jeez. That kind of irritates me. Weirdly, I was even irritated when my first children’s book was a finalist in the International Book Awards, and some acquaintances said, “Oh, it must be good, now I’ll buy it.” Really? It was good before it got a stamp of approval on it. So awards are not what makes a good book or illustration. The joy the writing/picture gives to a reader – that’s the true reward.
    Okay, off my high horse now. Giddy yup.

      1. Shhhh, don’t tell Mike, but since you keep persisting (ie “if I was to trot up to the voting booth..) in all honestly, I really relate more to. . . Well, no. I really can’t say. However, the detail in … ahem. Um, never mind.

  3. Well, there’s a HUGE conversation happening right now about the % of Caldecotts awarded to men vs. women, in a field that is 95% women….but I won’t go there. I will say that Mike’s argument about Frith’s authentic depiction of muppets gives no credit to an artist who chooses to freely create the muppets as SHE sees them, not through the iron eyes of verisimilitude. So McClintock has my vote! And that she’s self-taught? Even better. Comic illustrators have won, (No, David!) Mike, so you’re not holding any water in your bucket…..

    1. For the record, No, David! Is a terrible book with a rotten message and the illustrations are ugly to boot.

      Gah, I hate that book. It is within spitting distance of my all-time most hated PB, Love You Forever.

      Anyhoo, thanks for commenting!

      1. For the record, Shannon wanted it to look like the drawings he made when he was the age of the protagonist and heard nothing (at least from his perspective) but “NO, David!” from parental units and others. That picture book story truly lives in the head of that young boy. It’s why so many kids love it. They empathize so completely with that kid. I think you’re just upset that I didn’t vote for your argument. Glad to see you didn’t take issue with my comment about the skewed awards for male illustrators…..

  4. I like, Mike, how this is a debate about illustrators not getting their due via award recognition, and yet somehow you *still* find a way to insert your loathing of “Love You Forever”! Of course I am in total agreement with said abhorrence, but still it’s comical.

    I’m Team Frith btw. And question: did the inimitable Jessie Willcox Smith ever win a Caldecott? Don’t think so.

  5. Going with Cricket on this one … not that I know anything about either of these two artists or children’s books in general, but Barbara McClintock’s artwork is lush and subtle at the same time. a perfect combination. 😀

  6. We are now tied at 3-3. Come on, all you discerning readers, step up to the polling booth and cast your vote for the illustrator most deserving according to Caldecott standards (don’t be swayed by Muppet emotionalizing).

  7. I have to admit that I’m hands down on Cricket’s side with this one, Mike. Barbara McClintock all the way. I read tons of those garish (yes, garish) muppet books to my daughter. Ugh. Where’s the art, the subtlety, the beauty? I’d use the Frith muppet books as stepping stones to escape of the flooded basement. Case in point, Mike, the illustrations for your books are much more McClintock than Frith – I wonder why? Because they’re better.

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