Children’s authors, illustrators, teachers, librarians, publishers, and other members of the book community gathered on April 5 for the Children’s Book Committee’s presentation of the 2018 Best Children’s Books of the Year at Bank Street College. In addition to recognizing the 600 selected best children’s books of 2017, the event honored the winners of the Flora Stieglitz Straus Award for nonfiction, the Claudia Lewis Award for poetry, and the Josette Frank Award for fiction.
This year’s winners were author and photographer Kara Hagedorn for Hawk Mother: The Story of a Red-Tailed Hawk Who Hatched Chickens (Web of Life); Nikki Grimes for One Last Word: Wisdom from the Harlem Renaissance (Bloomsbury); and Renée Watson for Piecing Me Together (Bloomsbury). Before the presentation of those awards, speakers from the CBC and Bank Street reflected on the process of selecting these titles and the other best books of 2017, as well as on other noteworthy accomplishments from the Bank Street community.
Linda Greengrass and Mollie Welsh Kruger, co-chairs of the Children’s Book Committee, kicked off the morning’s presentation. Greengrass described how, every year that the committee spends carefully reading, selecting, and discussing the best book selections, they are reminded of “how books affect young readers and what books can do for them.” She added that “every book on the list was recommended by at least two readers… and very often many more.”
Next up, dean of children’s programs Jed Lippard expressed his appreciation for the work of the CBC in selecting the 600 titles from among the 6,000 children’s book submissions. Lippard said that “childhood is not a dress rehearsal—you only get it once.” He called Bank Street and the CBC “champions of the highest quality literature for children.”
Lippard applauded the addition of the first-ever Best Spanish Language books to the list, while also acknowledging Bank Street’s inaugural Latinx Conference, celebrating bilingual books and Latinx communities, held in March. He called these developments “great steps forward in terms of equity and inclusion.”
Todd Zinn of the Young Reviewers’ Program next read some of the reviews written by the child contributors to the best books selection process, saying, “We are always interested in how the books appeal to them.” Joining the audience were several of the young reviewers from the New York area. Cynthia Weill, director of the Bank Street Center for Children’s Literature, also spoke about the “thousands of hours spent developing this [best book list] opus,” and marveled that “every year I have a great understanding of the complexities and machinations of the CBC.”
Madeleine Dunphy, editor at Web of Life Children’s Books, accepted the Flora Stieglitz Straus Award on behalf of author and photographer Kara Hagedorn for Hawk Mother. Dunphy described Hagedorn’s story as being “about the fierce passions of motherhood… a story of kindness and overcoming daunting obstacles with a little help from friends—which happen to be of a different species.”
Next, Hagedorn spoke to the audience via video. She was unable to attend because, as she explained, she is currently helping Sunshine, the avian subject of the book, to incubate her eggs by attending to them when Sunshine steps away from her nest. Hagedorn shared the story of Sunshine and how the now 30-year-old hawk came to be in her care. As a licensed handler, Hagedorn took Sunshine in after she was injured by a hunter and could no longer survive in the wild. As she does with school groups, she displayed Sunshine’s x-ray from 20 years before, which shows her injuries from being shot: “It’s important to show what guns do,” she explained.
Hagedorn next led the audience into Sunshine’s aviary, where she was roosting. Because Sunshine has no mate, she explained, her eggs are infertile. In Hawk Mother, Hagedorn recounts how she wanted to give Sunshine an opportunity to have chicks, so she replaced Sunshine’s infertile eggs with chicken eggs in what is called a “nest exchange.” At first, she wasn’t certain how Sunshine would respond to her chicken offspring: “As many of you know, red-tailed hawks eat chickens,” she said. To find out more about Sunshine’s relationship with the chicks, “You’ll have to read the book!” she teased.
Cindy Loh, publishing director of consumer publishing at Bloomsbury, accepted the Claudia Lewis Award for poetry on behalf of Nikki Grimes, calling One Last Word, “impactful and very, very special.” Nikki Grimes next spoke, via video. She spoke about her “special connection to the poets of the Harlem Renaissance,” having herself grown up in Harlem, and “stepped into that continuum.” The book explores Grimes’s relationship with the works of that era, by featuring classic Harlem Renaissance poems as well as original poems; Grime writes in the Golden Shovel poetic form, which integrates lines from previous works into new poems. “Everything about this book was special to me,” said Grimes. “It rang every bell for me as an artist.”
Finally, Renée Watson accepted the Josette Frank Award for fiction, first reciting a poem for the audience in response to a question she is often asked: “Where are you from?” Raised in Oregon, Watson powerfully conveyed through the poem how an individual’s identity is formed by myriad influences, but how that complexity is not always acknowledged: “It was important to tell the story of where I came from because people would tell it for me,” she said. Her story, like her character Jade’s story in Piecing Me Together, “is bitter and sweet, with joy and pain right next to each other.”
Watson also expressed admiration for Josette Frank, an individual who saw advocacy for education as advocacy for society as a whole. “Legends and activists [like her] make today a reality,” Watson said. Citing the recent anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, she spoke about the importance of “really thinking about what it means to carry on his message and legacy.” She added, “There is still so much work left to do.”