Medal Worship: How I Stuck My Head In The Clouds and Got Crushed


Next week officially kicks off the season when youth literature creators will be presented with awards for the best books of 2013 — shiny medals embossed with the words Caldecott, Newbery, and so many others. No doubt our kidlit community will laud the winners. Their stellar works deserve to be celebrated.

But my thoughts will also be will be with those who are predicted to win, but ultimately will not. Ever think about those people? Here is my story:

Two years ago, my first authored book published to nice reviews. Soon after, my email box filled with notes from my editor, “GOOD NEWS!” in each subject line. I received “GOOD NEWS!” from Kirkus, Booklist, and School Library Journal, Publisher’s Weekly and The Horn Book. I received “GOOD NEWS!” from teachers and librarians who wrote complimentary reviews on their blogs. I received “GOOD NEWS!” from readers who posted nice comments on Goodreads and Amazon. Colleagues also sent congratulatory notes about my book’s success.

It was an amazing time, but I didn’t let the “GOOD NEWS!” go to my head and distract me too much. I was too busy doing what I do, illustrating my next book and writing another book. I had my head on straight . . . at that time.

As the year inched forward and then came to a close, the “GOOD NEWS!” did not slow down. My book made several Best-Of and Notable lists. It was included in mock discussions concerning those big January awards. Librarians at schools where I visited predicted that I would win. Friends, family, and colleagues said things like, “Don, it looks like you may get one of those shiny stickers.”

That should have been “GOOD NEWS!” right there, right? But no, it wasn’t. Because that’s when I allowed the “GOOD NEWS!” to distract my focus. Yes, folks, I turned from my work and drank the Kool-Aid — a poison that shot me in a downward spiral for the next month-and-a-half. Soon writing and illustrating became second in order behind tracking all the “GOOD NEWS!”

STARSI Googled the books of past winners. I counted the stars that each book had earned. I studied their reviews. I read their media coverage. I made calculations. According to my math, everyone was right: There would be a Caldecott, Siebert or Coretta in my near future! But which one? To answer that question, I continued my full-time job of mining the internet for more “GOOD NEWS!”

On the weekend leading up to the day of the awards, I was in Raleigh, North Carolina launching a new book. But my attention kept getting diverted to my other book as more accolades rained in.

“I’m proud of you,” people said, “looks like you may get one of those awards.”

My heart grew bigger and more confident with each prediction. It became not a matter of if, but when. When my book would receive that sparkly sticker.

When I returned home to Austin, there was an email from the marketing department of my publishing house with a reminder to alert them should receive The Call.

Oh my gosh, The Call. I hadn’t considered The Call. My concern quickly vanished to reemerged as a full blown panic attack. Who might call me? A person or an entire committee? And how should I respond? I’m not one to display a lot of emotion, so screaming like a Price Is Right contestant was out of the question. So, maybe I’d play it cool. I’d act totally unaware.

“Hello,” I’d answer the phone with a hint of annoyance at receiving a call so early. “Is this Mom? Why are you calling me so early, I’m still trying to sleep?”

I rehearsed various scenarios.eyes

That morning, my alarm went off at 5:15 a.m. I had been awake all night. My right eye twitched uncontrollably — a nervous condition that only happens when get overly anxious. When I rubbed my eye, I noticed my hand shaking. My heart pounded fast, and I felt like I was out of breath. I thought I would pass out even before climbing out of bed.

This is crazy, I thought. Why had winning this one award become so important to me? My 30-year, 50-book career hadn’t proved any success? Now I needed an embossed silver sticker to validate something for someone? I felt ashamed. I crawled out of bed and got my son ready for school.

By 6 a.m., I hadn’t received The Call. Not to worry, though, it was early. I drove my son to the bus stop and rushed home. Alone in my studio, I waited.

Thirty minutes later, still no call. I checked my email. A Google Alert: A former Caldecott Honor winner had declared the illustrator of my book as a best-of for that year. A Caldecott winner. That pretty much removed any doubt.

7 a.m., no call. No worries, though. There’s a time zone difference. And besides, maybe the illustrator of the book got The Call, which would’ve been totally cool by me. Still, I waited.

Thirty minutes later, no call. Maybe I’m an honor winner, I thought. Maybe honor winners receive The Call after everyone else.

By 8 a.m., I was worried. I checked my email. There were more messages from friends wishing me good luck. “I’m rooting for you today,” one said. “This is your day,” said another. I checked Facebook. There were more messages of good luck. I felt like I was on a giant national stage and the entire kidlit community was watching me, waiting for me to do something that I had no control over.

9 a.m. No call.

When the announcements were finally made that afternoon, my book was not announced.

I was devastated. Tears? Well, I’ll leave that to your imagination.

I hope this post doesn’t read as sour grapes. I don’t mean it that way. I’m simply painting a picture of what it can look like for those who don’t win, especially if they’ve been drinking the “GOOD NEWS!”

For me, this post was about analyzing what I’d learned from an awful experience, a reminder to myself to stay focused on my craft, to polish my words, to perfect my artwork. It’s not about the “GOOD NEWS!” And it’s definitely not about awards (which are always nice, but out of my control).

I love my career. I love my kidlit community. I love to write and illustrate. And I love the great works that my colleagues throughout this industry have created. So at the end of the day, that’s what really matters to me — wonderfully authored and illustrated children’s literature.

The sticker? Well, it did come later.

So, you may ask, will I tune in to watch the awards next week? Um . . . no. I will not watch the webcast. I am knee-deep in illustrating another book. But, yes, I will listen to the awards as I sketch, of course. I wouldn’t miss them for anything. I’ve had a year to get my head back on straight and realign my priorities.

Next week, I look forward to cheering my friends and colleagues on to victory. And I have my own predictions: Go Locomotive! Go Mr. Tiger! Go Parrots Over Puerto Rico! And cheers to everyone who wins an award next week, and especially to those who do not.


Check back soon for tips on keeping your head on straight, out of the clouds, and focused on what really matters.

20 thoughts on “Medal Worship: How I Stuck My Head In The Clouds and Got Crushed

  1. I think of all the great actors who never received an Academy Award, and so many talented creatives in the children’s book world who have had honors elude them as well. It’s all about doing what you love, and your passionate for doing it. In the final analysis, we must remember that is our daily award. Waiting for Godot is pointless: creating your next book is golden!

    1. This is such an important comment, Wendell. Though I am definitely part of the hype machine because I write those reviews and talk about books online, I try to do it as a celebration of ALL books. The list of illustrators and writers who have never won a major award is very very long. Thank goodness we can buy all sorts of books and share them with all sorts of children.
      Thanks for this important post, Don. I am a big fan. (and one of those who was very sad when you and Greg did not win an award for the very wonderful It Jes’ Happened.
      Love your work.

  2. I’ve been there, Don. Last year had lots of “good news” for my fall book and no GOOD NEWS on the day. It is really hard, but I survived and kept making books. I love what I do and I just hope children give my work a sticky thumbs up.

  3. Great post, Don! I know how you felt. I felt like this for my first novel, SPITTING IMAGE, which Borders had as one of their “Original Voices,” and which they had listed in their top 5 contenders as a Newbery that year. We were in Mexico on vacation at the time of the announcements. This was well before the time everyone had cell phones. I remember fretting so much about whether anyone would be able to reach me. Hah! I quickly got my feet back on the ground. Writing is a way of living . . . not a series of activities that demand to be rewarded. Hugs to you.

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