Gold Medals for Bank Street College Book Awards
Each year Education Update has the privilege of attending one of the most unusual book medal ceremonies: the Bank Street College of Education’s Irma S. and James H. Black Award for Excellence in Children’s Literature. Welcoming the Winner, writers and illustrators of Honor Books, publishers, teachers, librarians, educators, and the media, Bank Street College President Augusta Souza Kappner stressed the uniqueness of the award. Unlike the prestigious Caldecott and Newberry, the Irma S. and James H. Black competition involves children directly in the selection process—and at many levels, beginning with a first cut that is made at Bank Street, under the guidance of Linda Greengrass, Head Librarian, and Lisa Von Drasek, Children’s Librarian, with additional winnowing by children in Bank Street’s School for Children. The final determination is made from three or four books that have had multiple review, and that have then been sent to first, second and third graders in eleven participating schools (four in New York).
The Black Award is also special, President Kappner noted, because it is given to a book that connects text and illustration. Indeed, the Guest Speaker was Harry Bliss, an award-winning illustrator and cartoonist at The New Yorker, whose work could be seen in a previous Black award and also in a delightful slide show of some of his favorite New Yorker cartoons and magazine covers, some of which—including the riotously sophisticated Dude Descending a Staircase—he says he shows to children. He sees himself “embellishing” the characters in a book with “odd humor and personality,” and he clearly feels that this work brings out more of the child inside.
This year, Education Update learned from Connie Black Engle, the daughter of Irma Simonton Black, about another feature that sets the Black Award apart. It was established as a memorial to her mother who was killed in 1972 in what is still an unsolved murder. This shocking news, which tends to be euphemized as “untimely death,” was the immediate prompt for instituting the award. It is difficult to take in such news, especially as it is delivered by a remarkable woman with a joyous take of life, a captivating sense of humor and a sensitive, though critical appreciation of what children really like to read.
The 34th Annual Award ceremony, which took place on May 11, continued Irma Simonton Black’s legacy. A writer and editor of children’s books, founding member of the Bank Street Writers Lab, the first workshop of its kind, for creative writers and illustrators. Among early members was Maurice Sendak, who designed the seal that would be placed on the cover of winning books, placing himself, Irma and his dog Jenny cavorting around books. Eventually, the multi-talented Irma S. Black went on to head Bank Street College’s Publications Division where she helped institute the first basal readers to feature ordinary incidents from real life and multi-ethnic urban children, thus changing “the nature of early childhood literacy teaching in America.”
And the 2006 winners were: First Place, to Sammy: The Classroom Guinea Pig, written and illustrated by Alix Berenzy (Holt) for preschool-Grade 2—President Kappner had an specially grand time squealing in all the right narrative places, as she summarized the story. The Honor Books were: Terrific, written and illustrated by Jon Agee (Hyperion) for K-Grade 3; Willa and the Wind written by Janice M. Del Negro, illustrated by Heather Solomon (Marshall Cavendish), for Grades 1-4; and Precious and the Boo Hag, written by Patricia C. McKissack and Onawumi Jean Moss, illustrated by Krysten Brooker (Atheneum Books for Yong Readers) for K-Grade 3.#