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Where Books May Lead



Reprinted from The Hilltopper magazine, Spring 2023



Julia (Julie) Nephew ’84 is a Children’s Services Librarian at Addison Public Library in Illinois, and has served on state and national intellectual freedom committees; she has worked to support librarians and is a champion for the freedom to read during present-day censorship and book banning.

Julia recently served in a highly coveted role as a member of the Caldecott 2023 Award Committee. We asked her to write about how her passions influenced her career and volunteer activities, and ultimately her work on the prestigious award committee.




My life has been filled with many passions, and they are what have guided me through career and life changes. As a student at Cathedral High School (Marshall’s former name), I chose a career path that I thought would be fulfilling and help people: medical doctor. I chose my undergraduate college, Gustavus Adolphus, in part because of its excellent record for getting students accepted to medical school. I took my father’s advice and volunteered to shadow doctors during the summers and talk to them about their work: medical research, emergency rooms, and pediatrics. 

In the spring of my sophomore year of college, I reached a point where I had to decide if I wanted to continue with pre-med studies. I looked back at those experiences and at others around me—it was a difficult decision to make—but I knew that I would not be happy as a physician in that closed-off and overwork-oriented world. I could be passionate about helping patients, but if I lost myself in the process, no one would be helped. 

So, what was I to do? 

I had not chosen a college with the intention of doing graduate work in foreign language, but in a brave change of course, I turned to my great passion, France and the French language. There were many other more prestigious choices for this type of schooling, but still, I made it work where I was at. 

I had always planned to study in France for my junior year. In fact, one of the reasons I chose to forego medical school was because, when I spoke with a member of the University of Minnesota’s Medical School admissions committee about those plans, he asked me how I would explain to the committee that I had “wasted” a year in France. That stopped me in my tracks. The doctors I had worked with had advised me to take a year off, or more, between college and medical school; they told me I would not have a social life, that I would have to borrow a huge amount of student loans, that it would be almost impossible to have time for a family. Here, this “expert” on medical school was telling me a year in Europe was a waste of time.

Well, my junior year in Avignon, France was amazing. 

I lived with French families, including as a fille au pair. I had a chance to visit friends studying in Orléans and others in Sweden. By staying two semesters, I became very comfortable speaking and writing in French. Traveling in foreign countries, often on my own, helped me understand both myself and the world; I gained confidence in the fact that I was strong and resilient, and that my personality and skills would make me successful. 

When I returned to Gustavus for my senior year, I became fearless about speaking up in my classes. I had been nearly mute in the pre-med courses, but once I succeeded in another country, in another language, asking questions and taking part in discussions became a pleasure. Unlike science courses where there was little debate and one possible answer, humanities courses were full of nuance and I had ideas. One of my professors said to a classroom of 75 students, while I held up my hand, “Is there anyone besides Julia who would like to answer?” 

Senior year also brought more complexity; I took the GRE exam and applied to graduate schools, and I recreated much of my social circle because friends had graduated or moved on to other degree programs.

I eventually earned my doctorate in French at the University of Wisconsin-Madison after years of coursework, PhD prelims, spending a year teaching English in Grenoble, France, two years as a visiting lecturer at my alma mater, and writing a dissertation. Completing a PhD gave me confidence that I could tackle anything. 

I taught French at private colleges until 2008. I had married my husband Eric in 2004 and could no longer move to wherever a full-time job may be. I decided to earn a Master’s in Library and Information Technology (MLIS). I am passionate about medieval manuscripts and early printed texts, so I planned to work in special collections, rare books, and archives. The 2010 arrival of our wonderful twin daughters, Madeleine and Sophia, changed my plans. I could not commute from the suburbs into Chicago while also being home enough to care for them. 


In the middle of these major life changes, I became an elected official. Eric and I had emerged as leaders in a grassroots effort to stop our park district from cutting down a small local forest. We succeeded and I was asked to run for park district commissioner in 2009. My husband was essential to the success of the campaigns that transformed our park district into one of the best-run in the state of Illinois. I am still a commissioner. 

I never expected to run for office, but this experience became a core part of who I am. I truly believe our society will fail unless many more people are willing to run for office, volunteer, step forward, and serve. Environmental causes are especially important to me, and I have seen this have a positive influence on how the park district is run. We have instituted no-mow areas, restricted the use of herbicides and phosphorus, organized sports equipment swaps, hired two full-time naturists, and much more.


After our twins were born, I took six months off work and then continued teaching part-time. I decided to pursue full-time library work and discovered that the many public libraries in our area would create a solid foundation for this career choice. I am now a full-time children’s librarian.

This position is related to another of my life’s passions: literature. I was a voracious reader as a child. My favorite children’s book series is the Betsy-Tacy books by Minnesota author Maud Hart Lovelace. The Deep Valley of the books is actually Mankato, Minnesota. I became a member of the Betsy-Tacy Society, which is based in Mankato, but enlists members from all over the United States and Europe. Some fans of the books are part of a listserv and it is through that and several conventions and other events that I met many children’s librarians. 

I knew that the high point in the career of many librarians was serving on the Caldecott, Newbery, or other Youth Media Award committees organized by the American Library Association (ALA). I had known of these awards since I was a child, but I wanted to find out how one becomes a volunteer member on their awarding committees. I learned that I needed to serve on other committees to get my name out. 

I volunteered and was appointed to the Intellectual Freedom Committee of the Association for Library Services to Children (ALSC), a division of ALA. Intellectual freedom is a pillar of the library profession. A blog entry I wrote about grassroots local efforts to fight censorship was included in a list of resources recommended by the ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom. As a result, I was invited to speak in an online forum hosted by the president of ALSC, and within a week, she invited me to serve on the Caldecott 2023 Award Committee. 

The Randolph Caldecott medal is awarded each year to the artist who created the most distinguished American picture book for children published in the previous year. “Children” is defined as birth through age fourteen. This award is so prestigious that the winning books never go out of print. Many libraries have Caldecott sections where copies of the winners are shelved. 

This past year as a member of the Caldecott committee has been rich with illustrated books and wonderful people. I studied many books about illustrations that appeal to children and their creators before examining over one thousand books. 2023 was the 85th year of the Caldecott Award, and the process is well-organized and thoughtful. Books were sent to the fifteen committee members for review, we suggested titles to the group, and then nominations by the committee members began in October. We had three day-long online video discussions in January before meeting in person in New Orleans. 

I adore every one of the five books chosen. The 2023 medal winner is Hot Dog by Doug Salati. The story is told masterfully with a color palette of orange, red, and yellow to represent the hot, crowded city. When the dachshund’s owner takes the overwhelmed dog to the beach, the blues and greens express the calm breeze and open landscape. This adorable dog can represent a young child who needs space to play and a cool environment. The committee chose four honor books: Knight Owl (Christopher Denise), Choosing Brave (Janelle Washington), Berry Song (Michaela Goade), and Ain’t Burned All the Bright (Jason Griffin).

The best part of the process was telephoning the winners; the committee chair made the calls and announcement, and then the whole committee cheered wildly. Doug Salati was speechless at first. He had convinced himself that he had not won any award and then had to adjust to the mental reversal. The honor winners were thrilled too—it was heartwarming to hear their thanks for the time we put into our decision. 

I am now looking forward to the awards banquet at the ALA Annual Conference in June where I will meet the illustrators, and where the winners of the Caldecott and the Newbery will give speeches that will later be published. 


One of the goals of a children’s librarian is to help students discover how reading can be a passion that will help them experience and explore new worlds. 

Amanda Houle, librarian at Marshall School, uses award-winning books like Caldecott winners to lead students to this love of creativity. 

When Hot Dog is used for a story time, it makes sense to invite the students to describe the colors and actions on the page. How do the borders of the panels reflect the characters’ feelings of stress or calm? What does the title reveal about the book’s plot? There are very few words, which allows readers to thoughtfully examine the illustrations; children love to locate little details, such as the recurring motif of the seals and the shape of the pile of collected rocks on the beach. Ask the children if they recognize how the dog feels in the hot, crowded city and if they feel the breeze at the beach... their imagination will take them there.

My father told me that going to college is about learning to think, not getting a job. To have a job or career that fulfills you, he advised people to find out what they love to do, their passion, and find a way to earn enough from it to live on. Activities you are passionate about, whether career, hobbies, or volunteering, do not feel like work. They feel right, like you are where you are meant to be. You don’t know where life will take you, but if you find your passion, you are more than halfway there. 


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