Contemplating Caldecott Contenders

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Contemplating Caldecott Contenders

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Editat: feb. 9, 2018, 9:12pm

Coming back to picture books after a year reading other types of stories and inspired by SLJ's Newbery and Caldecott contenders and Jen J's Booksheets compiling the year's starred books, I wandered off to the library with a list of titles and found myself wanting to write out some of my thoughts.

Hoping it's okay to post long comments, mostly as a way of reflecting on what I'm seeing (and hoping others will respond)

First up, a non-fiction title -- Grand Canyon by Jason Chin. One of the Caldecott sites commented that realistic art is often overlooked by the Caldecott committee and that Chin has never made the lists. This is the first of his works I've encountered, and if it's typical of his art, he's been slighted.

As the title indicates, the book provides information about the Grand Canyon -- its origins, flora, fauna, etc. At first glance, I thought the pictures were nice -- which isn't high praise. A closer look suggested more was going on.

The front peritext gives a clue to Chin's design strategy: the endpages, mostly monochromatic tans, contain a map with some statistics about the canyon, done in watercolor and pen-and-ink, the style somewhat reminiscent of art in Brian Floca's Locomotive; the title page is a glorious, full-color, double-page spread, painting of the canyon (gouache, I think). Within the book, realistic, full-color paintings with white frames (thus, recalling tourists' photographs) show scenes in the canyon; these are bordered by additional monochromatic drawings containing factual information. The effect is of a page from a reference work overlaid with photos of the scenery in the areas depicted. The framed artwork generally includes people or animals or both -- children and parents camping, hiking, exploring -- life in the canyon (and, with the visual reference to photographs, the idea of preserving memories).

Some of the text addresses changes across centuries (the buildup of layers of rock, embedded fossils, etc.), and occasional passages take the reader into the far past. ("This is Grand Canyon, 1.2 billion years ago, when the only living things on Earth were microbes . . . ") When that happens, the reference to the past occupies an entire double-page spread, full bleed, depicting the imagined scene -- but with a modern-day child surveying it. The change in visual style is an effective way of signaling the change in era and the shift from real present to conceptions of the past. Since past and present are connected in the canyon and that interrelationship is crucial, Chin goes on to add an inspired touch: a die-cut hole on the preceding page, so that the past peeks through in the present and vice versa. His first such effect occurs on a page where the text notes that "ripple marks preserved in the stone . . . are like windows" -- and the die-cut, showing the ripples, works precisely in that fashion.

This is an ideal marriage of illustration and text, narration and information: it captures the joy of exploring the canyon while conveying factual information and a sense of the centuries involved in its creation. As a final touch, a gatefold near the end of the book opens to an double-wide illustration celebrating the magnitude of the canyon. An illustrator's note in back points out the few areas where accuracy was secondary to artistic license, providing the necessary information and explanation for his choices.

My opinion: Deserves to make the Caldecott lists -- possibly even at the top.

gen. 4, 2018, 10:50am

Today's book -- Wolf in the Snow written and illustrated by Matthew Cordell. This primarily wordless book (only text is sounds, like "bark" or "whine") follows a girl and baby wolf, both of whom are lost in the woods; girl helps pup find its family and wolf pack returns the favor for the girl. Cordell's art works well to enhance mood and storyline, especially with the lack of narrative text.

My first thought on seeing the girl outfitted in a red cloak was that the story was a play on Little Red Riding Hood, and it does pick up some elements with the encounter outdoors, but nothing beyond that. The art (watercolor and pen-and-ink) has a scratchy, rough style somewhat similar to Quentin Blake's -- not usually a favorite of mine, but here it keeps the tale from becoming too saccharine. The early illustrations use direction well -- on the first opening, Red walks to the right; on the second, a huge wolf faces left in exactly the same spot Red occupied on the previous page, with other wolves also moving left, preparing the reader for conflict. The wolves continue in that direction (with the little wolf falling farther behind) on subsequent pages, as Red moves right.

When the lost wolf pup and girl meet, the pup is significantly smaller than she is and drawn with rounded shapes, removing all sense of threat. The illustrator signals a change in the story by altering page design: immediately prior to the first encounter between wolf pup and girl, the illustrator shifts from full page spreads to circular cut-outs -- on the verso, of the girl trudging in the snow, tracks behind her; on the recto, of the wolf cub in a similar situation. After their initial encounter, the two interact in a montage: Red tries to shoo the pup away, tosses him into the snow to encourage him to move along, then ends up picking him up and carrying him in her arms. When she encounters the pup's mother, it's the same visual pattern: the cutouts of Red and mother wolf looking at heach other, and three-stage montage, this time ending with the pup being carried by the mother.

In part because of the absence of text, it's a story that moves quickly; the pacing and page design (long shots, full bleeds, giving a strong sense of the vast outdoors and the lost narrator's plight) work well and create a sense of danger. While the resolution may be a bit pat, it has a structure somewhat reminiscent of the parallels between humans and nature found in Blueberries for Sal and, accordingly, an effective symmetry. The entire story is framed on the peritext by scenes where the reader is outside the family's home, looking in through the snow, again loosely analogous to the endpages in Blueberries showing mother and daughter saftely home in their kitchen.

Conclusion: undecided. It's a good book, but I'm not certain I'd call it a great one meriting inclusion on the Caldecott lists.

gen. 4, 2018, 11:33am

I'm so glad you are posting. I'm already learning much.

gen. 5, 2018, 9:18am

Thanks! I'm so glad to have found a group devoted to picture books.

Editat: feb. 9, 2018, 9:08pm

Probably my favorite so far, in terms of story (narrative voice and plot) and illustrations is A Different Pond written by Bao Phi, illustrated by Thi Bui. The (autobiographical) story -- a father and son, Vietnamese immigrants, going fishing together in the morning for companionship and food -- is so engaging that at times I had to remind myself to stop and look at the pictures.

Reminiscent of Night Driving and Climbing Kansas Mountains, the book captures a special time between father and child. Like Night Driving, it's set before dawn, in that quiet period where few others are around and where silence and the night sky can still be part of companionship. Like Climbing Kansas Mountains, it begins at home and involves travel to a particularly meaningful place (and even has an image of the road through town from a similar perspective). The first-person narration by the boy conveys not only the special familial bond but also information about the family's background and some of the challenges they face in their new life. Surprisingly, my library has the book catalogued as juvenile fiction rather than a picture book, though there's less text than in classics such as The Little House or Make Way for Ducklings. Are we moving toward a point where books that take longer than 3-4 minutes to read aloud are no longer considered as created for a younger audience (even though picture books are meant to be read aloud and experienced visually and aurally)?

The illustrations are primarily in soothing blues, capturing the quiet feel of the hours before dawn. There are a few techniques that add to the effect: outdoor scenes use full bleeds, especially effective in reinforcing the expansiveness of nature and the environment around the pond; indoor scenes are framed, enclosing the action. The final opening combines both, with the family eating and the boy later dreaming (and links them through yellows and tans, colors frequently featured in indoor scenes).

In the early scenes, pictures on the wall in the family's home add information about their background (and the year -- though one wonders if the calendar date of 1982 was part of Phi's concept). En route to the pond, father and son stop at a bait store that "always seems to be open"; the signs outside are in Spanish, another subtle touch recognizing a diverse population that works long hours.

The only less successful element is the peritext (though the cover is lovely and captures the feel of the book perfectly). The endpages were initially a puzzle -- sketches of many objects, ranging from a stuffed rabbit to gym shoes to doorknobs to flowers under glass. After reading the illustrator's note, I think they're meant to represent some of the memorabilia tied to childhood, since he references Sendak's use of such material. Here, though, the connection to the visual images in the story seems weak, which is a not an asset.

I'm also not certain if the two types of foliage on the front cover (on either side of the protagonists) are meant to represent trees from the two regions, especially since the trees used as borders on the title page, which appear similar to those on the right side of the cover, seem so different in appearance from those in the story. (That may, however, simply be an indication of my ignorance when it comes to recognizing plants.)

A final strength to the book is the author's and illustrator's commentary in the back, providing more context for story and illustrations (though not for the peritext!).

Conclusion: really hoping this one makes the Caldecott list.

gen. 6, 2018, 11:11am

Two short ones today --
A Greyhound a Groundhog by Emily Jenkins, illustrated by Chris Applehans. Jenkins's dedication acknowledges Ruth Krauss's A Very Special House as inspiration for her text -- largely rhymed wordplay with a rhythm and mood similar to Krauss's. ("A groundhog, a greyhound, a grey little round hound / A greyhound, a groundhog, a found little roundhog"). Applehaus's pictures and page complement the text perfectly -- loose shapes, ample white background (not unlike Maurice Sendak's approach to A Very Special House), plenty of curves to reinforce the idea of roundness for dog and groundhog.

As the book progresses, the pictures become more colorful and circular designs -- in illustrations and text -- increase, emphasizing the pair's joyous romp and creating a visual climax. Like many of Jenkins's picture books, this is a gentle story (a radical contrast with the YA fiction she writes as E. Lockhart, such as We Were Liars), not a complex plot but rather play with words, echoed in the illustrations.

Conclusion: Appelhans has definitely complemented and enhanced a slight text. Don't know if it will be enough for the Caldecott committee, but he's brought the words to life.

The Legend of Rock Paper Scissors by Drew Daywalt, illus by Adam Rex. Two creative minds, but a disappointing book in terms of Caldecott quality. The story -- following first Rock, then Paper, then Scissors, as each sets out in search of a worthy opponent -- has Daywalt's wackiness and humor, and there are many details to study in Rex's illustrations, with most of the inanimate objects anthropomorphized in one fashion or another. It's an entertaining book, but somewhat facile.

Conclusion: Fun for read-alouds and discussion of quirky details in the illustrations, but I hope the Caldecott committee bypasses it.

gen. 9, 2018, 4:42pm

Almost to the end of the pile -- two more today...

Antlered Ship by Dashka Slater, illus by the Fan Brothers. This one garnered several stars but seemed to elicit mixed reactions at one of the Caldecott discussion sites -- a feeling that the text might be weak (even though, technically, text is not a consideration when determining a Caldecott title) and that realistic, representational artists are often bypassed by the committee.

I keep going back and forth on this one, trying to decide if the story and illustrations are too greeting-card sweet or whether it's an innovative approach to a quest tale, and one where the illustrations encourage a slower pace and more time on the page to savor the journey.

This is a gentle adventure story -- which might appear a contradiction in terms -- but both the tone of the text and the style of the illustrations work to turn what could be a caricature or cartoon-style melodrama into a tale of growth and the possibilities (and occasional pitfalls) of venturing out into the world in search of answers and dreams. Hoping to find other foxes that can answer his many questions about the world, Marco takes a position aboard a ship staffed by some less than experienced crewmates. En route to The Island of Sweet Trees, they encounter pirates and other hazards. After reaching the island, Marco and the others discover that their initial goals have changed and, now a united crew, set off for more exploration.

The illustrations, which often look like colored pencil (but are actually "graphite and ballpoint pen . . . colored digitally") are generally soothing: almost all are double-page spreads with full bleeds and a strong horizontal stretching across both pages, creating a sense of stability, yet capturing the magical feel of the world of the story. During the first half of the book, as the crew struggles with disunity, the colors are often browns and greys to match their somber mood; ironically, the first encounter with the pirates (which will be a transformative event) is set with a pink background, and lighter colors prevail for the last half.

The front cover shows the antered ship (appropriate, since its original crew are deer) sailing toward the reader, flanked by some of the hazardous rocks it encounters; endpages signal the importance of the journey by showing a map with the ship's path marked.

Conclusion: Still undecided, but the illustrations are lovely.

A Perfect Day written and illustrated by Lane Smith

The cover perfectly forshadows the story, but looks so peaceful that it's only after reading the book that its significance becomes apparent.

This is Lane Smith at his clever best. The story opens with four parallel sequences a cat, dog, chicakadee, and squirrel each has the start of a perfect day: The drawings are light and cheerful: flowers bloom in profusion, animals smile as each settles into its spot -- daffodil bed, wading pool, birdfeeder.

Smith sets up a pattern with the layout: double-page spread introducing each creature into its cozy environment, followed by a ¾ page illustrations with the words "It was a perfect day for (cat, dog, etc.)" moving from a white background on the far left and into the illustration.

Just as the reader settles comfortably into the pattern, a page turn reveals a large brown bear walking from a white quarter panel into the picture -- its placement covering the spot occupied by the words, just as the bear will displace each creature and disrupt the perfect days.

Accordingly, each of the next four openings depicts bear claiming the objects and locations previously occupied by the four animals, each time with the text announcing "it was a perfect day for (cat, dog, etc.)"

Touches of humor and foreshadowing abound: illustrations generally show the next animal in the sequence somewhere in the background The circular cutout at the end (as all the displaced characters look on) announcing "It was a perfect day for bear" mirrors the circular sun on the first opening, and, while the story is humorous, it's also much more -- a play on language (the difference between "it was a perfect day " and "it was a perfect day ") and a succinct way of conveying the concept that sometimes satisfation for one creature can only be achieved at another's cost, perhaps opening philosophical discussion.

Conclusion: Unfortunately for Smith, he's so good so often that it seems unlikely the Caldecott committee will give him yet another medal or honor listing, but if it were a newer illustrator, this would probably be a shoo-in for one of the spots. An absolutely delightful book on first and subsequent reads.

gen. 10, 2018, 9:46am

Last title on the pile -- Dazzle Ships: World War I and the Art of Confusion. I wanted to like this one, and if I could have judged the book only by its cover, it would have been fine. It's visually striking, an apt introduction to a book on the importance of appearance.

Dazzle Ships is about a segment of history new to me: camouflaging ships in World War I by painting them with strange designs, not so that they blended into the scenery, but so that their direction of movement would be hard to determine, thus increasing the chance that German gunners might err in estimating location when firing on them.

If the Caldecott were only for stunning illustrations, this book would deserve to be a serious contender, for the pictures are indeed dazzling. And, if the Caldecott Committee adheres strongly enough to the "Excellence of execution in the artistic technique employed" rather than to the interrelationship between pictures and text -- or the usefulness of illustrations in making concepts in the text more comprehensible -- the book should have a good chance of making the lists. The problem is, (for me, at least) the stylized illustrations coupled with the limited information in the text impeded rather than advanced understanding. Barton and Ngai do well in piquing interest in their topic -- but not so well in explaining it clearly. To his credit, Barton includes a helpful bibliography and foregrounds Roy Behrens' Camoupedia website; Behrens, in turn, supplies the type of information needed better to understand the concept.

Additional thoughts: One strength of the illustration is the way that Ngai weaves camouflage elements throughout the pictures. Most seem as if they ought to be art posters rather than book illustrations -- and I say this as someone who feels children's book art should be "the rarest kind of best." (I'm hoping others who appreciated the book more than I did will have more to say about its strengths.)