osprey_archer: (books)
The Caldecott award winners - indeed, picture books in general - often seem to float in a gentle timeless world untouched by history, or at least only brushed by the brighter and more beautiful parts of it. It's a peaceful place, picture book land, a pleasant respite.

This is not true of the 1995 Caldecott winner, Smoky Night, which was inspired by the Los Angeles riots in 1992 (although the riot within the book has no specific location). The two year turnaround time (Caldecott winners are selected from the books published the year before the award is given) makes the riots a red hot topical reference in picture book terms.

It's, well, it's a very 90s take on race relations. If only we all get to know each other, maybe we can all get along! Well, maybe. This seems a little too pat to me - it all ties up too neatly with a bow at the end.

On the other hand, it may be asking too much to expect a picture book to explain systemic racism to five-year-olds.

The illustrations are acrylic, thick black outlines filled in with heavy dark colors, and mixed media collages for the backgrounds. It isn't a style I particularly like: there's something upsetting about the teal & purple palette David Diaz used for the faces, although I understand that he probably didn't want to commit to races for all the characters. But the collages are definitely striking (there's one with broken glass; another with crumbled dry cleaner clothes, still in the bags), and quite unlike anything I've seen in other picture books.
osprey_archer: (books)
Allen Say's Grandfather's Journey, which won the Caldecott Medal in 1994, was probably not written expressively for the purpose of repudiating the 1941 winner, Robert Lawson's They Were Strong and Good - but as they are both Caldecott medalists, it does sort of work that way.

They are the same kind of book, both windows onto American history through the medium of the author's own family history - but these windows offer very different views. In They Were Strong and Good diversity needs to be quelled, tamed, by white supremacy, whereas in Grandfather's Journey it's something to be greeted, even welcomed. In his journey, Say's grandfather "shook hands with black men and white men, with yellow men and red men."

And of course Say's grandfather was himself a Japanese man who immigrated to America, which is in itself a celebration of diversity - to present this is a quintessentially American story, the immigrant who comes to this nation and goes on a cross-country trip and marvels at the marvelous weathered rock formations, the amber waves of grain, the towering mountains and mighty factories and gorgeous trains.

Edna Ferber actually has a similar passage in Great Son, where a German Jewish refugee marvels at the natural beauty and industrial strength of America. Say is drawing on a tradition: the immigrant who becomes an American by falling in love with the country.

(And, because Say's family returned to Japan before World War II, the Japanese internment camps never come up. Say grows up hearing stories about beautiful California, and the family is about to visit, but then "a war began. Bombs fell from the sky and scattered our lives like leaves in a storm." So it is not until the postwar years that he goes to California, and "came to love the land my grandfather had loved.")

The text is poetic, as I think the above excerpts illustrate - gentle, thoughtful - and the illustrations share in that gentleness and tranquility. Many of them are composed like studio portraits, the subject looking straight at the camera/viewer, which sounds like it ought to be boring or static but instead is just - peaceful.
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We bought Emily Arnold McCully's Mirette on the High Wire at a Scholastic Book Fair when I was in first grade (does anyone else remember the glory of going to the book fair? Books, books, an entire room in the school suddenly filled with shiny new books), and I dug out my old copy to read it for the Caldecott project.

The illustrations still delight me: the flaming red of Mirette's red hair, the deep blue of her dress and the white froth of her petticoats, the impressionist feel to it all - so appropriate for a book set in fin de siecle Paris. And the loveliness of Paris in these illustrations! No wonder I always had the idea of Paris as an enchanted city.

This is one of those books that has a moral point that is quite clear to an adult - learning an art, any art, not just walking the high wire - requires work, and more work, and many mistakes. You'll fall down and pick yourself back up and get overconfident and fall again. But it's not blunt - obvious - obtrusive about it - I never felt I was being preached at when I read this book as a child, only enchanted by the illustrations, the city, Mirette's slowly mounting competence, the way that her courage and determination inspire her teacher who thought his own days as a high wire walker were done.


I haven't posted recently not because I have nothing to say but because I am quite, quite behind on things I've meant to post about: the first season of Sailor Moon Crystal, books I read on Netgalley (Ta-Nehisi Coates' We Were Eight Years in Power; a series of historical sketches by Stefan Zweig), and all the movies I saw in August, some of which I liked and some of which I didn't but most of which inspired lots of thought and feeling and therefore an intimidating number of things to say.

I'll start here with one of the less thought-provoking ones: I finally saw The Lego Movie, which I found moderately amusing but did not like nearly as much as Lego Batman (which had a surprising amount of emotional heft and perhaps set my bar for The Lego Movie too high). And I wasn't particularly impressed by the twist, when Spoilers )
osprey_archer: (books)
When I was in fifth grade, my teacher had us write stories about David Weisner's Tuesday - a picture book peculiarly conducive to having stories written about it, as it's almost entirely without words. I don't recall what I wrote (later that year I wrote a story about a tiny Borrower-type person who got lost on my teacher's famously messy desk), although clearly there is quite a bit that one could write about a phalanx of frogs who ride their flying carpet lily pads for a night flight over a sleeping New England town.

Seriously, though, that's it. That's the story. The frogs go flying and have a jolly time chasing crows, drifting through open windows to watch TV with an old lady (who has conveniently fallen asleep), and stealing dish towels off a clothes line so that the towels can billow behind them like capes as they fly. Superfrog!

It also does an interesting thing visually, where many of the pages have inset panels that elaborate on the story that the main illustration is telling. I've seen this in comics before, but not a picture book, and I wonder if this isn't the reason that the book won the Caldecott - using this technique from another medium to level up picture books' visual storytelling game.
osprey_archer: (books)
You may know David Macauley for his books Cathedral - Castle - Pyramid - or The Way Things Work. But the book he won the Caldecott Medal for, in 1991, was Black and White.

In between the title and David Macauley's other books, I would have expected Black and White to be illustrated with stylishly meticulous black and white drawings. But in fact it is not; almost all of it is in full color, and the few pictures that are not are in a completely different style than the sort of precise architectural detail in Cathedral. (It always impresses me to see illustrators with this kind of versatility. I'm still impressed by Robert McCloskey's two Caldecott wins, with two totally different illustration styles.) They concern cows that have gotten loose and turned into a festival of blotches as they move across the landscape.

Rather than tell the story straight through, Black and White starts with four separate stories: a boy on a train, a pair of kids at home, an empty train station, and a thief climbing into a cow pen. Eventually these stories become interlocked, all part of the same slightly surreal tale. Nothing that happens is actually impossible. Cows do escape and get onto railway tracks (although perhaps not choir practice...). Bored commuters waiting on a late train might decide to make themselves newspaper hats to pass the time. A boy traveling alone for the first time might mistake newspaper confetti for snow.

But altogether it does have this odd liminal feel, as if the characters have somehow stepped into a liminal space at the edge of reality. And this is heightened by the way that the illustrations carry the story. You couldn't make sense of it if you just heard the text read out in an audiobook; the illustrations hold all the connecting information. And perhaps that is what makes it feel slightly surreal: the fact that the story is not told in words, as if perhaps it could not be contained in words.
osprey_archer: (art)
Ed Young's Lon Po Po: A Red-Riding Hood Story from China won the Caldecott medal when I was young, so it was everywhere in my early years, and it terrified me. Not the story, mind you, I never got to that part - but the cover: all in red, except for the shadowy black wolf with its terrible hypnotic white eyes.

It's probably just as well I never read it, even though the art style is beautiful, because many of the illustrations have that same terrifying effect. Like the bit where the three girls let the wolf into the house, because the wolf has convinced them that he's their grandmother, and the picture is simply the vast black shadow of a wolf splashed across the top of the page with the three girls looking tiny underneath...

I've heard a number of variations on the Red Riding Hood story, and in my recollection Red escapes in the end in all of them - but the illustrations created such a sense of menace that I began to worry this story would buck the trend. Especially as there are three sisters. Doubtless the wolf would be vanquished in the end, but he might still eat one of the sisters first.

(I hope you will not consider it a hopeless spoiler if I reassure you that he doesn't. In fact the sisters defeat him all on their own, no woodcutter in sight to help.)

And the illustrations truly are gorgeous. They never become wholly abstract, but there's definitely something expressionistic about them: lots of intense close-ups on the wolf's face, broad washes of color for the sky or the trees.

The first picture, which shows the mother leaving home to visit the actual grandmother - beneath a golden wash of dawn, with pale purple clouds above, and the ground still black with night, except for the golden gingko tree nestled against the house - well, that's just lovely. And there's a similarly lovely picture at the end of the book, bookending the story to show that peace has been restored.
osprey_archer: (books)
Caldecott Monday returns in a blaze of glory! Well, I suppose "blaze" might be a bit of an overstatement, but I do like Karen Ackerman's Song and Dance Man very much - we had it when I was a child (I am in fact reading it out of my childhood copy) and I always liked the vibrant motion of the pictures where grandfather shows off his old vaudeville routines to his grandchildren.

It occurs to me that this book, in conjunction with the later books in the All of a Kind Family sequence, are probably responsible for my vague yet firmly held belief that vaudeville was Super Cool. Was it really? WHO KNOWS. The movies killed it and we shall ne'er see its like again.

Song and Dance Man is probably also responsible for that sense of nostalgia: it ends with Grandpa gazing up the stairs toward the attic where his tap shoes and his natty striped vests and his bowler hat all repose in an old theater trunk, not unhappy - he is after all surrounded by his beloved grandchildren - but wistful, perhaps, that it's not possible to slip back in time just for one night, and dance on the vaudeville stage just one more time.
osprey_archer: (books)
We owned a copy of Owl Moon when I was a child, and while I don't remember reading it much, I always loved the cover: a little girl and her father walking up a snowy hillside, silhouetted by the moon. It's a scene of absolute peace and joy and just looking at it gives me a feeling of contentment.

The story is very sweet, too: the little girl and her father are going out in the woods at night to go "owling," that is, looking for owls. Not to hunt them or anything, just to see them in the peaceful quiet darkness of the woods.

When you go owling
you don't need words
or warmth
or anything but hope.
That's what Pa says.
The kind of hope
that flies
on silent wings
under a shining
Owl Moon.
osprey_archer: (books)
The 1987 Caldecott winner, Hey, Al, is a weird book. Al, a janitor, lives in a tiny gray apartment with his talking dog Eddie, who complains that the apartment is too small. (This is why it's actually a good thing that dogs don't talk. Would we love them half as much if they did? I doubt it. They'd be just as annoying as people all of a sudden.)

IN ANY CASE, one day a giant bird shows up in Al's bathroom window all, "Hey, Al! Come away with me!" And Al and Eddie take the bird up on it and let the bird carry them away to a magical bird island, where they can bask the days away in pools of water, until they wake up to discover that they have BEGUN TO TURN INTO BIRDS.

So they fly back home and decide that the tiny apartment isn't so bad after all because at least it is not TURNING THEM INTO BIRDS. And then Al begins to paint the gray walls yellow. Happy end!

I feel there is a not-very-sub-subtext here about how you should be happy with what you have, even if what you have is a minuscule apartment that is way too small for your poor dog, because Things Could Be Worse. Although actually, on the scale of one to Things Being Worse, turning into a bird actually has some perks to recommend it - being able to fly, for instance! - especially if you would be a talking bird who lives on a paradisiacal island surrounded by giant flowers and bird friends.

Stay on the island and become a bird, Al! That's way cooler than adding a lick of yellow paint to your walls.
osprey_archer: (books)
Caldecott Monday! The Polar Express! We owned this book when I was a child, although it was only one of piles and piles of Christmas-themed picture books and not as bright or redolently red and green as some of the others, so I only read it occasionally.

I did quite like it, though - especially the description of the food on the train, "candies with nougat centers as white as snow" and "hot cocoa as thick and rich as melted chocolate bars." Gosh. That makes me want a cup of cocoa right now, never mind it's really too hot for it. In fact the whole train ride, the train slicing ghost-like through the dark woods at night, ever northward toward a city rimmed in lights...

As a child I also loved the bit about the bell that only rings as long as you believe in Santa - so magical - but I feel a bit more jaundiced about it now - the entire cultural obsession with teaching children to believe in Santa, and mourning it as a tragic end of innocence when they cease to believe, as inevitably they must? Is it kind of like getting a kid a pet so they will learn an Important Lesson about Death when it dies? Except in order to teach an Important Lesson about Disillusionment instead, and possibly an Important Lesson about Being Gullible if they keep believing long after the other children.

Possibly I'm just a curmudgeon.

I have never seen the movie version of this book. Should I remedy this? Or is the train ride north far less mystically beautiful in the movie than in my head?
osprey_archer: (books)
Caldecott Monday returns! This week we have a charming retelling of St. George and the Dragon, specifically the version of the story from Spenser’s The Faerie Queen, which involves more praying and less interventions by Father Christmas than the version that my fifth-grade class put on in my youth.

(I played St. George, “old England’s pride, a man of courage bold” - one of my lines from the play; I still remember quite a bit of it after all these years. I was phenomenal.)

But back to the book. I particularly like the intricate borders around the pages of text: illustrations of blackberries or columbines or other English flowers, interspersed with gnomes, fairies, peasants in bright clothing scything the wheat, etc.: all very much in the tradition of medieval illuminated manuscripts.

No snails fighting knights, though, which I think we can all agree is would have been a delightful addition. But perhaps there is one in there and I just missed it? I don’t have quite the attention span for perusing illustrations that I did when I was a eight-year-old; at that age, I would have very much enjoyed sitting with this book for hours looking over the illustrations, and there’s quite enough detail here to reward it.
osprey_archer: (books)
I had never heard of Louis Bleriot before I read the 1984 Caldecott Medal winner, The Glorious Flight: Across the Channel with Louis Bleriot, which is about, well, what it says on the tin: the Frenchman who designed and flew the plane which was the first to fly across the English channel. (He was apparently mobbed by ecstatic Englishmen when he landed, much as Charles Lindberg was mobbed by ecstatic Frenchmen after crossing the Atlantic solo. People got really, really excited about planes by then.)

Anyway, it's a charming book. Louis Bleriot made at least a dozen prototypes before he finally put together the plane that withstood the channel test, and a couple of the early ones either never got off the ground or ignominiously crashed within seconds of liftoff, and he just keeps picking himself up, dusting himself off, and designing another one despite the broken ribs. When he crossed the channel, he was walking on crutches from an earlier plane crash injury. Now that's commitment!

Seriously though, he doesn't seem to have realized that it's important to be able to land the plane as well as get it in the air. Oh Bleriot.

The illustrations remind me of the ones in The Ox Cart Man - there's a similar purposeful stylized flatness to them; or I'm not sure flatness is the right word - but they both ignore classical perspective in favor of what one might call emotional perspective, where the relative sizes of things are decided in part by their importance.

The pictures also have lovely soft watercolor backgrounds - particularly good for rendering sky and water, which is after all what you want in a book about flying over the English channel.
osprey_archer: (books)
On its nightly path
it often gets bumped,
gets torn,
trips again and again,
and each time
sprawls its full length on the ground.
But it does not cry out,
it has no voice.

An excerpt from Marcia Brown's Shadow, the 1983 Caldecott winner, and probably the creepiest Caldecott winner to date. The illustrations are great swathes of black with intense gem-like colors, beautiful and frightening. And that poor shadow! Bumped, torn, falling, sprawling, and unable to cry out, because it has no voice.

It also has no eyes and no hunger. And yet it creeps everywhere:

For as soon as the sun comes up,
here are the shadow people,
breaking loose, unwinding,
stretching, stirring,
branching out, teeming,
like snakes, scorpions,
and worms.

osprey_archer: (art)
The Caldecott winner of the week is Chris Van Allsburg's Jumanji! Which is not my favorite Van Allsburg book, but it's not like there are bad Chris Van Allsburg books, so. I love his super detailed pencil illustrations: they're not photorealistic, but they nonetheless remind me of well-done black and white photographs in their drama and contrast.

The book Jumanji is much simpler than the movie: two children, Peter and Judy, find the game Jumanji sitting beneath a tree in the park. They take it home and begin to play - only for a lion to appear when Peter takes his first roll! But now that the die is cast, the only thing to do is to play the game all the way through to the end, through monsoons, volcanoes, hungry monkeys, etc.

Fortunately, when the game ends all the animals and weather events do too, as well as the damage they've caused. Thank goodness. And then - having played this terrifying game - what do the children do? Throw it in the trash? Burn it? Dig a deep hole in the backyard and bury it where it can never hurt anyone ever again?

But of course not! They take it back to the park where they found it, and the book ends with them watching another pair of children running off with it. The cycle must continue.


We had a number of Chris Van Allsburg books when I was growing up - The Wreck of the Zephyr (about a flying boat), Just a Dream (an environmentalist fable), and The Polar Express (which was my least favorite; naturally it's the most popular) - but my very favorite was The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, which is a series of unrelated illustrations, each accompanied by a single-line caption. The conceit is that these are the drawings of one Harris Burdick, who left them in Van Allsburg's hands with the promise to return with the stories accompanying them - only he never did, and now Van Allsburg is publishing them in the hopes that you, dear reader, might be inspired to tell their stories.

I did indeed find them very inspiring, although the story I eventually wrote does not, alas, quite fit the illustration that inspired it - a nun in a flying chair - I took the flying chair bit and ran with it. Six chairs took to the skies as a result of a science experiment gone wrong in Biology 101, and one landed in a swamp, where the devil took possession, and our intrepid heroine Monika had to do battle for it. (She won it with Thin Mints in the end.)
osprey_archer: (books)
Arnold Lobel is most famous for his Frog & Toad books (shout out to my fellow Frog & Toad fans!), but Fables is the one that he won the Caldecott Award for in 1981. It's fun! I thought it might be just a retelling of Aesop's fables, but actually Lobel has invented new fables of his own, which I rather enjoyed. I think my favorite is about the cat who spent a whole day fishing without catching anything, progressively moderating his dreams of a giant fish dinner with lemon juice and butter sauce down to a tiny little guppy with just a driblet of lemon - only to catch a gigantic fish just when he was about to give up.

The moral? "All's well that ends with a good meal." Hard to argue with that!

Some of the morals are more serious than that ("A child's conduct will reflect the ways of his parents") and some of it I'm not quite sure I agree with - "When one is a social failure, the reasons are as clear as day" - because I think that is the sort of thing that is only clear to everyone else. Of course the Crane doesn't want to invite the Pelican back to tea after the Pelican spilled the sugar and the cream and gobbled up all the cookies, but just as clearly the Pelican has no idea that this is why, as he sighs, "I seem to have no friends at all." Oh Pelican. Maybe you should have at least offered to help clean up your spills.

The illustrations are charming - very Lobelian, for lack of a better term. There's one story with frogs where the frogs do indeed look very much like Frog of Frog and Toad, which as you can imagine makes it rather alarming when the silly frogs get eaten at the end. ("The highest hopes may lead to the greatest disappointments." I guess there's nothing as disappointing as getting eaten by a snake.)
osprey_archer: (books)
This week's Caldecott book is The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses, which is about a girl who, well, she loves horses. She loves watching over her tribe's horses; and one day, when a thunderstorm frightens the horses, the girl is caught up in the stampede and they all run away together until they come to a herd of wild horses - led by a noble and valiant stallion - which takes them in.

I have clearly spent way too much time in the general vicinity of shifter romances, because I can't shake the reading that the girl is a horse shifter who has at last found her horse mate in the noble stallion. He's unwilling to let her go when her own people come for her - and in fact she doesn't seem too thrilled at the idea of going back with them either: they only catch her when she falls off her horse. Clearly not running to them with open arms.

And then later the girl disappears entirely, and a new beautiful mare shows up in the herd. Clearly she's finally mastered the art of turning into a horse for good!
osprey_archer: (books)
Alas, alas - my library did not get me the next Caldecott book in time for my Monday read! WHATEVER SHALL I DO?

Well, fortuitously, next week's book is one that I already own and love and have in fact posted about before: Ox-Cart Man, written by Donald Hall and illustrated by Barbara Cooney. You might think that I would have run out of things to say about it in that previous post, but you would be WRONG - and yet again fortuitously, I didn't write much about the artwork in my earlier post.

Barbara Cooney was probably my favorite illustrator as a child; I also liked Patricia Polacco and Jan Brett, but Cooney was the one who illustrated books about the Power of Imagination (although, fair warning, Ox-Cart Man is not even slightly about the Power of Imagination) which was basically the theme of my soul when I was five.

I like the stories she tells/chooses to illustrate, and I also like her style. There's a certain Grandma-Moses-ishness about it in this book - the detail, the rolling landscapes, the neglect of mathematical perspective in favor of what one might call emotional perspective (maybe you can't see quite this many hills at one time, but you can feel the hilliness all around you) - although her figures seem more supple than Grandma Moses's to me - more like real people and less like wooden dolls in a carved barnyard scene.

There's a particular illustration of the Ox-Cart Man walking home after taking all his goods to market, a new iron kettle over his shoulder and money in his pocket - walking down the dusky path past the vast vista of the darkening hills, a small village with lit windows, the sky deep red with sunset, up the hills to his own house. The promise of coziness is so strong.
osprey_archer: (books)
We've reached another Caldecott book that I'm familiar with from childhood! (And in fact we'll run into quite a few of them for the next twenty years of Caldecott books or so.) My parents actually owned Peter Spier's Noah's Ark, so I was quite familiar with it, although I must say it never was a favorite: the ark gets awfully dirty from having so many animals in it, which is only reasonable, but I thought all the piles of dung were gross.

I also found the Noah's ark story itself a bit upsetting - particularly the bit at the beginning where alllll the animals are gathering around the ark, but Noah's only letting them on two by two so you've got, say, a bunch of elephants standing around, dolefully waiting to drown. Why do the elephants deserve to drown because humans were horrible? It seems so unfair.

It occurs to me, rather gloomily, that at this point we might see the Noah's ark story as something like a prophecy: the elephants etc. still don't deserve to suffer, but human activity is slowly killing them off anyway - not with a literal flood, but from poachers servicing the rising tide of human greed. It is often the innocents who suffer most.

This is rather gloomy, especially considering the book itself is about as cheery as a retelling of Noah's ark can be. There are all sorts of fun animal vignettes (the elephant who doesn't fit out of the ark; the flood of rabbits coming out, because the two beginning rabbits have bred a four score and seven baby bunnies), all of which is very cute.
osprey_archer: (books)
I really enjoyed this week's Caldecott winner, Ashanti to Zulu: African Traditions. This is perhaps a bit surprising, given that it's illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon, who illustrated Why Mosquitos Buzz in People's Ears, about which I felt rather lukewarm - but the Dillons contain multitudes, it seems, and I really like the art style they chose for this books. The pictures have something of the feeling of stained glass: rich colors, strongly outlined figures, and each picture a vignette that tells an entire story in itself.

The style is well-suited to the alphabet book format: each page is devoted to an ethnic group in Africa with a name starting with that letter of the alphabet, and has a paragraph about some interesting custom that group has. ("The Fanti offer their guests white bubbly palm wine that has a clean fresh smell...Before drinking, a person pours a little wine on the ground and says, 'Come drink with us.' This is called 'pouring the libation,' and it is done to honor the ancestors.")

It seems like a charming way to introduce children to the diversity of peoples on the African continent - clearly a public service when movies still use "Africa" as a location tag. And the pictures are beautifully detailed; I can imagine a child paging through it slowly, spinning stories from the pictures as she goes.
osprey_archer: (books)
At last the library got me a copy of the 2017 Caldecott Medal Winner! Javaka Steptoe's Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, a charming book about, well, what it says on the tin. The illustration style is unique & intriguing: Steptoe paints on boards, so each part of the picture is on its own board and they're all fitted together so you can see the joins between them, which I've never seen before in quite this way.

I also enjoyed getting to know a bit more about Basquiat, who I had heard of but only in passing. Although I was a bit puzzled by this bit in the author's note, where Steptoe is describing a painting that inspired Basquiat: "Some people think that Guernica shows the suffering people and animals when warplanes bombed the village of Guernica, Spain, during the Spanish Civil War."

Are there some people who don't think that? I thought this was universally acknowledged.

Radiant Child also won the 2017 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award, and while it's a nice book, I'm not sure it's "two of the most prestigious awards in children's literature" nice - and not just because it's so darn hard to fit both the Caldecott and Coretta Scott King stickers on the spine of the book when you're processing it for the library.

Well, maybe a lot because of that. I had to cover half the title. But it does seem like the awards committees might have conspired to share the award wealth a bit more.


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