Saturday, January 31, 2015

I'm Thinking, I'm Thinking!!! (with apologies to Rodin)

Children’s librarians get very excited around this time every year.  Why? We are eagerly awaiting the winners of the Caldecott and Newbery Medals. These, the most prestigious of awards for children’s literature in America, will be announced on February 2nd. I have been researching, ordering books, and reading, trying to make my best guess about who might win. In the process, I read a lot of amazing books, look at innovative and exquisite illustrations, and acquire some really fine new material for my library.

Today I will talk about the Caldecott hopefuls on my shelf, mostly because they are picture books, and I have actually been able to read them all. There’s no chance I’ll be able to read all the Newbery possibilities, but I can at least read a chapter here and there to get the flavor of each book. With only two days now to go, I will have to be satisfied with having read three of them.

I arrived at this list of Caldecott hopefuls not so much by reading the books themselves, but by reading blogs and articles from editors, librarians, and book-lovers. The books that were getting lots of mentions ended up on my list. Then I was able to get down to the pleasurable task of actually reading them, and examining the illustrations. The Caldecott, after all, is an award for illustration, so I am looking at how well the pictures help convey the plot and the emotion of the story, the quality of the art, and especially for innovative technique.

Remy and Lulu – written and illustrated by Kevin Hawkes, with miniatures by Hannah E. Harrison (who is, by the way, a friend of a friend!). This story just plain made me smile. With colors both bold and warm, Hawkes tells the story of Lulu, an artist’s dog. Lulu’s owner (we presume) dies, and Lulu is left to fend for herself. It’s her good fortune to stumble upon another artist, who adopts her as his own. What follows is a surprising and successful artistic partnership between the far-sighted Remy and the talented, top-hat wearing pooch. Pay particular attention to the illustrations on the end papers and title page, as they are crucial to the story. A celebration of art, and the beauty that exists in the eye of each beholder.

Sam & Dave Dig a Hole – written by Mac Barnett, and illustrated by Jon Klassen.
I have read four of these titles to Henry, my five year old son, and so far this is hands down his favorite. This book provoked laughter and exclamations and is the only one where he said, “Read it again!” For an adventurous dirt and dog-loving boy, this is the ultimate book. The illustrations are simple and earth-toned, with hints of subtle humor.  Sam and Dave, fueled by chocolate milk and animal cookies, dig a tremendous hole. They vow not to stop until they find something spectacular, trying different directions as ever more massive diamonds hide just out of sight. The boys’ dog, however, seems clued in to the hidden treasures. While this is probably one of the front-runners, it seems unfair to give this award to Klassen again so soon after his win for This is Not My Hat.

A Dance Like Starlight: One Ballerina’s Dream – written by Kristy Dempsey and illustrated by Floyd Cooper. The images in this book, despite their realism, are also soft and dream-like. In every scene, the young protagonist’s face seems lit from within. The girl’s mother works as a seamstress in a ballet school, and because she has talent, she is allowed to participate in classes for free from the back of the room. She wonders if there will ever be a chance for her to actually perform. This piece of fiction intersperses the true story of Janet Collins, America’s first African-American prima ballerina, with the dreams of a nameless girl. To her, Janet Collins is a beacon of hope, and that is the feeling that comes through in the pictures.

Viva Frida – written and illustrated by Yuyi Morales.  This bilingual celebration of famed artist Frida Kahlo is lushly illustrated.  In some of the images, Morales arranged and photographed three-dimensional models, while others employ painting and collage. The result is a bright and colorful fantasy. The words seem secondary here; the book is an homage to Kahlo and to art itself. This is, in my opinion, a front-runner for the award, as the illustrations are groundbreaking.

Lauren Castillo had a busy year. Two of her books, both geared toward the pre-K and kindergarten set, have been mentioned for the award. The cover image of The Troublemaker shows a young boy with a toy sword, his stuffed raccoon, and a real raccoon lurking in the background. As I’ve shown this book to classes, I’ve asked them who they think the Troublemaker in question actually is. Most of them pick the boy, but the troublemaker is actually the raccoon, who does naughty things for which the boy is blamed. The black and white silhouette illustrations are particularly well-done. Her other selection is Nana in the City, a bold and warmly illustrated tribute to life in the big city.  A young boy, visiting his Nana, doesn’t like the city. He sees it as loud and scary, but when Nana knits him a special cape and takes him on a tour, he comes to see the charms that city life has to offer. The two-page spread of what I assume is Times Square is particularly vibrant.

Sparky! – by Jenny Offill, and illustrated by Chris Appelhans. A girl gets a sloth for a pet (!!!) and discovers that their sedentary nature doesn’t make them very fun. She tries to get him to be something he is not, attempting to train him to do tricks. In the end she has to accept him for who he is, learning (and teaching) a valuable lesson. Gentle earth-tone illustrations pair perfectly with the text. This book has been popular with my students, but I think it’s a long shot for the award.

Firefly July: a Year of Very Short Poems – selected by Paul B. Janeczko and  illustrated by Melissa Sweet.  I love the concept of this book focused on short poetry. When showing this to kids, I have mentioned that I love poetry, but I’m not a fan of extremely long poems, and this book is just right if that’s how they feel too! Melissa Sweet’s vibrant mixed media illustrations bring the poems to life. Pen and ink, pencil, collage, paint; all come together in a harmonious and vivid mélange.  My favorite image is that of a red pick-up truck full of old oscillating fans on their way to the junkyard; it’s a perfect blend of image and words.

Hi, Koo! A Year of Seasons – written and illustrated by Jon J. Muth. The title is a play on words, which is in keeping with the humor present in the loosely framed haikus and pastel watercolor pictures within. Muth’s panda has returned in this sweet and funny book of seasonal poems and imagery.  The cover image of the panda rolling on his back with a red bird perched on his bottom has provoked instant laughter from many of my classes. My favorite is a winter scene, where a grumpy and judgmental snowman oversees the antics of the panda and his human companions. I don’t predict this book as a medal winner, but it has been a late-surging vote-getter in our student balloting.

Emily’s Blue Period – written by Cathleen Daly, and illustrated by Lisa Brown. Though this book is a bit longer than many picture books, it was able to hold the attention of my kindergarten classes. Emily is studying Picasso in art class, while concurrently experiencing her parents’ separation. She empathizes with his “blue periods” and decides that she is going through a blue period as well. The illustrations team with the story by starting out with varied color, then moving to shades of blue and gray. Once she has worked through her blue period, the illustrations return to full color. A great blend of art and concept.

Have You Heard the Nesting Bird? – written by Rita Gray and illustrated by Kenard Pak. This lovely non-fiction introduces children to bird calls and identification and with subdued, earth-tone illustrations. Though this book is attractive, it hasn’t grabbed my young readers. It is the only book on my ballot that has received no votes. However, the most popular books for kids aren’t always the most popular with the Caldecott committee. Last year’s Locomotive is a prime example. Although Locomotive is interesting, and I see its value as an illustrative teaching tool, it has not been a popular book for children to check out. This book isn’t likely to win, but it’s still possible.

Flora and the Penguin - by Molly Idle. Though this is a cute book, and the kids like it, I don’t think it stands much of a chance to win. Flora and the Flamingo, which won an honor award last year, was so similar in style that it seems unlikely the committee would award what amounts to a sequel. Still, this book has garnered a number of votes among my students.

The Farmer and the Clown – by Marla Frazee. This wordless book is sweet and simple. A baby clown falls off of a circus train and is rescued by a farmer, who takes him in and cares for him until his family comes back. I love Marla Frazee. I would go so far as to call her my favorite living illustrator, and this book is adorable. However, the illustrations in this book are much more spare than her usual style, and I don’t find them as appealing. If she didn’t win for All the World, I would be surprised to see her win for this. Another honor book is a possibility, though.

Ivan: The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla – written by Katherine Applegate, with illustrations by G. Brian Karas. The picture book version of The One and Only Ivan makes this story accessible to even the youngest readers. The story follows Ivan from the time of his capture in the wild, through his years of boredom in a Seattle shopping mall, and finally to his final home, a natural exhibit in the Atlanta Zoo. The story is compelling, and the pictures are nice, but I don’t see anything really extraordinary in this book. I have seen other work by Karas that I liked better.

Three Bears in a Boat – By David Soman. The creator of Ladybug Girl goes a different direction with this high seas adventure starring three mischievous young bears. The bears have broken one of their mother’s treasures, and decide to take out a little sailboat (without permission!) to look for a replacement.  The watercolors are detailed, yet luminous. My favorite is an impressive two page spread showing a pod of whales underwater, lifting their little boat. The boat is a speck in the top corner, while the whales fill the page in undulating blues and greens. I have a good feeling about this book’s chances.

Grandfather Gandhi – written by Arun Gandhi and Bethany Hegedus, with illustrations by Evan Turk. In this book, co-written by Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson, we are privy to the lessons taught to him by his “bapu.” Collage using various textures of papers and fibers creates tons of visual interest to go along with the story. Probably the best use of texture I’ve seen among this year’s candidates. Even my students were impressed, although I was surprised at how few of them had actually heard of Gandhi. An educational oversight!

Bad Bye, Good Bye – written by Deborah Underwood with illustrations by Jonathan Bean. A little boy doesn’t want to move, so as they pack move, everything is bad, including saying goodbye. Over time he comes to see good in his new home, and both the language and color changes from gloomy to glad. I’m a sucker for a rhyming book, and this is no exception. The illustrations are executed with lots of black and muted primary colors. Geared mostly for the pre-K/kindergarten crowd. Another long shot, I’m afraid.

And now, to make a prediction. I hate to predict, just as I hate to make New Year’s resolution. They always seem kind of hopeless. But, if I had to go out on a limb, I would say that Viva Frida is my pick. Not necessarily my personal favorite, but I think it’s got a good chance of winning. Sam and Dave Dig a Hole and Nana in the City are my pick as honor books. I could be totally wrong. I don’t have a huge feeling of confidence about this; it could be that none of my choices from this list will win anything. We’ll find out Monday morning!

As for the Newbery, I’ve managed to read Brown Girl Dreaming, Under the Egg and The Greenglass House from my hopeful list, and I enjoyed them all. Under the Egg gives a tremendous lesson in art and art history, while solving a mystery, and introducing a great heroine. The Greenglass House managed to make a story that was compelling to me, despite me complete lack of knowledge and understanding of role playing games, which figure heavily in the story. But Brown Girl Dreaming . . . well, it’s just a force to be reckoned with. It is perhaps Jackie Woodson’s greatest achievement thus far, and that’s saying a lot. Such depth of feeling, and yet still accessible to children. Brown Girl Dreaming is my pick for 2015; for once I might be right!

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