Subscribe to The Horn Book

Brother Sun, Sister Moon

Intricate, water-colored paper cuts make for an old-fashioned delight in Katherine Paterson’s reimagining of Saint Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of the Creatures.  I was initially struck by the use of black—an unusual choice in a picture book.  The black allows the intricacies of the Scherenschnitte (the name for this type of paper cutting) to pop. Dalton’s technique involves folding one large sheet of paper in half and cutting away to leave the image she desires. The art can remain completely symmetrical (as it does on the first spread) or the image can be opened and cut away further, making the art partly symmetrical, but always balanced. After the paper is cut, she then paints the paper, creating the finished illustrations. Since black is the constant, these watercolors  set the tone on each page of the canticle.

It’s hard not to be wowed by the paper cuts—it’s one of those times when the committee will realize that the artistic technique is time consuming and really special. Like colored woodblocks, this technique is actually two techniques (cut paper and water color) and they will have to evaluate both. The word “static” will be batted around—always a concern with this kind of art.

No matter what the committee decides, this is one special book that I will be giving at baptisms and baby showers for many years to come. Will it have a sparkly sticker on it? What do you think?


Robin Smith About Robin Smith

Robin Smith is a second-grade teacher at the Ensworth School in Nashville, Tennessee. She is a reviewer for Kirkus and The Horn Book Magazine and has served on multiple award committees.



  1. I thought the art in this book was beautiful, but gladly returned it to the library due to the heavily religious text. I’m surprised that more reviews haven’t made it explicitly clear that this is a Christian devotional. If you’re planning on giving it as a gift at baby showers, I hope you’re making certain the parents are interested in the religious message.

  2. I can understand why some people might be turned off by the text of this book, even though I think the words of St. Francis are beautiful. However, since the Caldecott award is given for illustrations, I believe there is no way to ignore that this book is truly amazing, and one of the most beautifully illustrated books of the year. I have Brother Sun, Sister Moon as my number one Caldecott selection , and I think it needs to get the attention it so fully deserves. This book is a work of art, and even though I have read it 30 or 40 times already, I keep finding new and interesting details in the artwork. To be honest, I don’t always read the words, since the pictures are so unbelievably beautiful and intricate. If you don’t like the religious message, then just look at the pictures. They are worthy of serious consideration for the Caldecott Medal.

  3. Robin Smith Robin Smith says:

    I was going to mention the Christian devotional part of the text, but figured the title, which includes the word Saint Francis might be enough. Thanks for bringing that issue up. I often wonder if overtly religious texts are thought to take away from the readership for a book. Here is where my not-being-a-librarian rears its head–I don’t worry about things like that. However, I know that librarians, especially public librarians, might have problems with books with a religious message. For the committee’s purpose, it’s all about the art. Period.
    Also, this is definitely a work of art, Ed, one that must have taken years to cut and paint.

  4. Barb Gogan says:

    I didn’t find anything in the words which indicated only Aryan children could be pictured and found the lack of any diversity in the children put this on my Absolutely Not list.
    I would have felt differently if this was supposed to be Sweden, but I looked and didn’t read anything in it that indicated something like that.

  5. Robin Smith Robin Smith says:

    Well, well.
    I assumed (and we know all about the word assume) that this was a family, portrayed over and over in each page. They are wearing the same scarves from page to page.
    Point taken, though.

  6. Barb Gogan says:

    It very well may be, but I would hope there would be a specific reason given for only having fair-skinned people pictured. For instance, I felt the family pictured in THE MONEY WE’LL SAVE was appropriate for the setting.
    Maybe I was just grumpy about the lack of diversity in the Caldecott possibilities as a whole as I re-read them this weekend. It seemed as if unless a book was specifically about a topic that REQUIRED people of color (like UNDERGROUND), I didn’t see many various colored faces.
    Except NEVILLE. Just one of the many things I loved about that book.

  7. It is an extraordinary piece of art, and worthy of serious consideration. It is in my personal top five, and possibly in my top three.
    St Francis is indeed a saint, but also a historical figure, and while this prayer is indeed a prayer, it is not specifically Christian so far as I can tell. I believe that is one of the strengths of the text.

  8. I really hope the Caldecott committee will not be bothered by the absence of color diversity. That would come close to censorship. Luckily, artistic choices will be given priority over political correctness. A question for Barb: how many wonderful books made your Absolutely Not list?

  9. Robin Smith Robin Smith says:

    This is such a perennial issue for picture books, isn’t it? And I thank you for bringing it up.

    The books that are set in cities (Blackout and Subway Story) have a diverse cast of characters. The family in Blackout is not obviously of any particular race. A Ball for Daisy (just opened it again and got all misty-eyed) has delightfully and literally transparent kids, one with straight hair and one with dark curly hair. And, a book we have not talked about, Mary Lyn Ray and Marla Frazee’s Stars (so lovely I have to read it to people when they come to visit) reflects Frazee’s gift at introducing all sorts of kids and adults into her stories.

    And, three cheers for Neville! Can’t say enough good things about THAT one/

  10. Robin Smith Robin Smith says:

    Grace Anne,
    You have been around the book reviewing world for a while–is there a way to explain what might make this a top three book for you? Is there something in particular about the art that makes it more “extraordinary” than, say, SWIRL BY SWIRL or GRANDPA GREEN? It’s what the committee will wrestle with and it’s just so darn hard to replicate those conversations here.
    Don’t feel put on the spot–I just wonder if there is a way to tease out the why of the top three or five statement. Each committee member will have to do that, of course…
    Thanks so much for you comment,

  11. Robin Smith Robin Smith says:

    I don’t seem to be able to answer you right below your comment. The committee can talk about whatever it wants to talk about, but one thing I remember from my time on various committees is the exhortation to “judge the work we have here, not the book we wish it was.”
    I love the idea of an “Absolutely Not” list. I always have one of those for Newbery and once one of my Absolutely Not books was awarded an honor. And I did pout. I still do, when I think of That Book.

  12. What is that make you include a book in such a list?

  13. Robin Smith Robin Smith says:

    Well, with picture books it might be a book where the art is inconsistent from page to page, where the gutter was not used correctly, where the colors or art do not make sense, where the paper is so thin you can see the images from the next page. Any sort of inconsistency from page to page makes me put a book aside. Of course, I have to love the story or concept and sometimes I just don’t like the story.

    The book I am thinking about was not a picture book. It was a book that won a Newbery Honor some time ago. It had too many coincidences for me and there was some playing with real history in a book of historical fiction, which I have a lot of trouble with. Obviously, the committee found all sorts of things to love about it. I was not on the committee, so I will never know how the discussions went. I trust the committee process and trust that there were some pretty amazing things about that book that I simply missed.

  14. Robin and all-
    I loved the art in Grandpa Green, and I loved the art in Swirl by Swirl, I found them rich and marvelously done.
    But with Brother Sun Sister Moon, I found what I also found in A Ball for Daisy: extraordinary, distinguished art. The use of negative space, the tiny and large details, the profound use of color in Brother Sun Sister Moon was truly remarkable to me. In A Ball for Daisy, Raschka did things with line that were so emotionally powerful that I was blown away.
    This is a conversation I love having, and I try to put stuff like that in my book reviews because the art matters so much to me, but it is harder to do that here.

  15. Thank you Robin. I agree with all the examples you brought. I am especially sensitive to consistency issues.

  16. Dean Schneider says:

    I have loved BROTHER SUN, SISTER MOON ever since I first saw it. I appreciate the black backgrounds, the symmetry, and the glorious color. And I like the papercuts as a technique seldom seen in children’s book illustration. I learned about scherenschnitte from my mother when I was growing up in Pennsylvania near the Pennsylvania Dutch (Pennsylvania German) area, and Dalton employs it beautifully here. However, I can imagine the Caldecott committee wondering if the illustrations are too static, not offering the interplay of text and illustration that most typifies award-winning picture books. That, in no way, means the art in this book is less beautiful. Lots of beautiful art is static. I think Kadir Nelson is at his best in his majestic, but more static portaits in We Are the Ship and some of Heart and Soul and in panoramic scenes, such as Yankee Stadium in A Nation’s Hope. And Ashley Bryan’s art in Let it Shine and Beautiful Blackbird is absolutely gorgeous, among my favorites, but also, for a Caldecott committee, perhaps seen as static. Not a deal breaker, I don’t think, but I can see committees preferring illustration that more fully plays off of the text, extending the text rather than just representing it. But, again, that is, in no way, a criticism of these illustrators’ work, which I love; just a reflection on how this committee seems to define the criteria.

  17. I’ll speak as a librarian here: Yes, it’s an overtly religious text (as was her second offering this year about the nativity story from the King James Bible). Of course it should be added to a collection and I’d even read it at a story time, as long as I made it clear that it’s *one* way of believing. And I’d be sure to also read, say, Michael J. Rosen’s new Hanukah book (pop-up one).

    Some of this year’s best books—this one, Lauren Thompson’s and Jonathan Bean’s One Starry Night, and Susan Campbell Bartoletti’s and Holly Meade’s Naamah and the Ark at Night—have Biblical content. In the name of Too Much Information, I myself am not a person of faith — and I love them. ‘Cause it’s about the art. And the way the books work as a whole.

    Now, does the committee, though, ponder further these books with Biblical content? Robin wrote that, for the committee’s purpose, it’s all about the art. That makes sense. But do they in the back of their minds consider whether they’ll be divisive as winning choices? That would seem natural, but it’s comforting to me to hear Robin say that art is the focus. Period.

  18. Lolly Robinson Lolly Robinson says:

    I think it may vary committee to committee. If I remember correctly, the criteria don’t specifically say that the text should be taken into consideration, but in at least one committee I know of the members were aware that their choice would become a high profile book. Keeping that in mind, they decided early on to concentrate on books that were exemplary picture books in every way, text and all.

    I hope I’m allowed to say this. It doesn’t speak to the religion question, but I suspect for some committees this kind of thing does make a difference.

    I also think the question of religious content can be related to Ed Woilfer’s observation about the lily-white cast in Brother Sun, Sister Moon. I’m all for a multicultural approach to children’s literature, but I think that comes in the aggregate. Over a period of time, I hope every child can experience books depicting many kinds of characters, settings, and yes, religious beliefs. It’s great when one book covers a range of any one of these and does it well, but often that’s too much to ask. I hope no one overlooks a great book simply because the characters are all of one race or the setting is only rural or urban or suburban.

    As I see it, the goal is to cover as much ground as possible, but let that be over the course of a year or a semester — many books.

  19. Robin Smith Robin Smith says:

    Yes, indeed, Lolly.
    I love this:
    “Over a period of time, I hope every child can experience books depicting many kinds of characters, settings, and yes, religious beliefs. It’s great when one book covers a range of any one of these and does it well, but often that’s too much to ask. I hope no one overlooks a great book simply because the characters are all of one race or the setting is only rural or urban or suburban.”

  20. Actually, it was Barb Gogan that made the comment about the lack of ethnic diversity. I personally LOVE this book, and everything about the illustrations. I am glad that all these issues are being brought up, and that this book is being discussed, since I have been in love with this book since I first read it, and it never seemed to be getting the attention I thought it so richly deserved. Sometimes a book comes out, and I fall in love with some of the pages in the book that are far and away superior to the rest of the book. With this book I am in love with every page, and I am continuously finding more and more to love every time I read it.

  21. I thought this book was absolutely stunning, and I hope that it is recognized by the Caldecott. The discussion going on here is interesting in its unexpectedness. I wasn’t surprised by the religious content given the title, nor would I think that would be an issue anyway. I liked what the author did with the text, making it more accessible. I’m generally tuned in to diversity in books, but I didn’t see the place for it in what looks to me to be an old-time European village.

  22. Personally, I don’t find it difficult to get exposure to Christian beliefs in the US, particularly in the region I live in.

    I do completely agree that I wouldn’t overlook a great book just because it focuses on one race or gender or setting and that exposure to a multiple cultures happens in the aggregate.

  23. Robin & others –

    The main reason I highlight the religion component is that Chronicle Books describes this as a “re-imagining” of the Saint Francis hymn and a “stunningly beautiful tribute to nature”. Neither one of those descriptions makes it clear to me that this is still a religious work. In fact, they led me to believe it might no longer be religious, although on actually reading the book, it was clear there was no way that was actually possible. I’m troubled because, as a non-religious person, I frequently encounter this obfuscation and lack of precision in book & music descriptions. I don’t in any way object to the existence of books & music with religious content, I just wish that publishers would make it easier to identify this material.

  24. Also, I wanted to add that this has been a very interesting discussion and thanks to everyone for sharing your perspectives!

  25. Melody Allen says:

    I’m a little behind this discussion, but I would add a couple of thoughts. For Caldecott the art is supposed to delineate the theme, etc., so it should not matter that the text has a religious basis. It matters that the art is an appropriate match to the theme, topic, concept, story, whatever. My question regarding this book is actually whether the artistic technique becomes what you look at instead of the content. One person above even commented on skipping the text on some readings. Are readers so amazed at the paper cutting, that the technique is what they take away from the book? I would also like to follow up on the issue regarding diversity as this same question came up in our Mock Caldecott’s discussion of a totally different book – Where’s Walrus. The graphic style is more based on shape and form than on depictions of real people in order to create the hiding game. Has anyone else heard this issue discussed about this title? There was talk of the point of having a collection be multicultural in aggregate and not for every book.

  26. Any idea why brother sun sister moon was not even an honor book?

Comment Policy:
  1. Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  2. Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  3. Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through (though some comments with links to multiple URLs are held for spam-check moderation by the system). If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.

We accept clean XHTML in comments, but don't overdo it and please limit the number of links submitted in your comment. For more info, see the full Terms of Use.


  1. […] love the paper cut art in Brother Sun, Sister Moon. What a stunning book! And it’s by Katherine Paterson, so you know it’s going to be good. I don’t […]

Speak Your Mind