Just as the proof of the pudding is in the eating, real appreciation of a picture book depends on more than a first taste, or a first look; truer evaluation becomes possible only after savoring every nuance. At first glance, illustrations may delight us with their beauty — their drafting, palette, forms, composition; with how they embody emotion, or childhood itself. One artist charms with humor, well-paced action, or visual harmony. Another captures the imagination with a beloved character or a story distilled to its irreducible essence.
But to seek a year’s “most distinguished” illustrations — to choose a Caldecott winner — is to look again: to tune in to rhythms, consider trajectories, discover details and connections; and to hope that such particulars will offer the kind of epiphany E. E. Cummings called “everything / which is natural which is infinite which is yes.” A detailed study of some of 2011’s best picture books, medaled and not, made me both more critical and more appreciative. It revealed limitations, missed on first reading, of some appealing titles; contrariwise, in the best ones, I now perceived finer crafting, richer meaning.
Here, then, are some books that seemed to merit serious consideration for the award, or that helped illuminate issues involved in a final choice. Several of these arrest the eye with their extraordinary simplicity. One such, I Want My Hat Back, was frequently mentioned as a Caldecott contender. In Jon Klassen’s neatly balanced compositions, a bear — still as a statue through much of the book — meets other near-immobile creatures in minimal settings. Only the animals’ alert, stylized eyes suggest the drama that will finally erupt on a revelatory solid-red page and set up the story’s sly conclusion. Klassen’s digitally created illustrations are austere. It’s those eyes that focus attention on what’s seen (and unseen) until memory triggers the bear’s retrospective vision — a clever scenario, elegantly rendered.
Patricia Intriago’s Dot, composed as it is of simple shapes and lines, is even more spare. Yet this able graphic designer telegraphs a lot with her graphic forms, using small additions and alterations in size, conformation, or color to convey motion and emotion, sound, taste, and more, including the night sky. Another virtuoso performance is Michael Hall’s exploration of the transformative possibilities of collages improvised, like tangrams, from squares. Like Dot, Hall’s Perfect Square is an exercise in graphic possibility, but Hall brings more ingenuity and a sense of story to the process. He tears, snips, or otherwise divides each square, then reassembles it in a simple scene, with a new color each weekday. On Sunday, the square — cleverly escaping its shape’s constraints — becomes a window through which the earlier scenes are recapped in a rainbow finale.
Lois Ehlert’s art, too, is rooted in graphic design. In RRRalph, she composes a dog from amusingly recognizable objects like buttons, a pop-top, and a zipper. Ralph, a character of buoyant, spread-dominating energy,enacts such pun-ready sounds as wolf, rough, and bark. Printed in handsome boldface, Ralph’s “words” and the large-type commentary by his unseen human are as intrinsic to the striking design as Ralph himself. These minimalist titles may not have the singular quality that evokes that rare sense of Cummings’s “Yes”; still, they’re entirely worthy, fine just as they are.
Among possible nonfiction Caldecott contenders this year were two memoirs. In Orani: My Father’s Village, Claire A. Nivola describes her father’s birthplace as she recalls it from childhood visits. In her realistic, decorative art, the red-roofed Sardinian village nestles in a sun-washed landscape, its people — including crowds of children — engaged in traditional work and play, indoors and out. The busy scenes, expertly organized for clarity of meaning and visual harmony, employ a minimum of detail, yet the simply characterized figures brim with good humor and purposeful activity.
Contrasting with Nivola’s sunny, harmonious paintings, Ed Young’s tribute to his father, and to the fortress-like house he built in wartime Shanghai, is a kaleidoscope of media and memories. The House Baba Built combines collage (flat and textured); photos, maps, and architectural drawings; sketches; nuanced portraits; and more — all jostling together among several gatefolds and against bright backgrounds, like the extended family and numerous others who found companionable refuge together in that island of safety. Resembling an album of long ago, the book’s imagery mirrors Young’s memories — precise, vivid, and sometimes shadowed with retrospective understanding — like the masses of crows that presage the bombers Baba’s house was destined to survive.
Kadir Nelson’s portraits for Heart and Soul are splendid. Is this “Story of America and African Americans” a picture book? Since its meaning would be severely truncated without those inspiring paintings, it could be argued that the book falls within the award guidelines. Are these heroic figures idealized? There is a consistency to their nobility; still, each person is individual, recognizable. If I’d been on the committee, I’d have wanted to discuss these distinguished illustrations.
One work of nonfiction did receive a 2012 Caldecott Honor: Me…Jane, by Patrick McDonnell, creator of the comic strip Mutts. At first glance, this introduction to Jane Goodall recalls the comic strip’s endearing style: McDonnell’s visual narrative focuses on lively, observant young Jane exploring her childhood territory and imagining faraway Africa. But like Ed Young, McDonnell incorporates other media. Contrasting with the briskly (and affectionately) drafted characters, his more realistic watercolor settings are invitingly verdant outdoors, cozy within. Old engravings in pale hues provide backgrounds for the verso text, balancing the more saturated recto colors. There are photos, too, and precocious art by thriving, inquisitive young Jane herself, all expertly integrated to suggest the many facets of the scientist’s life.
Nancy Ekholm Burkert also imagines Africa, but in her quintessentially elegant style that’s entirely different from McDonnell’s cartoons. Mouse and Lion appear in specific, meticulously researched detail, formally framed in classic rule. Landscape features enhance some full spreads, but Burkert usually suggests settings with just a few significant details amid plentiful white space, the better to focus on action she evokes with repeated images of the mouse, or by showing only the lion’s gaping mouth. This is entrancing, gently humorous storytelling, a perfect match for Rand Burkert’s lively adaptation.
Maurice Sendak can summon every bit as much elegance as Burkert (see Dear Mili); he’s also a master of the profoundly witty sketch (I Saw Esau). In Bumble-Ardy, as so often before, he uses both. At this birthday masquerade, a fulsome array of pigs caricature their Dickensian (and often scary) human counterparts. Still, Bumble-Ardy’s party makes an amusing wild rumpus; and if Aunt Adeline’s righteous anger is over the top, so is her affectionate forgiveness (including a scrumptious birthday treat — sweeter than a still-hot supper). The treasure, here, is Sendak’s art — its impeccable drafting, diversity of strange characters, and subtle transitions between mayhem and cozy order.
John Rocco’s 2012 Caldecott Honor, Blackout, celebrates pretty much the opposite of Bumble-Ardy’s illicit gathering. Deprived of their solitary plugged-in pursuits, people discover community in the nighttime street and at a rooftop party; one family’s new-found camaraderie even survives the power’s coming back on. Rocco’s angular characters are comfortably ordinary. What shines here, besides the wonderful play of light and shadow, is composition: the Brooklyn Bridge looming over a rectilinear street, its lights continuing the line of a diagonal fire escape; varied points of view and rhythmic frames (including windows); figures silhouetted against a starry sky. Having the lights come on is a letdown, reflected in a suddenly drab palette. Then, at the close, the magic Rocco has brought to life with each detail, stance, hue, and shade is recaptured in candlelight.
Beth Krommes’s radiant art for Swirl by Swirl: Spirals in Nature amplifies and extends Joyce Sidman’s poetic observations with delightful ingenuity. From a chipmunk “snuggling” in its burrow to maturing nautilus shells, from a wave’s curl to vines’ tendrils, spirals are, fascinatingly, everywhere. Krommes composes each spread with clarity, grace, and even more species than Sidman mentions, catching their essence in crisp black scratchboard and an intense natural palette — golden browns, glowing rust, gentle blues and greens. Here’s art that serves science while enriching the reader’s visual imagination. From fern frond to spiral galaxy, this perfectly integrated picture book epitomizes that “which is natural which is infinite which is yes.”
As does, for the youngest, Kevin Henkes’s deceptively simple Little White Rabbit. Limned in broad, elemental strokes, surrounded by soft springtime colors, Rabbit ventures forth, explores, is frightened by a cat, and hops safely home to mother. But there’s such lovely variety here! What would it be like to be green? Tall? Still as a stone? Between neatly framed hops, Rabbit’s wonderment bursts into lush, full-bleed spreads that expand the very concept of imagination—and then balance that freedom with a satisfying dose of reality, to arrive at an emotional truth that Henkes underlines with each delicate sweep of his brush, each tender hue.
The winsome narrator in Lane Smith’s 2012 Caldecott Honor, Grandpa Green, also takes an imaginative journey, one whose layers of meaning, again, are suggested by using more than one medium. Smith renders present-day characters in brush and ink; for the “foliage” (topiary) that depicts Grandpa’s history, he uses watercolor, oils, and digital paint. It’s a felicitous pairing. Delicate drafting and the little boy’s self-assured stance and stride imbue him with reality, while his tale in topiary is more fantastical, quite like a child’s understanding of an old man’s reminiscences. As the boy observes, “The garden remembers”; and if some of those dappled green figures are impossibly agile for actual boxwood, the amiable characters and their present-day projects are as real as Grandpa’s lost-and-found glasses. Grandpa Green is a magical vision of how an old man’s memories, simplified by time, can generate a child’s imaginative understanding. And what a potent image is the serene topiary! Like a good story retold, it’s timeless, constantly growing, changing with each judicious trimming. It’s like memories shared with a beloved child — some mysterious dark foliage but no shadows, with boundless white space for imagination to roam. Natural. Infinite. Yes!
“Yo! Yes!” Chris Raschka’s characters agree, sealing their new friendship in his 1994 Caldecott Honor book of the same name. His wordless Caldecott Medal winner this year is a more elaborate take on the theme of friendship. Words aren’t needed in A Ball for Daisy: the action and emotion are all in the body language and subtly shifting color. Raschka’s relaxed lines, too, are wondrously expressive. Daisy the dog is unconfined by the broad, freely brushed gray that suggests her shape and movements, while her eloquent face, ears, and tail telegraph her emotions in bold black. Daisy is all emotion: joy in possessing and chasing her ball (stand-in for a blanket, or a friend); despair when it pops; solace, cuddling on the sofa; joy again at getting a new ball and making a dog friend, too. Romping right along with Daisy across the liberating white space, Raschka’s brush develops each emotional state with expertly paced vignettes. Each double-page spread grouping is a compositional tour de force and a delight. Minimal backgrounds signal mood: joy is a glow of yellow with touches of sky blue and spring green; angst, a cloud of deepening violets and grays. Daisy’s owner is outside the pup’s focus (and ours: she’s seen from Daisy’s level, waist down) until after Daisy’s loss, when we finally see the whole child, suggesting that Daisy’s relationship with her human, too, has expanded, and that the pup’s happiness is enriched as well as regained.
At first glance this looks so simple, this mini saga of loss and reparation. Yet Raschka’s characterization is marvelously deft. With a wealth of suggestive and telling touches of his nimble brush, Daisy goes from self-absorbed ebullience to utter resignation to congenial frolic. She’s the essence of young dog — and of a two-year-old child becoming a wiser three. Though her story is simple, it’s transcendent: “everything / which is natural which is infinite which is yes.”