I so want to cheat and talk about two books at the same time, since illustrator Erin E. Stead has two books out this year, both gathering a pile of starred reviews. But I will not cheat. I will try to post two separate short discussions.
But, that does beg the question. What will the committee do with these two books? Will they talk about them alone or together? I think the answer will be “yes.” But, since what happens in the Caldecott discussion stays there, we will never know. A committee can compare any book published in the same year to any other book that year, so it’s hard for me to imagine the committee not talking about these books alone and then together. It is certainly possible for an illustrator (or author) to be honored for two books in a year, but that is not how it usually goes down. I cannot keep up with it, but I think Mac Barnett and Matt Cordell all have two books out in 2012. What to do? What to do?
First, they will look at the book. So let’s do that.
We see that the Steads are returning with the gentle feel of A Sick Day for Amos McGee. Pencil line and shading define basic features of animals and trees. Bits and bops of crushed dry pastels and pencil (read more about her artistic techniques here) let the reader know the seasons are changing. Bear’s huge (but not scary) form, all hunched over and listening to his friends’ stories, dominates the pages, while the other animals (all fleshing out their winter plans) are tiny and lovably detailed. I love the expansive white space telling its own story of loss as the leaves fall and the forest is more sticks than leaves.(Speaking of sticks–take a look at those spindly trees that frame Bear! Those horizontal branches are a lovely marker of Bear’s territory.) The spread where Bear is all alone in the blue snowy night captures that moment with restrained emotional power. Young readers will feel the aloneness of the moment but will quickly be relieved by the magic of the page turn. That little turn allows many months to pass and the arrival of spring, where Bear appears to be playing a joyful game of catch with the sun. Stead uses background colors to show moods; for the first half of the book it’s all white and after spring, she applies a gentle wash of color that intensifies as Bear reunites with his friends and prepares to tell his story. That starry blue wash as Bear talks to Mole will make the reader slow down and wish Bear was looking at her the way he is looking at Mole. The supporting cast of friends is a thread in all three of Stead’s books, and I find myself entranced with their movement and gesture as much as I am with Bear’s.
The first line of the book is the last line, allowing the child that satisfying “aha” and encouraging a second or more reading at bedtime.
Like A Sick Day for Amos McGee (which won the Caldecott the year I served on the committee), this story improves with multiple readings, which is a good thing because I hope the committee members will be reading it over and over again.