Here’s a long post coming on the heels of yesterday’s announcement that we would start to get shorter. I’m justifying the length because I suspect Z is for Moose is one of the top contenders this year, and — if my research is correct — it is one of the two most starred picture books of 2012.
This is an exuberantly silly book. That should be a good thing, but while funny books often get Caldecott Honors, it’s rare for one to get the actual Medal. But dang, this one has SO much going for it. I hope the committee takes a close look and considers giving it the gold.
In case you haven’t seen this one, the premise is that we are behind the scenes of an alphabet book. The endpapers are the same purple used for the curtain on the cover. Page 1, before the title page, is printed with the same purple except for the bottom right corner which is being lifted by a boisterous Moose to reveal the backstage area. A zebra, holding a clipboard and wearing a referee’s black-and-white striped jersey, is addressing a patient line of players starting with Apple, Ball, Cat, and Duck. Four letters into the book/performance, Moose gets impatient and jumps his cue, knocking Duck off the stage. Zebra then works diligently to keep unruly Moose from taking over. When it’s finally time for the letter M, Moose is shattered to find that this time around “M is for Mouse.” Major tantrum.
Zelinsky, who received his first Caldecott Honor in 1985 for his subtle, darkly layered Hansel and Gretel, has always been a bit of a chameleon, adapting his style to suit the subject. Lately, that style has become looser and more cartoonlike using black outlines and large areas of flattish color. This is a great style for broadly humorous read-alouds, and at first glance that’s what this book has going for it. In fact, this is a book to re-read and peer at up close, and the longer you look, the more you will see signs of Zelinsky’s subtlety. Look, there’s the Mouse on the dedication page spread, tiny and patient, waiting in line after Jam (jaunty in high heels) and Kangaroo (looking a little nervous). Moose, clowning around with Lollipop and Needle, is getting disapproving looks from Owl and Queen.
The larger emotional arc of the story presents the two main characters with specificity, allowing readers to empathize with both. Moose goes from teeth-baring anger to sniffling sorrow, then abject despair. Zebra valiantly protects his charges but shows clear discomfort as Moose begins to cry, making the denouement and happy ending completely believable. I have to admit that I get a little choked up during the last few spreads. So satisfying!
Zelinsky credits author Kelly Bingham for more than just the text of this book, as you will see in the interview in our May newsletter. But even if the clever meta-ness is Bingham’s, Zelinsky deserves credit for translating her idea to perfection. Notice how seamlessly the type manipulation works with the art and with the story. Figures stand in front of words or parts of words, eclipsing just enough of the text to allow us to guess correctly what it was supposed to say. Each spread’s composition is perfectly balanced — or purposely unbalanced in some cases. Look at how the color of the purple endpapers matches so closely with the printed purple on the adjoining pages 1 and 32. This is a big deal in terms of book production and while it might not have been Zelinsky who matched the paper to the correct CMYK mix, some member of the Greenwillow team made it happen.
While I know the Caldecott is an award for illustration and not for the book as a whole, I would like to think that this year’s committee will take a close look at how all the elements collaborate. For me, that is the most essential criteria for evaluating picture books: text, art, design, and book making need to play well together without upstaging one another. Everything should be working toward the same goal.
This book is high on my list of personal favorites this year. If ALSC gave an award to the entire book team, I think it would have a serious chance. But since we are talking about the Caldecott and a strict set of criteria, I wonder if it’s more likely to get an honor book award.
What do you think?