As a book reviewer, one of the authors of the Horn Book’s Calling Caldecott blog, and a second-grade teacher, picture books are a huge part of my life. There are times when I feel overwhelmed by them. My dining room table groans with the weight of Books I Love, each vying for a coveted spot on Robin’s Top Ten shelf. When I get to the ALA Midwinter convention, I pore over the schedule and wish I were spending hours with the Caldecott committee. By the time Monday morning arrives, I feel antsy. There is simply nothing like being in the room at the press conference when the ALA Youth Media Awards are announced. I look forward to the buzz and the cheers and the “what the heck!?” looks being exchanged by those in the know as the winning titles flash across the screen. There are usually lots of surprises for me when the many award committees’ choices are announced, and I find myself jotting down titles to read later. But when we get to the final awards, the Caldecott and Newbery, I put down my pen and concentrate. This year, I was thrilled that I knew all the books, and I was excited for the winners.
Once I got over the happy surprise of So Many Honor Books for Caldecott, I started to notice What Was Missing. Where was my beloved Z Is for Moose (written by Kelly Bingham and illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky)? Where was the recognition for its humor? Its subtle touches? From the copyright page, where zebra has the actors arranged alphabetically, to the scene with the party-crashing moose barging in on the ice-cream party, to the one of him popping out of the kangaroo’s pouch, this inspired ABC book is one clever romp. I especially appreciated Moose’s tantrum on the M page, and I felt a little like him when I realized that this moose was not going to be wearing a silver or gold sticker. There were definitely some very funny books honored by the Caldecott committee, so perhaps those funny books trumped this one. It’s still a standout to me, though.
Another book that didn’t earn Caldecott recognition but made a quiet splash (and earned a Coretta Scott King Author Honor Award) was Jacqueline Woodson’s Each Kindness, illustrated by E. B. Lewis. Lewis’s watercolors, detailed and filled with emotion, are the perfect choice for this story of schoolyard/classroom ostracism and its aftermath. The emotional punch Lewis packs into his deceptively subdued illustrations is powerful, and hard to forget. On Maya’s first day, Lewis skews perspective so the viewer can see every detail of the new girl’s face. Later, he places a blurry Maya in the background and the narrator and her two best friends, united in their rejection of Maya, in the foreground. The closing image of the narrator, alone by the pond, weighed down by her unfulfilled wishes for redemption, is one that many readers will carry with them for a long time. Real feelings without even a touch of bathos.
This was a year of remarkable nonfiction as well. I’ve been afraid that publishers would rush out mediocre nonfiction in order to ride the wave of the Common Core, but so far my fears are mostly going unrealized. Jason Chin’s Island: A Story of the Galápagos wowed every reader I showed it to. Most of my young students knew little about the Galápagos but instantly fell under Island’s spell. This is the kind of book readers can immerse themselves in completely. Each page is a wonder of design and beauty. Giant doublepage spreads and single pages alternate with tiny-framed watercolor illustrations to slow the eye down and deepen the story. Explaining the concept of adaptation, mostly in illustrations, had to be a challenge, but Chin pulled it off, putting this book at the top of my nonfiction picture book list.
And right next to Island, in brilliant blue, add Claire A. Nivola’s Life in the Ocean: The Story of Oceanographer Sylvia Earle. Each highly detailed illustration draws the reader back to the text, extending the story about one girl, her love of the ocean and its inhabitants, and the oceanographer she became. Though blue is the color of Earle’s later life, Nivola also uses color to let the reader know that Sylvia’s childhood was mostly about fields, creeks, and ponds. First we are in green and brown New Jersey, where young Sylvia explored pond life. Florida means another shift in color, to depict its shallow greenish-blue waters; another move takes us to the aqua Pacific and blues of the deep waters off the U.S. Virgin Islands. Like Chin, Nivola intersperses oversized ocean scenes with tiny paintings, making a few of her spreads look like they’re from photo albums.
Step Gently Out, written by Helen Frost with photographs by Rick Lieder, gave me the whisker-thin hope that a book of photography might catch the collective eye of the committee. Photography has never been recognized by a Caldecott committee, and I thought this might be the year. Nature photographer Lieder gives a clinic on focus for the youngest reader: the praying mantis’s arms, a blade of grass, the climbing ant, the cricket’s eyes. Slow down. Look around. Focus. One spare poem comprises the text, and what a lovely poem it is. “Step gently out, / be still and watch a single blade of grass. / An ant climbs up to look around. / A honeybee flies past. / A cricket leaps and lands, then sits back and sings…” Each line is carefully placed, never distracting the eye from the real stars: those amazing close-ups. Perhaps the photos were considered too literal, too matched to the text. But I love the book’s marriage of poetry and photography.
Stepping away from the nonfiction world, it was a great year for a good old-fashioned picture book. The Steads, Erin (who won the Caldecott Medal two years ago for A Sick Day for Amos McGee) and her husband Philip, illustrated some special books this year: Bear Has a Story to Tell (written by Philip and illustrated by Erin), A Home for Bird (written and illustrated by Philip), and And Then It’s Spring (written by Julie Fogliano and illustrated by Erin). The Caldecott announcement portion of the press conference could easily have been the Klassen and Steads show if the votes had gone that way!
Bear Has a Story to Tell is a satisfyingly circular tale of Bear and his friends — all of whom are too busy, initially, to listen to him. It’s filled with the same spirit of friendship and generosity that readers appreciate in Amos McGee. But here the colors are more saturated and the details more dreamy and less controlled. The forest setting features spare, pencil-thin trees, vertical and modern — effective foils for the sweet roundness of the critters.
And Then It’s Spring shows Erin Stead’s talent for finding both balance and emotion in a story. A little boy, waiting for spring in a drab brown landscape, is pictured on most spreads, with an animal or two mirroring his movements and emotions. And when spring finally bursts, Stead floods the pages with an unforgettable green to show the full joy of the season.
A Home for Bird remains my favorite book of this year. (But remember, Robin’s favorite ≠ most distinguished.) Those loose, scribbly, free-flowing lines might not be for everyone, but I love them. They tell the story of a toad named Vernon and his new, nonspeaking friend Bird, who is looking for his home. I loved the circularity of the story and the generosity of Vernon’s friendship. I loved the confident and effective use of white space and all the visual foreshadowing: nestled in the illustrations are clues to Bird’s origins, making it a story that young readers will want to pore over upon each rereading.
One thing that struck me when I looked at the picture books published in 2012 was the number of illustrators who had spent time as animators. In the Caldecott class alone, Jon Klassen, Laura Vaccaro Seeger, and Peter Brown all began their careers in the animation industry. What this background seems to do for illustrators is give them a wonderful sense of timing and pace.
Jon Klassen’s flat, stare-out-at-the-reader art captivated both the Caldecott committee and reviewers this year. His animation background is clear — Caldecott Honor Book (and Boston Globe–Horn Book Award winner) Extra Yarn, written by Mac Barnett, could easily have been developed as a digital short or an app. The title page, with its multicolored strand of yarn, lets the reader know that this yarn means connection, which is so important to the story, and Klassen uses the yarn like a string to pull the reader through the book from spread to spread. The color choices, mostly brown and white, are brightened as soon as that strand of yarn is knit up, and the faces on the recipients brighten, too. Klassen’s deft, subtle lines, especially when a straight line for a lip changes into a slight smile, give this story life, and the careful manipulation of light and dark allows the reader to feel the emotions of the story, right up until its happy ending. Visits from the familiar animal characters from Klassen’s I Want My Hat Back were a surprise, and each reference to that book gave me a delighted shiver.
Caldecott Medal winner This Is Not My Hat, the second book in Klassen’s hat cycle, shows just enough restraint in its pacing to allow the reader the delicious sense of being in the story without being in control of the story. Using starkly rectangular blocks of white space for the text, Klassen allows each illustration to stand without the distraction of type to break up the painting and gives the reader just enough visual information to know that the narrator’s words in this fish tale are not exactly reliable. This postmodern nod, along with the fishes’ distinctive eye movements, creates a sly suspense that makes the reader want to turn the page. Tension builds. Will the big fish find the thief? What will happen if he does? The vertical lines of the barely undulating underwater plants rest against the horizontal streams of air bubbles that mark the forward motion in the illustrations, controlling the story and propelling it at the same time.
Peter Brown’s Caldecott Honor Book Creepy Carrots!, written by Aaron Reynolds, deftly employs the palette of film noir, with a pop of carrot orange. The rounded page frames are reminiscent of old movies, as are many of the scenes, filled with ominous shadows, twitching shower curtains, a chainsaw, even an orange-and-gray homage to Vertigo. Relax, it’s funny. Humor is a tricky business when adults are judging books for children, but this humor is pitch-perfect because of the pacing. In the middle of the story, the little bunny is terrified of the creepy carrots, and there’s no relief in sight. Anyone who has tended to — or been — a child who is scared of monsters in the dark knows just how he feels. At the very moment when the rabbit and young reader might be pushed over the emotional edge, Brown turns those carrots into little orange flowers, defusing the tension with humor. If the well-loved copy in my classroom is any indication, Creepy Carrots! is sure to be as popular with children as it was with the Caldecott committee.
Children will also find a lot to smile at in Honor Book One Cool Friend, written by Toni Buzzeo. With bursts of color on a bed of blue or green line drawings and monochromatic grays, David Small’s pictures work well in this humorous story of Elliot and the penguin he sneaks home from an aquarium. Elliot is more like a little, jaded adult than a kid, rolling his eyes at the thought of “kids, masses of noisy kids” at the aquarium’s “Family Fun Day.” But being a polite child, he agrees to attend with his father. Once there, his father sits and reads his National Geographic while Elliot is sent off on his own, ignoring the teeming groups of kids as they move through the exhibits in a predictably messy blob. Elliot finds little of interest — until he sees the penguins. Small’s illustrations, all curved lines and amusing splashes of color, help pace the story. Even the shadows (in one illustration the father’s looks like a turtle and Elliot’s is clearly birdlike) foreshadow (heh heh!) the ending. The teacher in me likes the use of speech bubbles with quotation marks to show who is talking, and the kid in me likes that Elliot is allowed to explore the aquarium all by himself.
Another book with lots of kid appeal is Honor Book Green by Laura Vaccaro Seeger. This paean to both the actual color green and the ecological idea of green succeeds on many levels. First, it is green. It is so green that you know Seeger worried about all that green. She wisely paints the title page in a rich loamy brown that sets off the green lettering beautifully. Painting on textured paper in thick acrylics, Seeger is able to create such depth in each illustration that readers’ fingers itch to touch the pages. Layered onto these rich paintings are die cuts that are often visible only after the page turn — they are that subtle. It would be easy to lose the words in all this paint, but they are there, pointing out the many shades and kinds of greens. It’s not often that a concept book gets acclaim from the award committees, so take a moment to appreciate what Seeger has done here — and many times in the past.
Honor Book Sleep like a Tiger, written by Mary Logue and illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski, follows the classic please-go-to-sleep-book pattern: child refuses sleep, parents persevere, sleep wins. But there is so much more here. (And, goodness knows, a committee likes something “more.”) This is a great example of how folks in publishing try to pair the right artist with the right story. Here is a dreamy poem matched with paintings that seem to live in the land between reality and dreams. At times, Zagarenski’s art literally translates the text, but most of her world is deliciously surreal. Here we have houses and roads; there we see a teapot and the occasional errant bicycle wheel. And a fox. And a copy of The Little Prince. Some of these idiosyncrasies show up repeatedly throughout the book, while others make solo appearances. It’s a delight to search for them on each spread. The backgrounds are lightly textured, giving a vintage-wallpaper feel to this world, and always gently, gently moving the little girl toward sleep. We will never know, but I imagine the committee’s love-fest for this book included many “Look at this!” moments around the table. Yet despite all there is to see, the overall effect is calming, just like the story.
And that’s the thing about picture books, isn’t it? The more you slow down and look, the more there is to see.