Ladies and gentlemen, señores y señoras, now presenting Niño Wrestles the World. See how artist Yuyi Morales brilliantly combines two aspects of popular culture—comic-book style and Lucha Libre (WWF with más drama y más flare). Watch her twist reality and fantasy as little Niño, in his red mask and tighty whities, takes on competitors in his extended imaginary play, until they become all too real in the form of his twin toddler sisters, Las Hermanitas. Marvel at her expert use of language, including onomatopoeia in both Spanish and English, all perfectly paced and perfectly placed for the humorous, expressive illustrations.
Enter the Caldecott committee, fifteen adults with a wealth of knowledge, experience, and opinions, but who may or may not understand Spanish, who may or may not have ever heard of Lucha Libre, who may or may not find comic art distinguished. Some may not like their realities mixed with their fantasies. Some may describe bright colors as “lurid” or “garish,” the twin kiss of death for timid critics. Some will want to push Niño aside in favor of a more painterly style. They may grasp at straws to bring Niño down.
But Niño is ready for the challenge. Niño’s artist brings into the ring not one, not two, not three, but six different font styles that are used consistently throughout to relay different levels of meaning and to show how the parts are related to the whole. So adeptly does she use them that she can win over even the least skilled sequential-art readers. Before Niño even puts on his mask, she offers visual hints that he will engage in imaginary play as we see him with the blocks, dolls, and puzzle pieces that he will use to vanquish his opponents. She uses brightly colored stars and exclamations throughout to convey the noisy spectacle of the match, as well as of a small child at play. Not everything is loud on these pages, however. There is plenty of subtle symbolism for observant readers. For example, the puzzle based on Just in Case, an earlier work by the author/illustrator, is used to conquer Olmec Head, an even earlier art form native to Mexico, and another sort of puzzle in itself. Most intriguing, perhaps, is the nuance she offers with El Chamuco, depicted in the illustration as the devil tempting Niño by offering him a melting popsicle (in the colors of the Mexican flag) in exchange for his building blocks. This sort of visual symbolism has the potential to keep the discussion going through multiple rounds of balloting. But will Niño find a champion among the members of the 2014 Caldecott Committee who will bring a nomination to the table? And will Yuyi Morales ever get the accolades she deserves for her brilliant artistry? Niño Wrestles the World for the win!