Martha and I are going to try something different here on the blog today: we’re going to talk to each other about a picture book — Philip C. Stead’s Hello, My Name Is Ruby. We’ll start with the positives we each see in the book, and then move to any concerns we might have. Generally, we will follow the CCBC guidelines found here. These guidelines are perfect for library, classroom, and committee discussions and help keep everyone on track. The chair will work hard to keep everyone on track on the Caldecott committee, so Martha and I will also try to keep this discussion on track.
We hope you’ll join the conversation; we’ll start here and continue on in the comments.
ROBIN: On the actual Caldecott committee, each book is assigned to a member of the committee to present to the group. Usually you are assigned a book you have nominated. Let’s pretend that this book has been assigned to me.
Here we have Stead’s newest, Hello, My Name Is Ruby. With illustrations rendered in chalk pastel, colored pencils, and colored ink, Stead tells a story that all children should be able to identify with: that of making friends. Ruby, a little yellow bird with blue-tipped wings, is out to make friends. She approaches each new bird with an open heart and seems to bring out the best in each bird she meets. Whether floating on a cattail (on the first spread) and chatting up an egret or marching behind a little green kookaburra (?), Ruby is out to make friends. While the art is rather simple, the simple style matches the story. One page, where the red bird shows how he flies with his friends so he will not feel small, is an homage to the fish page from Swimmy by Leo Lionni (see below). Ruby is the eye here (this time, of an elephant).
The background colors are created with a light touch of the side of chalk pastel — Ruby and her new friends are the stars of each page. I like the page where Ruby meets a bird who is not interested in being friends with her; just as in real life, not everyone wants to be a friend. We feel her pain over the next two page turns, where, for the first time, the happy swirls of the background are now vertical lines in light gray to match Ruby’s sadness. Her sad song brings a new friend, and the gray skies turn a warm orange. When Ruby is able to introduce all her friends to the other Ruby birds, that orange warms further to a full red… a complete change from the opening blue end pages. A warm and simple style for a warm book of friendship.
Any positive comments before we go on to our concerns, Martha?
MARTHA: Like you, Robin, I appreciate how appropriate the style is for the story. The art is about as noncomplex as you can get, matching the story perfectly. But I also appreciate how Stead can, within that simple style, expand his focus from the small (as little Ruby makes one friend after another) to the large. The double-page spread, for example, where Ruby flies as the eye of the “elephant”; and, my favorite, the spread where Ruby introduces herself to one of the blue-winged cliff-dwelling birds, in which we see Ruby and the one blue bird in the foreground and, in the background, cliffs dotted with a whole community of blue birds. The spread gives such a feeling of expansiveness and yet togetherness. And the blues (the turquoise water, the light blue sky, the complex blues of the forefronted bird) are used to make one pleasing composition for the eye.
I also appreciate how Stead is able to capture Ruby’s personality and emotions through her body language and facial expressions — all within that simple, simple style.
ROBIN: Can you think of anything else you appreciate about the art? Do you have any concerns?
MARTHA: I do have some concerns. For one thing, where is the tension in this story? What is the conflict? Ruby looks happy from the very beginning, as she introduces herself to one bird after another. She doesn’t seem lost; she doesn’t seem in need of anything in particular. She’s just going around introducing herself and in general having positive interactions with whomever she meets. For me, the lack of a context, a true beginning to the story, weakens the middle and end. I don’t feel the devastation brought on by the single rejection because I don’t know anything about her other than what’s just transpired in the book.
I also find a lack of clues to the story’s trajectory in the art, particularly in the palette. What is the difference, emotionally, between the happy light blue in the beginning and the happy warm orange/red at the end?
Finally, although I certainly support the book’s inclusive message, and I do like the way it’s presented as a twist at the end, still, the book is pretty message-heavy.
Can you help me with any of my concerns?
ROBIN: To tell you the truth, I had not thought of this as a message-heavy book, just a simple book about making friends. I still don’t really see the message as anything beyond make friends, lots of them. The palette changes when Ruby is rejected and brightens when she meets Skeepwock (the ostrich) and becomes fully orange and bright when she meets a flock of birds like herself. Indeed, on the previous page to her flock, the blue of the ground gives way to the welcoming orange of the flock (and onto the full red of the final spread with everyone…well, everyone except the peacock-like bird).
MARTHA: Well, I don’t buy that the book doesn’t have a pointed message. The expected ending of the book is that Ruby finds “her kind” and lives happily ever after with them…whereas instead she is only as happy to meet them as she has been to meet everyone else, and the true ending is Ruby introducing the other ruby birds to all her other friends, making one big inclusive group. As I said, I love that, but subverting the obvious conclusion draws attention to the message of the actual conclusion. For me, anyway.
And again, about the story’s trajectory and the palette… I still don’t see how this is anything more than happy bird makes friends in a happy light blue palette; bird is sad when one bird rejects her in a sad gray palette; happy bird brings family and friends together in a happy red-orange palette.
ROBIN: I just am not bothered by the supposed message, but I do see what you mean by the palette — that part does seem rather simple, especially when this book is compared to many of the others we have discussed already.
MARTHA: I think it’s time to open up the discussion and move the conversation to the comments…what do you appreciate about this book, and what, if any, are your concerns?