There is no question that the Caldecott committee will be taking a good, long look at Jerry Pinkney’s Tortoise & the Hare. Past winners always deserve special notice, and this is a companion to his other nearly-wordless Aesop offering and 2010 Caledecott winner, The Lion & the Mouse. Not to mention his five Caldecott honor awards and his status as patriarch of the biggest picture book dynasty working today.
So what does The Tortoise & the Hare have to offer? Plenty. Little, Brown has pulled out all the stops, allowing for fine bookmaking with no corners cut. The jacket provides title and author-illustrator on the front cover and an illustration that wraps around to the back cover. But the hardcover boards below, which normally show the same art as the jacket, are different. Here we see a wordless representation of the title — a kind of rebus showing the tortoise on the left and the hare on the right, with an ampersand in between. The back cover shows the two in a single panel walking away from us. They seem to be going at a tortoise pace, the hare happy to slow down for his new friend.
Next we get to the endpapers. The front and back endpapers are different — another extra expense on the publisher’s part. In the front, they show the race route, providing context for what is otherwise a fairly disjointed and episodic series of scenes. We see how the cactus-filled beige desert that provides the background for most of the illustrations can make way to a stream and lush, green farmland. The back endpapers show the aftermath of the race with one of Pinkney’s signature “Peaceable Kingdom” arrangements displaying the book’s entire cast. Sharp-eyed readers will see that the tortoise is removing the black-and-white checked kerchief hare gave him when he won the race. (The back cover under the jacket shows the same kerchief back on the hare’s neck.)
As you see, there’s plenty to talk about. I am hoping that many of you have seen this book already since the f&gs have been around for a while. Pinkney sets the book in the American Southwest with what are supposedly region-appropriate animals, though purists might question the presence of the gator (or croc?). I have no problem with possibly unlikely animals. After all, none of these species normally wear kerchiefs either, right? Interestingly, the tortoise also wears a blue cap which, along with his red bandana, call to mind Pinkney’s John Henry. This is one of many subtle touches that Pinkney fans may notice as they look at this book again and again.
In fact, there is so much detail on each page that I found it a bit overwhelming at first. Pinkney has a tendency to fill his pages without providing a clear focal point. In Lion & Mouse he seemed to be moving away from this, with a firmer touch that led the reader to a visual starting point in each illustration. Here, his uncluttered cover illustrations do this, but the interior art tends to go back to older work in which the reader had to look and look in order to spot the main characters’ primary action and separate it from all the secondary characters’ responses to the scene. Of course, Pinkney’s approach is truer to real life, in which we have to figure this out for ourselves. Is that perhaps what he is doing in all of his art?
Okay, I’ve gone on too long and would be remiss if I didn’t point out the terrific use of limited text. After the initial word-ballooned “On your marks, get set…Go!” the story is told entirely in the pictures. The moral, which would normally appear at the end of the book, instead begins on an early spread: we see the single word “Slow” as the tortoise tries to maneuver his way over a stump; “Slow and” on the next spread; then “Slow and steady,” etc. This slow rolling-out of words allows us to focus on the tortoise as the presumed hero of the book, though Pinkney nicely allows the hare to have more redeeming qualities than in most versions of this fable. If you weren’t sharp enough to spot them earlier, that back cover under the endpapers should seal the deal.
So what do you think? Could this be Caldecott Medal #2 for Pinkney? Or Honor Award #6?