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Nana in the City

nana in the cityThis is a JUST RIGHT kind of book. Just the right size; just the right tone; just the right scope of experience/adventure for the audience.

How does Lauren Castillo accomplish this just-rightness in the art?

1) Through the use of color. In the beginning she communicates the noise and smells and sheer overwhelming-ness of the big city through dark colors: watercolor washes of browns and black charcoal-like shading. Bright yellow and greens communicate bustle and action. The lack of color (on the page where Nana and the boy first approach Nana’s apartment building) communicates sterility and the intimidating feeling of those tall looming buildings. And of course the use of red throughout the book is absolutely perfect. From the start, touches of red focus our attention: the numeral 1 on the subway; the policeman’s stop sign; the teapot and teacup. Nana knits the boy a red cape to make him brave, but observers will note that Nana is also outfitted in red, from her hatband to her handbag to her boots. There’s a natural and built-in connection forged between adult and child here. And there’s a point of discussion: is there an implication that Nana might need help being brave as well?

2) Through her ability to convey the sense of a large city in a book with quite a small trim size. (Which I love, by the way. The small size and square shape of the book communicates safety, harmony, manageability. The story would have been dwarfed in one of those oversize celebrate-the-city kind of picture books.) Castillo’s story is a small one, but it doesn’t happen in isolation. The presence of the city is always there in the background, in black-and-white sketched-in cityscapes (that look almost like coloring-books pages before they’re colored in) or less-detailed blocked-out buildings; she gives us the whole city without taking our focus off the characters and the main action. (She uses the same technique in other places in the book as well: note Nana sitting on her coach as she begins to knit the boy his red cape. The sofa is only sketched in, like the cityscapes, keeping our attention solely on Nana and her knitting.)

3) Through the tactile quality of the art. The combination of the watercolor and what looks to be some kind of charcoal rubbing (but might be something entirely different; I’m just guessing!) gives the art such texture and immediacy.

I have to admit I’m a leetle disappointed in the endpapers. I thought they might have changed from green (in the beginning) to red (at the end), just like Nana’s two knitting projects. But I am sure the illustrator and publisher gave much thought to it. So please help me with this (admittedly) tiny little quibble.

This book is not a shouter. It’s a small domestic story, with a quiet narrative arc, for very young children. Therefore, given the history of this award, it doesn’t scream Caldecott. What will be its chances on the table at the end of this month?


Martha V. Parravano About Martha V. Parravano

Martha V. Parravano is book review editor of The Horn Book, Inc., and co-author of the Calling Caldecott blog.



  1. I would certainly like to think that past Caldecott decisions won’t affect this year’s awards. This is a quiet book of bonding and discovery and as such the deliberately conventional end papers enhance the theme. I thought the art spoke for itself throughout, and didn’t require anything special from the end papers. I do of course completely agree with your observations in 1,2 and 3, and feel that small quibbles are overwhelmed by the book’s exceptional artistry and intimacy, both of which have greatly impressed the targeted age for the book.

    Ms. Castillo well deserves to be in this race with this magnificent book.

  2. One of the things I have always enjoyed about Castillo’s artwork, that she uses to great effect here, is her mastery of line. She consistently uses a relatively heavy outline in her work, which gives it a comfortable, approachable sensibility. With Nana in the City she uses that same bold line work, except in the case of the bright red that Nana and the boy wear; Nana’s boots and purse and hatband (and feather), and the boy’s cape, all appear as blocks of color, without the bold black outline that delineates everything else. That simple device calls our attention on every page, making sure we always know who is important. And that Nana, she is important. It also subtly signals the connection between the two, letting the reader share in the boy’s growing sense of confidence and fun.

  3. I spoke myself about Ms. Castillo’s exceptional mastery of ‘line’ in her work in my own review of the book, published back on December 30 at Wonders in the Dark. Here is the specific excerpt:

    “Throughout NANA AND THE CITY, Castillo beautifully negotiates her trademark style of bold lines and colors that have impact for the younger ones, while leaving adults with the sturdy conviction that this is child’s eye impressionism. It is earthy, real and honest, yet there is just enough of an abstract swing to make it the stuff that memories are made of. One could surmise that the boy may not have an acute remembrance of all the details, but certainly what matters most – the sounds, the mass of people, and the numerous activities that define the very special nature of the city. Some of Castillo’s set pieces are superb: the boy looking lost with his grandmother on a street corner, holding his ears while a policeman holding a stop sign blows his whistle and a jackhammer rumbles in the background. The bright colors of the yellow cab and the traffic guard’s uniform are strikingly seen over the painstaking ink drawings of buildings, bricks and water towers. In another marvelous double page spread the theater district is seen as a kaleidoscope of shapes and sizes, with words gloriously scribbled to emphasize that specific details are not what count, but the overall impressions. The expansive Central Park vista is envisioned as place where bikers are out en masse, dogs are chasing balls, kids are flying kites, while others lounge on blankets, read books or push baby carriages. The scene is sublimely shaded with autumnal hues, much like the arresting cover of the book, which does immediately set the time frame. Most of the book features delightful and loving vignettes of grandmother and grandson interacting, and they are affectionately rendered in warm colors. The six illustrations of the boy getting used to his cape are especially charming.”

  4. Robin Smith Robin Smith says:

    I have been a bit under the weather and meant to comment earlier.
    You have touched on all the highlights, Martha, so I have little to add.
    However, I do want to say that I love how Castillo holds the little child’s point of view. The first time a little person enters into strange territory (and it could be a farm for a city kid or the mountains for a kid who is used to seeing the sky), his or her first instincts are often fear. Plus, he is away from his parents–which adds to the anxiety. I am so glad that she does not shy away from those feelings.
    It takes some time (and a loving and very cool Nana) to build appreciation. I love the warm, circles where Nana is directly caring for the little boy and how Castillo keeps the focus on that relationship.

  5. I do not have the book in front of me, but what stuck with me was the way Castillo used the pictures to show the boy’s changing attitude. The pre-cape and post-cape text is the same: the city is described as “loud” and “busy” during both outings. The first time we read “The city is loud. The city is busy.” we see traffic and people hurrying. The second time we read those words, we see street musicians and a park full of people enjoying the day. It is a perfect example of how illustrations can be used to provide context and enhance the text.

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