Normally our post title is the book’s title, but both of these together would be way too long: When Sophie’s Feelings Are Really, Really Hurt by Molly Bang and I Used to Be Afraid by Laura Vaccaro Seeger. Both illustrators have won Caldecott honors in the past, but never the actual Medal. Could this be the year for one of them?
I’ll start with Molly Bang’s book, which is a sequel to When Sophie Gets Angry — Really, Really Angry. This time, Sophie is dealing with hurt feelings. It’s nothing as major as bullying, just kids being insensitive about something that matters a great deal to her. At school, Sophie’s class is told to study a tree they love and then draw it from memory as accurately as possible. Sophie chooses a big beech tree — the same one that helped her calm down in the first book. When she starts to paint it accurately, she doesn’t like how dull the gray bark looks. So she paints it turquoise blue and adds a yellow sky (for better contrast) and chartreuse leaves. Then she paints yellow outlines around the trunk, branches, and trees. Of course, the hurt feelings come when her classmates complain that this is not accurate. Sophie explains that it accurately reflects how she feels about the tree, and her teacher backs her up.
In the first Sophie book, Bang used colored outlines to indicate emotions, most notably red for anger. All the pages had a yellow border, which was also the color Bang used for happiness at the end. That was fifteen years ago. Here, colored outlines have less to do with emotion and more to do with composition and using interesting contrasting colors. There are places where the actual tree has a red outline. Having recently re-read Bang’s Picture This, I found her color choices here fascinating. All her choices in this book seem more sophisticated than they were in Angry, where they provided pieces to a puzzle that could be solved: red is anger; warm colors indicate strong feelings; cool colors mean softer feelings. It seems as if she is trusting her audience more than before. Her compositions are also more dynamic, with full bleeds throughout and dramatic angles. I hope the committee will give this book a lot of attention — it does require some thinking on the reader’s part to fully appreciate it.
And now on to Laura Vaccaro Seeger. She is often called a master of concept books, with, uniquely, each of her books telling a story as she covers emotions, color, sequence, the alphabet, etc. Interestingly, I think I Used to Be Afraid is Seeger’s first die-cut concept book that shows real human faces up close. And to be honest, I find the jacket a little scary. It has something to do with the eyes — especially if you look at the cover below the paper jacket, on which the eyes look left instead of right. (Portraits with eyes that follow you are among the things I am still afraid of.) I think the immediacy of this cover helps to plunge the reader into the situations at hand. There is no question about the emotion on this face: anxious, worried, scared.
Like others of her books, this has a square trim and is printed on thick paper with die-cuts on the right-hand page, moving to the left when the page is turned. Each cut shows the actual object that is scary. Again, this fear of the future or the unknown plays in Seeger’s favor. What will be on the next spread? There is a touch of fear in this anticipation. But the cut-out object that elicited fear on one spread is the exact same shape when you turn the page. Only the context has changed — and made all the difference. Genius.
Her collages here are as painterly as ever, but the figures — being children — seem a bit simpler than in some of her previous books. For that reason, it might be easy to downplay the artistry. But I think she made the right choices here, with clean outlines for each character and features large enough to read without ambiguity. After all, the second spread in every sequence must be free of mystery in order to work. The scary shadow on one spread becomes a heart-shaped shadow cast (on purpose) by two hands held together. I’d love to hear a Jungian response to this book. My take is that each scary thing becomes less scary when we turn to face our shadows (as it were) and purposefully recreates that scary thing. So the dark is no longer scary when the girl goes outside to admire the starry sky and new moon; the spelling mistake (with backward S) is no longer scary when she keeps trying until the S is correct.
Finally, what makes this book work as a read-aloud is the predictable rhythm it sets up at first, and then breaks at the end. Very satisfying.
I could stop here, but I think I need to mention something that is a problem for everyone who evaluates books. There is something about the eyes in this book — perhaps the amount of white showing — that I find a little creepy. The reason I mention it here is because I recognize it as a personal issue, not a problem with the art. I think it’s important to recognize when a personal prejudice might get in the way of evaluating a book. If this had been a print review, I would have either suggested that the book be reassigned to a different reviewer or tried to get past the eye issue and write a fair review. (I know it’s just a personal problem because I still own books that I scribbled on around age 3 or 4, including Minarik and Sendak’s lovely Little Bear because there seemed to be too much white showing in his eyes. Clearly, I need some therapy!)
So how about it? This post is coming kind of late in the year, but now that I have spent quality time on these two books, I might want to revise my Top 5 list.