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Tony

Tony by Ed Galing, illustrated by Erin SteadDid you notice that the first couple of Calling Caldecott reviews of the fall (see Egg and Big Cat, Little Cat) seem to suggest that this year’s Caldecott Medal winner could be a model of simplicity, nuance, and restraint? A quick look at recent award history, however, paints a different picture. Winning illustrators of the last 10 years have mostly not been shy about jam-packing their books with intricate, kinetic, polychrome visuals. Here is that impressive list:

 

  • 2017: Radiant Child by Javaka Steptoe
  • 2016: Finding Winnie, illustrated by Sophie Blackall, written by Lindsay Mattick
  • 2015: The Adventures of Beekle by Dan Santat
  • 2014: Locomotive by Brian Floca
  • 2013: This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen
  • 2012: A Ball for Daisy by Chris Raschka
  • 2011: A Sick Day for Amos McGee, illustrated by Erin E. Stead, written by Philip C. Stead
  • 2010: The Lion & the Mouse by Jerry Pinkney
  • 2009: The House in the Night, illustrated by Beth Krommes, written by Susan Marie Swanson
  • 2008: The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick

And yes, there might be a slight maximalist lull from 2011–2013, but the current proclivity toward big (Locomotive’s trim size is a whopping 10.5 in x 11.8 in), long (Winnie is a healthy 56 pages and Hugo Cabret over 500), and bold (as in Pinkney’s title-less cover for The Lion & the Mouse) winners is clear. And it makes sense that these more aggressive attributes are rewarded — bigger, longer, and bolder books seemingly offer more material for committees to discuss, interpret, and celebrate.

But perhaps not this year.

Tony, a tiny (7.5 in x 9.25 in), brief (only two sentences across 32 pages), and prudently illustrated love letter to a milk-cart horse could, against substantial odds, be the first quiet winner in quite some time. And quiet can be good. Quiet can be significant. Quiet can be distinguished.

The text of Tony, written by Ed Galing and conveyed in free-verse poetry, is loving yet tangible — “Tony / that was his name / he was such a / wonderful horse.” The lead up to, description of, and departure from a brief early morning rendezvous between Tony, his driver Tom, and an unnamed narrator pretty much summarizes the book’s plot. In the wrong hands, the illustrations for this poem could have been overwhelmingly boring. Thankfully, Erin E. Stead’s illustrations, although minimal, are unusually intimate. Only upon multiple readings of the book did it occur to me that, except for the title page (more on that later), the entire story is told through double-page spreads. This fairly forceful structure is effectively tempered by the separation of text and image by the book’s gutter. In fact, barring two exceptions (three if you count a wordless reprieve), the text always finds itself on the far left-hand side of each spread, while the illustrations reside on the right-hand side of the spread. This breathing room between word and image allows the reader’s eye and mind, figuratively and literally, to meander.

Stead’s pencil drawings shift from finely rendered close-ups of Tony to barely discernable still lifes to smudged-out apartment buildings. Regardless of each individual image’s value, size on the page, and sharpness, the reader is always invited to look more closely — partly due to the book’s small trim size, but mostly thanks to Stead’s exploratory use of color. Swaths of rolled, rubbed, and smeared yellow and green ink spread across, through, and around the illustrations. A splotch of yellow might realistically emanate from a lamppost, or it might not, instead serving as a backdrop for some carrots and pair of shoes. Admittedly, the final results can be puzzling, but they are also interesting, as if the colors found themselves a place on each page under their own volition.

As a bonus, Tony has its share of pleasant surprises. A turn of the opaque vellum title page elegantly reveals the first line of the book. The removal of the embossed dust jacket exposes a pleasingly similar embossed cover. The text color, a perfectly paired green-ish blue, makes standard black seem ridiculous.

Could Stead’s measured effort to create a space for a humble poem win her another Caldecott? I hope so.

And one last thing — Stead can really, really draw horses.

About Patrick Gall

Patrick Gall works as a librarian for children in preschool through eighth grade at the Catherine Cook School in Chicago.

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Comments

  1. I don’t know that I think of the illustrations as being double-page spreads (except for that one wordless one – and even there it’s carefully place so that Tony is dominating the right hand page where most of the visual aspects have been). I saw it as text on one page, completely separate from the illustrations. Paying more attention, I do notice that often the colors bleed over onto the side with the text, but not in a way that makes me think that the illustration is on two pages. I need to think about that more. I do agree that the choice in general was a good one for this book. It’s a small, focused story/poem, and it makes sense that the illustrations would be equally “small” and focused.

    I’ve been trying to decide why most of the time the colors swirl around but don’t fill both of the pages, except for three places (not counting the wordless spread.) “He was such a wonderful horse”, “I am sure he heard…” and “I knew that Tony did a little dance” are all entirely colored. I can’t figure out exactly why those sections and not others. The dance page with all that yellow makes a wonderful warm ending, but I’m not sure why “I am sure he heard” needed to be so green. Any thoughts?

    Has anyone read this to children yet?

  2. “Tony, a tiny (7.5 in x 9.25 in), brief (only two sentences across 32 pages), and prudently illustrated love letter to a milk-cart horse could, against substantial odds, be the first quiet winner in quite some time. And quiet can be good. Quiet can be significant. Quiet can be distinguished.”

    I couldn’t agree with you more on all four assertions Patrick. And I adore this book, much as I did Erin E. Stead’s “The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles,” from last year, when she collaborated with Michelle Cuevas. My five first grade classes really dug it, with two of the groups asking me to read through it a second time. Of course 2017 does showcase several other books in the sub-genre, though this particular book seems a model in this sense. As always with Ms. Stead’s ravishing art it comes down to color and texture, points Martha herself made in her review of “Ocean Bottles” on the previous Calling Caldecott. I also second the motion on Ms. Stead’s uncanny talent in drawing horses. Love the late Ed Galling’s poetic language, embossed cover, the sublime splashes of impressionist yellow, the resplendant pencil drawings and one of 2018’s most stunning dust jackets. I can go on and one, but you’ve already done that with this beautifully written review/Caldecott qualification piece.

    Talk about pictorial minimalism. Stead has really mastered the art here. A simply gaze makes you a prisoner. This is another competitive year, but it would hard not to see this as a late stage nominee.

  3. I love this book. The apparent simplicity of the poem, the sense of anticipation, the coming of the light, and the love that suffuses the whole thing moved me to tears when I first saw it. If I remember correctly, there’s one illustration that doesn’t perfectly match the text. But the incredible illustration of Tony’s soft eye is one of the best of the year, or of any year. Definitely deserves a medal, imho.

  4. Patrick, “quiet winner” is an apt description for Tony. As you point out, under Stead’s mastery the book’s colors, size, text placement, etc. give the book a simple warmth that is rare in picture books. I read the book aloud to a group of 2nd graders and opened up the floor for discussion afterward. Safe, warm, peaceful, curious, cozy, and kind were some adjectives that my students used to describe how the book made them feel. Your observation, “The text color, a perfectly paired green-ish blue, makes standard black seem ridiculous.” brings a smile to my face. You’re right of course! Thanks for a lovely review!

  5. I’m so glad you weighed in, Emmie, about your experience reading it to children. (I couldn’t answer Alys’s question about that, as I haven’t yet read it in a story time — only to my own two children.) I bet there was a reverent hush over the room when you read. It’s a book that does that.

    Leda, a commenter somewhere (when I shared this post) also talked about being moved to tears upon reading this one.

  6. Oh, this book. This. Book.

    What a lovely, quiet, marvelous work of art. The close up of Tony’s solemn, downcast eye on one page is a masterwork of talent. The buttery light that casts on Tony, signifying the comfort of the narrator’s friendship, and spreads the sky as Tony “dances” off… so subtle and beautiful and warm.

    I would be delighted if this lands a medal or honor this year.

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