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Grand Canyon

Pity the artistic endeavors of the too-effectively creative, for they are the ones most easily ignored.

It isn’t much of a stretch to say that in the field of nonfiction, Jason Chin may be one of our most epic and inspiring grand masters. If he writes about trees, he doesn’t limit himself to the odd birch or elm but to vegetation capable of sustaining whole ecosystems, as in Redwoods (2009). If he writes about reefs, the entire ocean is his to command, alongside a barrier reef wide and gorgeous in scope (Coral Reefs, 2011). Little wonder the man took it upon himself to single-handedly tackle what could arguably be called the most impressive natural wonder of the American West.

In Grand Canyon, Chin simultaneously treads familiar ground while also covering a natural wonder like no one has ever covered/explained it before. In his bag of tricks he adds a new element to his mix of pen and ink, watercolors, and gouache: die-cuts. Once the purview of peek-a-boo board books, Chin uses the cuts to make direct correlations between contemporary fossils and ancient seabeds/critters. The general conceit of the book is that a child and her father are hiking the canyon by themselves. Along the way she may spot a fossilized shell, a set of ancient tracks, or an interesting-looking rock. Turn the page and the die-cut pulls away to reveal an ancient world, millions of years in the past. There is an immediacy to this technique. Kids are constantly being asked to view or look at fossils, but this is one of the few books I’ve run across that makes a direct connection to the past in such a concrete way.

And it’s purdy. Never underestimate the power of sheer beauty. As he writes in his author’s note, Chin visited the Grand Canyon, taking pains to depict specific locations on specific trails. But in many ways it isn’t enough to adhere to accuracy. A Caldecott committee isn’t swayed particularly by fine facts and figures. Nor will they be all that impressed by the accuracy of Chin’s depiction of the trails. And so we have to pause for a moment and consider what makes a nonfiction book about science and nature a Caldecott contender. Here’s a question for you: what was the last science-based book to win a Caldecott Honor or Award? You might be able to make a case for 2014’s Locomotive by Brian Floca, and you could also argue for 2007’s Honor title Gone Wild: An Endangered Animal Alphabet by David McLimans. Notice the seven-year gap there, though. Science makes only the rarest of appearances on these lists. When it comes to nonfiction, biographies, to put it plainly, are far more beloved of the Caldecott committees.

Now here’s the kicker. Jason Chin is one of those fellows that falls into what I like to call The Caldecott Gap. Because he works in the realm of realism, Caldecott committees are often less inclined to consider such books as true contenders (see: Bagram Ibatoulline, Gennady Spirin, Kadir Nelson, etc). Add in the fact that what Chin is doing here has been done in previous books to different ecosystems before, and you take away the element of surprise that so many debut illustrators enjoy.  And yet, I look at that last spread of the book where the gatefold pages pull apart and we see a panoramic view of the canyon and I think of what the professional reviewers said of this title. They called it “breathtaking” (SLJ), “awe-inspiring” (PW), “beautiful” (Kirkus), and “immersive” (Horn Book). Lovely words, but will anyone call it “award winning” in the future? That’s for the Caldecott committee alone to decide.

Read the starred Horn Book Magazine review of Grand Canyon.

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Betsy Bird About Betsy Bird

Betsy Bird is collection development manager of the Evanston (IL) Public Library and former youth materials specialist of the New York Public Library. She reviews for Kirkus and blogs for SLJ at A Fuse #8 Production. She is the author of Giant Dance Party (Greenwillow) and co-authored (with Julie Danielson and Peter D. Sieruta), Wild Things!: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature.

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  1. I sure want to love books the way others do!

    Most people see the Grand Canyon (the place, not the book) as an American thing, but a fact: it has had meaning to Native peoples much longer than the U.S. has been the U.S. So–we’re in that “what’s left out” space again that I brought up in the discussion(s) of THE SECRET PROJECT. I hesitate to bring that up omissions again, here, but think it important enough to go ahead and comment on Chin’s book.

    Chin didn’t do anything egregious (like using Hopi kachina dolls) but he could have done more than he did. I offered some suggestion in my review, here: https://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com/2017/09/some-thoughts-on-jason-chins-grand.html

  2. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Betsy, you’re on to something re the lack of rewards for realism. Mock Caldecotts reward those books far more often than does the committee, so there seems to be a split between popular and criterial taste. Where I–and maybe the committee–frequently find such books lacking is in the weak narrative force of their page turns; it’s instead just one gorgeous picture after another.

  3. I just retrieved my copy of the book on the shelf behind me. I will say that WATER IS WATER was a huge favorite a few years back, and that GRAVITY was alsd an extraordinary work. Both were sponsored in Calling Caldecott and as I recall received fantastic treatment, much as this book has by Betsy Bird. Realistic books rarely land the big prazes from the committee -the magnificent LOCOMOTIVE was a noted exception (I see you alluded to it already) and prior to that the gold medal to the beautiful SNOWFLAKE BENTLEY was the last time a non-fiction book won. The suggest matter of meager representation can be compared to the lack of awards for photography, I do consider GRAND CANYON and and Katherine Roy’s HOW TO BE AN ELEPHANT as the absolute finest of this group for 2017 The pen and ink, watercolor and gouache art is lovely, painstaking and fabulously detailed. I love the ornate border work, the geographical diversity (underwater, desert, pine forests, and how Chin’s expertise and incorporation of information (facts and figures) makes learning so much fun for the target audience. Heck I’m 63 years old now and I couldn’t put this book down. The book is admittedly too challenging for the first grade classes in my school, but for advanced second graders, third and fourth it is ideal. As I say it is ideal for any age beyond that too. 🙂

    Well, Nelson has won three Caldecott Honors and I have reason to believe Bagram Ibatoulline came very close with the sublime parchment work THE MATCHBOX DIARY, but so far the extraordinarily gifted Jason Chin hasn’t been awarded by the committee despite the (well deserved) glowing praise you note here from several outlets including The Horn Book.

    GRAND CANYON is resplendent, superbly researched and written and with a wonderful protagonist hook. The slate cut out and expansive four page Grand Canyon spread are brilliant touches as is the historical brige with the long ago past.

    Just a wondrous work. What’s not to love? I love all of Chin’s book, but I dare say this homage to one of our natural treasures has resulted in a picture book masterpiece. Bravo! Excellent qualification presentation!

  4. Susan Dailey says:

    Jason Chin has created a spectacular book, as Betsy pointed out so well. However, in my notes about the book, I wrote “too nonfiction” as to how likely I thought it was to win the Caldecott. The book has so many strengths–wonderful natural color palette, interesting variety to page layouts and great end papers. But I wonder if the committee will have the same end paper problem with “Grand Canyon” that they might have with “Little Fox in the Forest.” On the back end papers, the book designer (or Chin?) was careful that no information is hidden, but the front end paper will have hidden information if the dust jacket is taped down. (Our book processor has an ingenious way to attach the dust jacket so the whole end papers can be seen.)

    There are a couple things I question and I hope others can give me insight. I wasn’t sure why the mountain lion was so prominent on the first few spreads. Also, does the presence of the child in the historical scenes puzzle anyone else? Maybe I was surprised by these things because I was only looking at the illustrations the first time through the book and I couldn’t make sense of them.

  5. Susan Dailey says:

    Roger, I wish I could disagree with your comment about “the weak narrative force of their page turns.” However, I think you are probably right. (At least, I’ll admit that page turns aren’t a strength in some of my favorite books.)

  6. And year after year (often month after month), Steve Jenkins produces spectacularly illustrated books that find novel ways to present zoological information. Will he ever receive his well-deserved Caldecott?

  7. Susan Dailey says:

    Mary,
    FYI–Steve Jenkins won an honor in 2004 for “What Do You Do with a Tail like This?” (I didn’t realize he’s been illustrating so long!)
    Susan Dailey

  8. And in answer to Betsy’s question, what makes a book about science and nature a Caldecott contender?If past awards are anything to go by, it wouldn’t hurt if it were illustrating poetry written by Joyce Sidman…..(2006, 2010)

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