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When’s My Birthday?

Here’s a book that was a big hit in the Horn Book office from the start, so I feel lucky to get to write about it here. It’s told by a soon-to-be six-year-old (perhaps; or perhaps by multiple children) anticipating a birthday. Julie Fogliano’s verse in all lower-case letters and minimal punctuation demands to be read with verve.

when’s my birthday?
where’s my birthday?
how many days until
my birthday?

This would be a great read-aloud, but I’d really love to hear it get the rap/freestyle treatment we’ve been seeing recently online. (My favorite is Ludacris performing Llama Llama Red Pajama by Anna Dewdney.) This text is so full of repetition and internal rhymes that it’s hard NOT to hear it that way.

But the Caldecott is not for the text or read-aloud-ability, but for the book as a whole, concentrating on the visual experience. So let’s look at Christian Robinson’s art and the somewhat unconventional design.

The art builds on the implicit sense of anticipation and impatience, turns the volume up to eleven, and adds hyperbole. Robinson punctuates his familiar cut-and-painted paper collage with photos of real food (at the party) and real string (wrapping a present). At six years old, I’m guessing none of us were patient people. Being told that your birthday would arrive “soon” was so aggravating. We all knew that “soon” could be any amount of time at all, including stretches that seemed interminable. That upcoming birthday loomed large in our futures, and Robinson shows various children dwarfed by the most important birthday party props: presents, cake, and balloons. The various children seen throughout the book are joined by a few animals (a giraffe, a fish in a bowl, and elephants). As the Big Day draws closer, we see them wearing birthday hats and bringing presents, and finally sitting around a table under streamers.  

After reading through this book a few times, I started looking for repeated characters and hidden narratives, expecting to find a few visual subplots. When the final spread failed to show every character seen previously at the same party, I wondered if I’d found a flaw in the book. But I think I was trying to make this book experience into something it wasn’t meant to be. It’s not a neat and tidy book, but a raucous and episodic glimpse at the importance of birthdays and the difficult process of waiting and waiting for one’s own birthday to arrive. It’s full of joy and excitement, too. Every face has dot eyes and and a big U-shaped smiling mouth.

I like the way Robinson mixes it up with very limited color on some spreads, sometimes single-color solid figures on a white background and other times white cut-out figures on a solid colored background. These palette changes add to the intensity as the pages turn, waiting for the final moment we all know is coming. By book’s end, every child will be thinking about his/her own birthday, and just after story’s end but before the (birthday-candle) endpapers, we see “When’s Your Birthday?” along with a list of the months and a grid of numbers one to thirty-one.

The most distinctive design feature is the book’s tall, thin shape (echoed in those candles on the endpapers). When it’s open, the spreads are almost square. When a book’s trim is unusual, I look for a reason. If it’s just extra-large in order to get more attention in a bookstore, that’s not a good enough reason. The odd shape of this book felt right to me, but it took a while to figure out why.

A horizontal book makes sense for a story about a journey. You need all that space to show a left-to-right progression. If a wide book reveals a story that covers a long time period, then the opposite makes sense for a book about the frustrations of waiting for something to happen. When’s My Birthday? is narrated by a child who wants time to pass as quickly as possible. Where horizontal books prompt slow page-turns, vertical books call for rapid page-turns.

I have one last observation before handing this off to all of you. The cover type treatment is just about perfect. The simple sans serif bold title has been given an unusually generous amout of kerning (space between letters). It’s a lot like the type and kerning used on highway signs. Have you ever noticed how widely-spaced those letters are? They do that because it makes the words easier to read when you are driving at higher speeds. The same treatment on a book cover can signal speed, too.

A lot of you will be driving later this week for the Thanksgiving holiday. Take note of the extra-wide kerning on your road signs. And if you get stuck in traffic, just imagine how much more frustrating that slow passage of time would feel if you were five or six and waiting for your birthday to arrive.

Upper left: normal kerning. Lower left: extra-wide kerning used in highway signs.

 

Read the starred Horn Book Magazine review of When’s My Birthday?

Lolly Robinson About Lolly Robinson

Lolly Robinson is the creative director for The Horn Book, Inc. She has degrees in studio art and children's literature and teaches children's literature at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education. She has served on the Caldecott and Boston Globe-Horn Book Award committees and blogs for Calling Caldecott and Lolly's Classroom on this site.

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Comments

  1. Loved this book! I agree, it would be cool to hear someone rap it. I was happy to read your take on the shape of the book. I had initially relayed it to the elongated shape of a birthday hat. But the candles make much more sense.

  2. “It’s not a neat and tidy book, but a raucous and episodic glimpse at the importance of birthdays and the difficult process of waiting and waiting for one’s own birthday to arrive. It’s full of joy and excitement, too. Every face has dot eyes and and a big U-shaped smiling mouth.”

    Such a perfect encapsulation! Ha, I will indeed be traveling, driving my family to Butler, N.J. for our annual Thanksgiving get-together with my wife’s sister and her husband kids, and large extended family, and will make a point of taking note of the extra wide kerning of the road signs. Terrific way to get into the mind of a child during that agonizing slow-moving period before birthday day arrives. “When’s My Birthday?” beautifully delineates that most cherished day in a child’s life, the one day of the year where they are the center of the universe, when everything around them stands still, and all attention is foocused on them. Fogliano gets the mind-set down perfectly, and Robinson hits it out of the park with the unique and splendid design of the book, not to mention one of his very best illustrative performances in his amazing career. Candled end papers, a buffo calendar, and the captivating acrylic collages make this a sublime and celebratory work of the highest order, and a huge classroom favorite (which I can happily confirm here). And that embossed inside cover design of a birthday hat with the golden fish, and three-dimensional dust jacket?! Bravo! I must confess that I could never warm up to books with such an overtly vertical shape (or at least had to spend more time with the book to get over that odd displacement), and even had that problem at one time with 1957’s Caldecott Medal winner “A Tree is Nice” by Janice May Udry and Marc Simont, though like this Fogliano/Robinson collaboration that book is a treasure. All year long we hear our first and second graders talk about their coming birthdays. This amazing picture book (as sure a fit for Caldecott guidelines and proven sensibilities as any book out there for various reasons) considers this special day from many angles including the calendar, the gift possibilities, dinner offerings, the guest list, clothes and other celebratory activities.

    Thanks so much for this tour de force of a qualification essay. For sure this is a major player when deliberations are underway, methinks.

  3. Amy Lilien-Harper says:

    Thanks for your thoughts. I like the idea of the speed for the shape, although I was leaning toward candles myself. I also noticed how many of the pictures lean towards the right, speeding page-turns even more. For example the present is to the right of center as is the cake, and that giraffe keeps showing up, with his head and neck pointing right towards the page-turn! I am thinking that this might be one for the Geisel committee to look at as well. Do you think we can get Lin-Manuel Miranda to narrate it in rap form?

  4. Martha V. Parravano Martha V. Parravano says:

    What I love most about this book is the contrast between the sometimes frenetic anticipation telegraphed by the text and the complete and total bliss telegraphed by the art. This is a case where the illustrations provide a counterpoint to the text, not simply reinforcement, and I think that’s a good thing given the book’s (very young) audience.

  5. Susan Dailey says:

    While there are things I like about the book–the unusual shape, the endpapers–I’m not sure I understand why the color palette is so muted. It might make sense while the child is anticipating the big day, but I expected an explosion of color when the day finally arrived. Do you think this would be too much?

  6. I was fortunate enough to hear Robinson talk about his artistic processes at the AASL conference this November. He obviously enjoys what he does and very much understands how children respond to images.

    I’ve been a long time fan, and with every new Robinson book, I think, “THIS is his year for the Caldecott! How wonderful is this book?!?”

    For me, WHEN’S MY BIRTHDAY is his crowning achievement. There is so much joy, so much pleasure, and so much creativity in his art for this title. From the collaged sandwiches to the smiling animals, the exuberant children to the charming candles – this book has everything, and its appeal to children, I’m sure, will be unmatched. I love it so.

    There are *so* many tall trees this year. I imagine at least 10 Caldecott honors – that’s how many glorious titles 2017 has produced. I would be thrilled to see a shiny gold medallion on this come February.

  7. Joe, re the child appeal: I’ve read it at many a story time recently, and the room gets so quiet. It’s especially good for preschool-aged children, but I think it can be appreciated by a wide range of ages.

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