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Big Machines

Each fall, as award season heats up and the Interwebs start buzzing with kid-book love, we all should revisit Vicky Smith’s “Reader, Know Thyself.” Originally posted at Heavy Medal in September 2013, Vicky’s essay encourages readers to understand and respect their genre preferences in the context of award consideration: “Are you, as a friend of mine is, ‘allergic to talking animals’? Do you see a map of a fantasy kingdom and shut the book right away? Do you notice that the narrator is relating the story in the present tense and begin to gag? Do you see long paragraphs and begin to glaze over?”

This is chapter-book territory that Vicky is referencing, but the same holds true for picture books. Every person who has served on the Real Caldecott Committee has his or her own personal preferences, but as Vicky says, one must get past those aversions and look at each book for what it is. That’s just part of the charge. But to be honest, I find it far more difficult to reconcile hugely positive feelings for a book. When one connects emotionally to a book, it is really hard to remain objective. In situations like this, there’s a good chance that one can miss issues with the book (*cough cough* Wonder *cough cough*). That hurts one’s ability to discuss the title in question — and to speak to concerns from other committee members.

So here’s where I expose a few skeletons in my closet: first, I gravitate toward picture-book biographies. If you were to look upon the copious bookshelves at my house, you’d likely recommend that we dedicate an entire room of shelving to picture-book biographies. Second: I love Virginia Lee Burton. I grew up reading Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel and The Little House. There’s something deeply comforting to me about the way Burton shows Mary Anne chomping away large chunks of earth, as well as the round shapes in The Little House. The white space, the book design, those long shots of bustling crowds — mix it all together and it’s like the monographic version of a bowl of mac and cheese.

Naturally, the first time I saw Big Machines: The Story of Virginia Lee Burton, written by Sherri Duskey Rinker and illustrated by John Rocco, I was over-the-moon in love. But how much of it was due to my own predisposition to the genre and subject matter, and how much was due to the distinguished features of the book itself? (And how much of it was due to the hand-lettering in the title and author displays? Did I mention just how much of a sucker I am for hand-lettering? Look at that cover. Swoon!)

Anyway, Rinker’s adulatory text breathes life into Burton the person: “This is Virginia Lee, but everyone in seaside Folly Cove simply calls her Jinnee.” Rinker hooks child readers by showing Burton’s propensity for drawing, especially those titular contraptions, for her sons Aris and Michael. After all, what kid wouldn’t love a mom who can draw kick-ass trains, steam shovels, and snowplows?

But while the text is strong, Rocco’s illustrations take this title to another level. Rocco so thoroughly inhabits Jinnee’s world that it’s downright spooky. From the endpapers, which feature what appears to be stamps of the machines circling a familiar-looking little house, to that aforementioned house overlooking the sea on the book’s first spread, to the flowers on Burton’s dress (the same as the ones on the cover of The Little House), it’s like Rocco is channeling her ghost. And the visual story flows in distinctly Burton-esque ways, with both the shape of the text and pictures zigging and zagging across the page. Plentiful white space makes this rather text-heavy story feel much shorter and lighter than it really is — another hallmark of Jinnee’s books.

Rocco seamlessly incorporates Burton’s preliminary sketches by showing Jinnee in the act of creation. For example, on one spread she works on Choo Choo the train. Or, more accurately, five Jinnees fill in the train’s details, much to Aris’s delight: “With each sweep, Choo Choo comes more to life.”

But I worry about a biography that fails to show any of the subject’s faults. Too often our children are presented with incomplete pictures of the humans they read about (or see on TV or online) and, therefore, are unable to see the humanity of the person profiled. And make no mistake: this is an unabashed homage. Now, I’m not saying that Rinker should have dug up dirt on Burton, but if I were on the Real Committee, you can bet your britches I would be going a bit more in-depth to see what was left out. And that brings me to another issue with Big Machines: the back matter — or rather, the lack thereof. When I was on the Sibert committee (RFS15 represent!), one of the most important things I learned was that in an informational book, back matter matters. All we get here is an author’s note (which doesn’t really add that much, to be honest) and a very small-print note on the verso page (where no one looks) that acts as a de facto list of works cited. This really isn’t good enough for a kid who wants to learn more.

Is this a fatal flaw, akin to Mary Anne being stuck in the basement after digging the cellar of the Popperville Town Hall? Or will the Real Committee choose to smile on Rocco’s work “in a way that isn’t mean at all,” like Henry B. Swap at the end of Mike Mulligan? Tell us what you think in the comments!

Read the Horn Book Magazine review of Big Machines.

About Sam Bloom

Sam Bloom is a former elementary and middle school teacher. He is currently senior children's librarian at the Blue Ash branch of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County in Ohio.

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Comments

  1. The posting of a Calling Caldecott entry on this particular book is a surprise, but like two others preceding it that weren’t present on the original lineup it is most welcome. I dare say based on some comments on other threads there may yet be a few more that weren’t originally scheduled, and I say Bravo to that! I am hoping for a few specifically for sure. I love this book quite a bit, and in general like most kid literature aficionados I adore John Rocco’s work across the board, especially his previous CC entry “Blizzard!” and his Caldecott Honor winning “Blackout.”

    I also LOVE picture book biographies and I also LOVE Virginia Lee Burton. Her 1940 “The Little House” for me challenges Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” as the most magisterial Caldecott Medal winning book in the history of the awards, which of course dates all the way back to 1937. I use it at every available opportunity in my classes at whatever level I’ve taught. I also thought 1940 had the most incredible contest for the gold ever with Burton’s book flush against the immortal “Madeline”, which won an Honor. The second in that famed series “Madeline’s Rescue” later gave Ludwig Bemelmans the gold medal win many had thought he was denied in 1940. It is equally as difficult to choose between “The Little House” and “Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel” as THE Burton masterpiece but this book nor any discussion about it begs such a silly question.

    Sam, I quite agree with you when you say “But while the text is strong, Rocco’s illustrations take this title to another level. Rocco so thoroughly inhabits Jinnee’s world that it’s downright spooky.” And I likewise concur the book is a consummate work of illustrative artistry in virtually every department.

    And in a fantastic and comprehensive qualification essay I really loved this passage:

    “There’s something deeply comforting to me about the way Burton shows Mary Anne chomping away large chunks of earth, as well as the round shapes in The Little House. The white space, the book design, those long shots of bustling crowds — mix it all together and it’s like the monographic version of a bowl of mac and cheese.”

    Ha, nice! Anyway, congrats Sam on this passionate and persuasive assessment of a fabulous book, anchored by one of the best in the business manning the brushes.

    P.S. As to THIS: “When one connects emotionally to a book, it is really hard to remain objective,” I find this as verisimilitude incarnate. When I get attached to a book EMOTIONALLY sometimes I regard them as sacred cows. Ha, I’ll leave it at that with the inherent flaws of my thinking. 🙂

  2. Oh, the back matter objection you pose appears sound, methinks.

  3. Susan Dailey says:

    Thank you, Sam, for sharing your thoughts. There are some amazing images here including the illustration that accompanies “She can fly!” I’m not sure why I find it so striking, but Wow! Also, the one showing Burton’s hands impresses me, but I know why I love this one. I’m a sucker for realistic illustrations and this one captures hands amazingly well.

    Rocco captures Burton’s process of illustrating so memorably and creatively. And all the circles/curves give such a sense of warmth to the book. I heard John Rocco speak at the Mazza Conference one year and he gave a fabulous talk! It made me appreciate his work and I think he’s created a book worthy of Caldecott consideration. Thanks “Calling Caldecott” for chosing to discuss this book.

  4. Meggan Conway says:

    This is one of my favorite books of the year. I was disappointed to see that it wasn’t featured on many “Best Of” lists this year. So, I really appreciate your thoughts on this book. I disagree, however, with the question of things that might have been left out of this biography. If it were a complete biography of Burton, I’d agree. But a picture book biography is, to me, more of a slice of life. I don’t think a picture book biography is meant to give the whole story of a person. I am looking at the book through the eyes of someone who loves Virginia Lee Burton, but I truly do think it’s Caldecott worthy.

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