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Where’s Walrus?

Where's Walrus?What’s not to love about Where’s Walrus?, Stephen Savage’s wordless hide and seek romp about an escaped walrus hiding in plain sight and the zookeeper who can’t keep up.

The art may have been created on a computer in Adobe Illustrator, but the book’s style owes more to old masters like Leonard Weisgard than to Martin Handford’s Where’s Waldo?. The illustrations are so simple, so unadorned, so funny, that I wonder if it’s likely to be a Caldecott contender. How will the committee define the word “distinguished”? (For those who were not aware, the Medal is given to “the most distinguished American picture book for children.”)

Can simple, funny, books get the Medal? Funny books have in the past (Officer Buckle and Gloria in 1996 and a few others). But for such unadorned art? And when a computer is involved? I don’t know.

Thinking about this book’s chances brings up my biggest problem with the Caldecott Medal and how the committee is formed. It’s rare for there to be more than one person out of the group of fifteen who truly understands art at first — what it feels like to create it, how it works within a book, how to talk about it. Note that I say “at first.” Everyone on my committee worked hard to remedy this, but there’s no question we were primarily word people on a committee meant to award visual excellence.

Humor and simplicity can be just as difficult to achieve as drama and complexity. In my experience, they often require even more skill. Those who haven’t themselves tried to create an image that is visually sophisticated yet stripped-down and funny — let alone a whole book of them — tend not to understand this. Each of us has lucked out with some quick doodles that provoke giggles, so it’s easy to imagine a book like this works the same way. It doesn’t. The computer art question might come up, too, but isn’t it time to stop vilifying computers and admit that they are just another medium? Using a computer isn’t an easy short-cut, it’s just another tool in the box. In fact, it’s probably easier to create a huge, over-designed muddle with a computer than it is with a brush. The computer provides so many possibilities with no mess, no waiting for paint or glue to dry. Want a drop shadow? A patterned background? No problem! The genius of Where’s Walrus? is its restraint.

There have been plenty of simply-drawn and funny Honor Books (just ask perpetual runner-up Mo Willems), so why hasn’t any book of this kind ever received the Medal itself? Is it just the word “distinguished” that keeps these books from getting the gold, or is it something else?

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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  1. “…isn’t it time to stop vilifying computers and admit that they are just another medium?”

    It’s going to become impossible to discriminate against the use of the computer anyway, because it’s such an integral part of so many young artists’ tool boxes, and used in so many different ways. It’s not just scanning original art and coloring it digitally anymore; some young-adult artists have become more comfortable drawing on a Wacom tablet (looking at their screen, not their hand!) than a piece of paper. They will be the ones defining art soon enough!

  2. Lolly Robinson Lolly Robinson says:

    Hi, Elizabeth. You are so right! And way back in 2000 I interviewed some experienced illustrators who were starting to experiment with computers. Here’s a link — worth following if only to laugh at what we used to think was a cutting-edge computer set-up. (1 MB of memory! Oooooh!)

  3. Dean Schneider says:

    Elizabeth & Lolly,
    I’m not sure that the younger artists using computers for their art will be “defining art,” so much as simply adding their work to the mix, to the range of possibilities. Certainly. Philip and Erin Stead are very young, and they are adamant about NOT using computers. They have spoken eloquently about their hands-on spirit, including at the Horn Book booth at ALA, when Roger interviewed them. I love the handmade appeal of A SICK DAY FOR AMOS MCGEE, but I also can appreciate the visual appeal of WHERE’S WALRUS, created in Adobe Illustrator. It’s an interesting question as to what or who defines art. Technology offers new ways of doing things, but there are always those who do their work the “old-fashioned” way and attract an appreciative following for that. Salley Mavor, with this year’s Boston Globe-Horn Book picture book winner, POCKETFUL OF POSIES, has created a beautiful work of hand-sewn fabric relief collages, and Rick Allen’s illustrations for DARK EMPEROR (also a BGHB Honor winner) are relief prints made from linoleum blocks, an old, time-intensive way to create art. So, I can imagine the 15 members of a Caldecott committee finding much to marvel at in the whole range of illustration, but I’d be hesitant to say what defines art. Certainly, there’s room for the whole gamut of new and old. And it’s certainly fascinating, when push comes to shove, how committees define “distinguished.”

  4. Lolly Robinson Lolly Robinson says:

    Okay, I agree that Elizabeth’s “defining art” comment goes a little farther than I would. But I was such a hands-on art person back in the day and thought the idea of adding computer into the mix seemed a bit sinister — until I tried it. I still miss the smell of oils (my medium of choice) and the computer is NOT good at mimicking things like brush strokes and pencil lines, as hard as Wacom and others try to make this happen. But I do wonder whether some things that are now seen as lesser (visible pixel edges from Byron Barton, for example) will become acceptable in the same way that a dashed-off and loose line used to be strictly for sketchbooks and is now an integral part of some artists’ styles.

  5. I completely agree with the simplicity point–we just checked out Where’s Walrus a few days ago from our local library and the whole family loves it. I thought of Mo Willems, too, when I was reading the book because they both communicate so much with so little on the page. It’s almost like watching some expert runners–they make it look easy. And then you try to run and realize how hard the work really is. Simplicity can be just as distinctive as intricacy and complexity–sometimes more so. As to the computer=art question, I can’t speak to that. It’s going to be increasingly difficult to make the distinction in years to come if technology continues to develop at its current rate.

  6. “Defining” was an imprecise word. What I was trying to say is that when the current generation of teens is in charge of the judging of children’s art (that’ll be…tomorrow), how computers were involved in the production of that art won’t be an issue anymore, beyond an interest in describing the medium of a particular project. That doesn’t mean that non-computer art like Erin Stead’s won’t always be part of the mix, or won’t be valued (I think it will), just that computers in the mix will be accepted and understood without prejudice.

  7. I just took a good look at Where’s Walrus and found myself laughing aloud and appreciating the “complete package” of this book.

    Starting with the jacket … I was surprised when I opened the book completely to see the walrus on one end of the counter and the zookeeper at the other end. I expected the line of men in grey suits to continue, and almost gasped when I saw the zookeeper looking right at me (he particularly stands out because of his vibrant, blue uniform). The title, in white on red, is shaped like a megaphone. The diagonal lines on the cover will be repeated throughout the book’s illustrations.

    The endpapers, almost map-like, show the reader in graphic form what is to come.

    The story begins immediately and the focus is put squarely on the walrus. We meet him happily sitting in his pool, and then zoom into a close up of his face, complete with a winking eye. The characters and tone are established quickly, and subtly, with a simple line.

    The wide view of the zoo is hysterical. All of the animals and the zookeeper are sleeping, but because the illustrator has already introduced the main character, we know to hunt for the walrus. And, there he is, looking ready to set forth on an adventure. The gates of the zoo are wide open. In fact, the open gate and the walrus’s gaze compel the reader to turn the page. We we can’t wait to see what the walrus will do. After we turn the page, the zookeeper’s shock is like an explanation point. The elements on the page are set on a diagonal, progressively getting larger, until we must turn the page to see the walrus in the fountain. Then, we pause and are introduced to the fact that the walrus will take on multiple identities throughout his adventures. Yet, there is the zookeeper, clueless, ready to move on.

    The illustrations all compel us forward, except when the walrus is posing a new setting. Then, the motion in the illustration stops, and we can rest for a moment and giggle before finding out what happens next. Even in resting, though, there is something that makes us want to turn the page. In the masonry page, the zookeeper on the run keeps the motion going. In the page with the firefighters, the hose trails off in the corner, and the scene rolls into the next one. In the “can-can” scene, all of the dancers (and the walrus) are pointing at the next page with their legs. When we get to the painting scene, the movement from detail to greater city silhouette, and the ever-present diagonal line (with the scene getting larger like the megaphone), make us move forward.

    The surprise at the walrus’s diving prowess, expressed by the walrus and the zookeeper simultaneously, is again expressed so simply. Those black lines foreshadow the change that will come to the walrus’s pool at the zoo.

    The storyline, theme, mood and concept are developed as a crescendo throughout the book, so that the final spread is a perfect conclusion to the journey. After trying on so many identities, the walrus has found his true calling, and the zookeeper can see it clearly. The plot is clear, even with no text, through the series of illustrations. The simple, unadorned style, suits the audience, young children. The simplicity and repetition in the illustrations, with visual surprises in all of the scenes, will allow young children to follow the plot and find the humor.

  8. Kitty Flynn says:

    Okay, this is going to be one of those comments based on anecdotal evidence about the commenter’s kid, so steel yourselves. Has anyone else found that WHERE’S WALRUS? doesn’t stand up to repeat readings/viewings? I reviewed it for the Magazine and supported its star (I still think the art is compelling and the design is impeccable), but I’ve found that my initial enthusiam has waned over time. My then 2.5-year-old liked the book well enough the first couple of times we read it, but we haven’t looked at it much since I brought it home almost a year ago. Once my son figured out the game, there wasn’t a lot to bring him back to the book. And he loves walruses, zoos, and zookeepers. I wonder, does the committee consider possible child-appeal when deliberating or is it all art for art’s sake?

  9. I reread this one today and really actually enjoyed it more than I did my first look. The comic timing – or whatever the picture book version of comic timing would be – is impressive on every spread.

    Kitty, in answer (sort of) to your question, when I was on Newbery I did consider child appeal and had students in my book club read several of the books. But, really the key word is “consider” – it was useful to me in some cases to see how a 5th grader looked at a book in terms of pacing, characterization, etc., but in other cases I was unable to get much of a sense of a book’s appeal. I think one of the reasons behind this is the fact that kids are so different, not just from one another, but from day to day. You used an example with your 2-y.o., and I could do the same with mine – we’ll go through phases where we are reading the same book over and over again for days on end, and then that book will disappear for eons, only to come up again when she asks for it a month later. Does it mean the book is lacking in some way because she didn’t want to read it for a while? I don’t think so… but in some cases, there are reasons behind these disappearances. (Mostly when the book really stinks, and her mother or I hide it! (-; )

  10. Lolly Robinson Lolly Robinson says:

    The child appeal question is going on now also at the most recent post, “Back to work (sort of).” I’ve been thinking a lot about Kitty’s question and I think Roger’s answer on the other thread works for this too: we never know what child will respond in an unexpected way. I was on a Temple Grandin kick this weekend and it occurs to me that even in books that seem really simple (like WW?) there might be other aspects of the book that could keep a child coming back. Like just how are each of those repeated figures on each spread different, how is the walrus like them, etc. I think I would have been one of those geeky kids who got out my 6″ plastic ruler and tried to figure out how the optical illusions worked.

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