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Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans

So, our loquacious friends at Heavy Medal are burning up the internet talking about a picture book, Kadir Nelson’s Heart and Soul. Do read that discussion and then ask the big question, “Is this a picture book or an illustrated book?”

I know, half of you are rolling your eyes and saying, “Isn’t that the same dang thing?” Well, according to the Gods of the Caldecott Award, no. This whole picture book/illustrated book difference is an important distinction. According to the definition in the manual, “A ‘picture book for children’ as distinguished from other books with illustrations, is one that essentially provides the child with a visual experience.”

Kadir Nelson’s oil paintings are phenomenal. They allow the reader to fully understand the lives of the African Americans who are such an important part of the history of this country. There are breath-taking spreads depicting the Middle Passage and the Civil War. Portraits of Pap and his family peer into the readers’ eyes and souls.

Is the book important and beautiful and moving? Yes. Should it be part of every child’s reading and learning experience?  I think so.

But, is it a picture book? I would have to say no. The book is not “essentially a visual experience.”

The committee will wrestle with this one. What say you?

Robin Smith About Robin Smith

Robin Smith is a second-grade teacher at the Ensworth School in Nashville, Tennessee. She is a reviewer for Kirkus and The Horn Book Magazine and has served on multiple award committees.



  1. Dean Schneider says:

    I agree. HEART AND SOUL seems like an illustrated book to me, not a picture book in which the illustrations interact with and extend the text. And the Caldecott is for picture books. This is a stately book, monumental and important. Not all great books win Caldecotts and Newberys; not all great books meet the criteria for specific awards. I do have a problem with HEART AND SOUL, though, similar to Jonathan Hunt’s discussion at Heavy Medal: The “grandmother-like” voice Kadir Nelson was after with this book (and discusses in his author’s note) doesn’t quite work for me., unless the grandmother is an every-grandmother and an historian to boot. There’s too much textbookish history being related in the guise of a grandmother. The voice worked better in WE ARE THE SHIP. There I believed in the narrator’s experience and ability to narrate that story. However, the Caldecott committee does not make such comparisons; only the book actually under consideration can be discussed. Still, HEART AND SOUL is a book I couldn’t wait to get, and I’m glad I did; it’s a visually stunning, illustrated book.

  2. KT Horning says:

    While I understand your point about the difference between an illustrated book and a picture book, I think it’s a shame that a distinguished book like this can’t be honored for its illustrations.

    Some folks bend over backwards to try to prove that the books of Brian Selznick are eligible for every possible award. I would like to put similar effort into the books of Kadir Nelson.

  3. Robin Smith Robin Smith says:

    And, perhaps the committee will honor this one, KT. This is a point of discussion on the committee, not an edict from above determining eligibility. The other part of that definition continues to say, “A picture book has a collective unity of story-line, theme, or concept, developed through the series of pictures of which the book is comprised.”

    I think the arc of the history is clearly shown in the illustrations, from the Baptism of Pocahontas to the voting hands in the epilogue. I especially love the family heading north during the Great Migration and Pap and Aunt Sarah in the cornfield. Nelson’s portraits always takes my breath away. I can’t imagine how he creates so much art with so much integrity.

    When I was on the Coretta Scott King Committee, we honored We are the Ship for both writing and art. We were not bound by the definition of a picture book, though.

    Do you think the Sibert committee might honor this?

  4. I agree with KT: once Hugo Cabret won, anything goes. I’m not sure the distinction between illustrated book and picture book applied in that committee’s decision; and Heart and Soul is just as much a ‘visual experience for a child’ (I’m probably paraphrasing) as Hugo. For me this book is so seamless that I can barely separate the elements from one another to talk about them individually. I think the voice is a huge strength; I love how it is a black woman speaking directly and unapologetically to a black audience. There is a sense both of urgency (“it’s time to make some things known before they are gone for good”) and of expansive storytelling in the colloquialism of the voice. The art is stunning (others can speak more articulately than I can) and prolific; I belive every single spread is illustrated. For me that argues for its consideration for the Caldecott. And although the art is primarily portraits, the illustrations progress systematically, following, as Robin said, the arc of history, and providing the book with a definite arc of its own.

  5. I also feel that given the distinction, that Heart and Soul is an illustrated book. The artwork definitely has a unity of theme and concept with the text, but I don’t feel it is “essentially” a visual experience; so much of the story is told through the written narrative. Having made that decision, I also think I have to put Secret River in that category, too, and possibly Queen of the Falls.

    I can’t imagine being on the awards committee and having to parse all this stuff out book by book!

    It is frustrating every year when a truly amazing book is left outside the circle drawn by the Caldecott criteria. (Eric Carle?!?!) But I always look forward to the Horn Book awards and the New York Times Best illustrated Children’s Book awards, which get to draw different circles and recognize different books.

  6. Martha P. says:

    OK so this is getting into sort of Supreme-Court interpretation territory…but if that word “essentially” is the crux of the argument, then you have to say that (the brilliant) Hugo Cabret isn’t “essentially” a visual experience, either. If the pages and pages of uninterrupted text in the book aren’t essential to the story, then what are they doing there? And if they are necessary, then how can the book be “essentially” (at its essence) a visual experience? Again, I have no quarrel with awarding Hugo Cabret the Caldecott Medal, just with doors being closed on other books that perhaps stretch the definitions or challenge the criteria.

  7. I agree, and I wish I had a better grip on what “essentially” means as well. After all, unless you are considering a wordless book, the text of any picture book should be essential to the experience, no matter how outstanding the illustrations, shouldn’t it?

    As for considering Heart and Soul on the strength of Hugo’s precedent, I do think that the pictures in Hugo carried more of the narrative than the pictures in Heart and Soul…for me, Hugo’s illustrations work more as a line through the book together with the line of the text, while the illustrations in Heart and Soul feel more like points than a line (but excellent points! “essential” points!), which is why ultimately I come to my “illustrated book” decision.

    We are also talking about Me…Jane at my library, and if the photographs disqualify that book under the “original artwork” criteria. And here again, Hugo won, and had photos not taken by Selznick.

    I want to thank you all; I so appreciate these discussions. I have read a million picture books, but I have not studied art or design, and every year I try to expand my brain to understand a little more about what things like “excellence in pictorial interpretation,” or “delineation of plot, theme, et al through the pictures” or “Individually distinct” mean in terms of artistic expression in picture books!

  8. Dean Schneider says:

    Since Martha mentioned the Supreme Court, maybe that’s the means by which a committee can think itself out of the traps set by the criteria. Precedents are essential to Supreme Court decision-making; it’s not just the specific language of laws, but what previous Court decisions have made of the laws. I seem to have heard, ever since the people v. Hugo Cabret decision was passed down, two reactions: go back to “real” picture books (i.e. strict interpretations of the criteria) OR maybe Hugo has opened things up for future committees. My early post was based on what I think the criteria say about picture book versus illustrated book, but, like Martha and KT, I would love to see a book like this–as majestic as it is–have that Hugo window of opportunity. And as Robin said, and Martha reiterated, the painitings do have a “collective unity” in offering readers a coherent arc of history. The concerns I raised about the voice are, I would think, more a Newbery issue than a Caldecott.

    I don’t know what to make of the word “essentially” in “essentially a visual experience.” It’s right there in the criteria, and to follow the strict meaning would seem to disallow any number of books, yet so many great Caldecott winners and Honors have remarkably good texts, too. I don’t think the intention was to disallow a picture book because it has a good text, yet when it does have a good text, it’s no longer “essentially” ( or, primarily) a visual experience. Is that really what the Caldecott Committee wants their awards to represent? Maybe, if “essentially” were read to mean “clearly”–as in clearly a visual experience OR Wow, what a visual feast–that wouldn’t have to mean exclusively, that the text could also be distinguished in its own right (and worthy of a Newbery for that). I have always liked those Caldecotts with a good read-aloud story and great illustrations that play off and enrich the words in many ways. I think all of the most recent Caldecotts do that, and I think a case could be made that the illustrations in HEART AND SOUL do that, too, in their own way, if the committee doesn’t see the precise wording of the criteria as a vice-grip.

    So, I think a strict constructionist reading of the criteria might spell trouble for HEART AND SOUL for the reasons I stated in my first post, but a reading a la Hugo Cabret might allow for a freer interpretation of the criteria.

  9. I’ve finally had a chance to spend some time with this book. Two things. One, I don’t think it’s a picture book. But I didn’t think HUGO was a picture book either. And picture books are in enough trouble without expanding the definition to include books that really weren’t intended to be picture books. I don’t think this was. My humble opinion.

    Two, and this is surprising: Mr. Nelson perpetuates what I call the myth of Rosa Parks in the text. Rosa Parks was not just “sick and tired.” She was trained, prepared, and part of an important movement of community organizing. She had lots of people behind her, both white and black. It drives me slightly crazy (I don’t have far to go) that books like this one, which will have a huge readership, continue to repeat misinformation for young people. It’s damaging. For more on Rosa Parks, I urge you to read my blog (I don’t want to paste in the whole rant) from some time ago, which you can find here:

    It seems to me that there are other noticeable aspects of more recent African American history that are missing as well. Gaps. The entire Black Power movement; the Panthers, Malcolm X, Birmingham Sunday. I find the text a bit over-simplified, I guess, in that it purports to be a more complete story than it is. I hope the Sibert committee pays attention, because I guess I don’t think it qualifies as nonfiction.

    Other than that, the book is absolutely gorgeous. So what to do?

  10. Sam Bloom says:

    Leda, I agree that the Rosa Parks section was unfortunate (and said as much on Heavy Medal), but I think that is more a Newbery/CSK(author)/Sibert concern than it is for the Caldecott. I’m sure hoping the majority of the Caldecott committee adopts the, as Dean called it, “reading a la Hugo Cabret” because there is nothing that would make me happier than to see this book get the gold. And go ahead and stick the CSK illustrator gold on there, too (although I think “Underground” by Shane Evans could give this a good run)

  11. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    What impresses me a lot about Heart and Soul is the way it creates a visual narrative that moves in parallel with the text, each picture expanding on particular text, yes, but the images also connected with each other independent of the words.

    Something to remember when defining picture book in Caldecott context: the committee is working from explicit criteria, not from some general sense of what a picture book is. That’s why Hugo Cabret could win and why this book should not be dismissed from consideration.

  12. I think a better Caldecott comparison than Hugo might be “Grandfather’s Journey” by Allen Say. It’s the same structure: text on one page and a portrait opposite. “Heart and Soul” has more words on the pages, but I feel it’s the same approach. I always thought that “GJ” veers close to “illustrated book” territory, but the illustrations have that sense of all belonging together, as in a family album. I feel the same way about “HaS”: a historical album of portraites that fit together and build on each other.

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  1. […] is the kind of discussion that often dominates Mock Caldecott Awards (such as here on the Calling Caldecott blog), because the Caldecott terms and criteria define “a picture book […]

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