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Swirl by Swirl: Spirals in Nature

Swirl by Swirl is one of the most beautiful books of the year. I can’t get enough of it.

Krommes’ colored scratchboard illustrations invite the reader to slow down and quietly enter the world that she and poet Joyce Sidman have created, a world of spirals in nature. Each page is perfectly designed with special attention paid to the white space for text, and, since the font is quite large, perfect for the young reader. Buried in the illustrations are smaller words, labels for the various curled up and spiraled objects.  Spirals are in turn snuggling, growing, strong, reaching out, clingy, clever, moving, and twisty.  The poem  spirals back on itself in the end, making it work nicely as a bedtime book.

I love scratchboard illustration. It’s hard to understand how it works, but Seven Impossible Things blog helped me better understand its challenges. I am just blown away by the photo of Krommes, hunched over a magnifying glass to see the details in her work.

Reading books with children is part of the work of a committee member and I was excited to see what my students (ages 7–8) would see in all those scratch marks. I was not disappointed.  I was thrilled when a few of them said, “Oh, this is the same artist who did that House in the Night book!”

It took a few minutes to get past the detailed endpages, which are filled with all sorts of natural swirls and spirals. They would have stayed there forever, I promise! They were most taken with the galaxy and tornado. The swirled dedication page was pleasing to them, eliciting excited laughter. They loved the little labels of each animal and noticed when the poem ended where it began, which surprised me, considering how long they looked at each individual page. (G. said, “Snuggling and warm and safe were on the first page too! It’s like a circle.”) They loved how some of the text was white on black and some was black on white. Any hard-to-find animal or plant was a bonus. I was surprised at how much they noticed about the white and dark spaces, but that they did not seem to notice the color, one way or the other.  They were just fascinated by the black and white play.

Here are some questions the children had about the illustrations:

Why is the red fox labeled? All the other labels are reserved for spiraling critters or phenomena.

Why are there little dashes in the white space to the left and right of the sheep, to the sides of the tornado and inside the rays of the sun? (“I can tell the rams are running at each other without those little dash-things.”)

Why is the tornado on the endpapers different from the tornado in the book?

Why are the animals on the last spread different from the ones on the first one when the words are almost the same?

When I was on the committee, KT Horning spoke to us in June. I still have my notes which ended with, “In illustration, everything is a choice.” On the Caldecott Committee, those choices end up being a big part of the committee’s discussion.

Can you answer the questions posed by young readers? What did you especially appreciate about this book, one that will surely be part of the rich discussion of this year’s committee?


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. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    The question about the unspiraled red fox came up when we were reviewing the book, and I think the answer came up that foxes kind look spiraled when they sleep? Something like that.

  2. Someone in my class said that, but then was shouted down by, “But he is not sleeping there!”
    Harsh second grade justice.

  3. Joyce Sidman, Ann Rider, and I went back and forth about whether to label that red fox. We decided that we would because we thought it might seem odd not to be labeled. Now I wish I had sneaked a little curled up fox on the endpapers! Nevertheless, we are so happy at the wonderful response we are receiving for our book. It was a joy to produce. There really is something magical about spirals.

  4. I think a red fox should be labeled just because it’s a red fox, which may sound like second grade thought, too. I love that the animals are different at the end, when the world opens up revealing more spirals in the sky, and think it suggests that while so much is shown on the page, there’s still much more for readers to discover in the world. Those repeated words aren’t just a circle, but a spiral, so we expect something more.

  5. I think this book is so lovely – everything about it is just so appealing. My one complaint about the artwork seems like a trifling one, but it continues to bother me… I wish all the animals had more neutral looks on their faces. Not to be a grinch, but I don’t think the animal smily faces fit with the gorgeously lifelike plants, ocean waves, etc. There is one animal (and darn it, my copy is at home or else I could tell you what it is) that actually wasn’t smiling, and it looks so much more natural. Aside from that, though, this is a beauty.

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