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What Is a Picture Book?

by Esther Averill
from Caldecott Medal Books: 1938–1957
edited by Bertha Mahony Miller and Elinor Whitney Field; published by The Horn Book, 1957

The time has come to attempt a critical appraisal of the twenty books which have won the Caldecott Award for their illustrators. I almost wish the task had fallen to another person, for these volumes, grouped together for inspection, have somewhat disconcerted me. I had anticipated a different kind of impact—one in keeping with the happiness I’ve always felt in realizing that the Caldecott Award exists to pay honor to our gifted artists.

Lovely books are in the group, but these parts seem greater than the whole. As a body of published work, the Caldecott Award books seem to lack a common bond. This may be due partly to the fact that some of them are not really picture books.

Most of us assume that a Caldecott Award book should be a picture book. “Awarded the Caldecott Medal for being the Most Distinguished Picture Book of the Year. These words are quickly printed on the jacket of a prize-winning book as it goes forth afresh to meet its public. Has the public sometimes wondered: What is a picture book? What is a distinguished picture book?

For, to the public’s confusion, picture books and illustrated books alike have won the Award, and there is a basic difference between the two. In an illustrated book the pictures are, as the term “illustrated” implies, a mere extension—an illumination—of the text. In a picture book, as the term also implies, the pictures play a livelier role, and are an integral part of the action of the book.

Definitions in the book-making arts serve merely as a take-off. One must really learn by looking, and to get the feel of the picture book style one may well turn to the works of Randolph Caldecott, the great English illustrator for whom our own Award has been named.

I have at hand a copy of Randolph Caldecott’s Picture Book No. 7, The Queen of Hearts. Once again I am aware that the delight this book invariably gives me stems not only from the vivacity and draughtsmanship of the drawings, but also from their arrangement. They are so placed that they give visual action to every page, sometimes as full-color illustrations, or again as smaller, monotone sketches around which the white of the paper affords relief to the eye.

Scattered through the thirty-two pages of The Queen of Hearts are the twelve lines of the nursery rhyme, the words appearing where they best sustain the pictures. It is this deft balance between text and pictures which helps to motivate the picture book and puts it in a class quite apart from the illustrated book. Techniques for making picture books are, of course, infinite in number.

Among the fine picture books on the Caldecott Award list is Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings, long a favorite with American children. In Make Way for Ducklings we find the modern technique of “bleeding” illustrations off the pages in order to obtain a maximum of pictorial effect. There is no white space in this book. McCloskey sweeps his pencil across the double-spreads which make up his story, so that there is great dramatic action. And there is detail, too, buildings, cars, people, and the ducks themselves. Children, whose eyes are microscopic, never tire of such detail.

Whereas Make Way for Ducklings is printed most satisfactorily in monotone, several other Caldecott Award books employ color to heighten their emotional impact. This is true of Virginia Lee Burton’s The Little House, Leonard Weisgard’s The Little Island, Roger Duvoisin’s White Snow Bright Snow, and Nicolas Mordvinoff’s Finders Keepers.

Each of these four books makes a definite contribution to the technique of picture book making, although this contribution may sometimes seem to be of an experimental nature. Burton has done in color what Wanda Gág did long ago in black and white in Millions of Cats (1928). Weisgard and Duvoisin use pictures that stand like paintings to establish a mood for the child as he listens to the lyrical texts of Margaret Wise Brown and Alvin Tresselt. Mordvinoff, on the contrary, achieves a tight-knit, dramatic effect, since his author, William Lipkind, has reduced the text to a bare minimum. How difficult it is to achieve such verbal economy! How taxing it is for all concerned to create any kind of decent picture book! The layman will never know the backbreaking work that goes into them. Rest assured, the simpler they seem, the harder they’ve been to make.

Unfortunately, not all of those books in color represent the artists at their best. This is less the fault of the jurors than of the prize-giving system which demands that selection be made from the crop of a given year. Certain remedies might help the best books get their chance when their time comes. One would be (as I have already suggested) to eliminate the illustrated book (in contradistinction to the picture book) from the contestants. A second would be to judge a book on its individual merit, rather than on the past performance of its artist.

Past performance appears to be the factor which has most constantly weakened the Caldecott Award list. Of course, the desire to pay tribute to a well-loved illustrator because of his earlier contributions is an endearing trait. But in such a case, the honor falls to the man rather than to his work.

Surely such a charming and spirited artist as the late Robert Lawson would not choose to be remembered for that rare, dull lapse of his, They Were Strong and Good, which won the Caldecott in 1941. One feels the jurors were honoring Lawson’s share in the famous Story of Ferdinand (1936).

Bemelmans’s Madeline’s Rescue may be another case in point. Certainly this book, with its sophisticated overtones, cannot compare with the original Madeline (1939), which offers such a delightful, unadulterated excursion into a child’s world.

Into one’s mind creep memories of certain picture books, absent from the Caldecott Award list, which have stood the test of time and become classics. Among the earlier absentees are: Dr. Seuss’s And To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (1937), James Daugherty’s Andy and the Lion (1938) and in the same year Wanda Gág’s picture-storybook Snow White, Warren Chappell’s Peter and the Wolf (1940), Jean Charlot’s A Child’s Good Night Book (1943), and Marie Hall Ets’s In the Forest (1944). Obviously, for chronological reasons, some of these could not have won the Award. Am I wrong in believing others might have?

Let us turn now to certain picture books in which there was general rejoicing when the Caldecott came their way. I have put them in a group by themselves, since they seem to me to be picture-storybooks, rather than simple picture books. Once I had occasion to define the picture-storybook as a genre in which the textual story is fully developed but the pictures are so important one can hardly imagine the story without them. It falls legitimately into the picture book category.

The most recent example of the picture-storybook is Marcia Brown’s Cinderella with its delicately colored illustrations so provocative of courtly life in times gone by. The line of the drawings is well matched by the type, and there is emotional harmony between the pictures and the text which accompanies them on each page. The book as a whole has typographic unity.

Louis Slobodkin’s illustrations for Thurber’s Many Moons are not so happily arranged. Turn the pages of this volume rapidly and you will find your eye jerked hither and yon. Ingrid and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire are among the artists not easily caught off their typographic guard. In all their work they show deep concern for balancing the type page with those lovely colored images they execute in a kind of modern folk style. Abraham Lincoln is a definite contribution to the art of picture book making.

One of the loveliest of the picture-storybooks is Mei Li, written and illustrated by the late Thomas Handforth. It appeared early in the history of the Caldecott Award, and reminds us that the art of picture book making has not kept pace, on the whole, with the vast expansion in the children’s book industry.

Handforth was a traditionalist in his approach to drawing. From his sound knowledge of anatomy, costume and architecture he selected just the right amount for children. And he handled his pictures so that they are not mere illustrations—an extension of the text—but an integral part of the action of the book. Watch their lively flow from left-hand page to right. See how they walk pleasantly hand in hand with the text. And what good ink the printer used. These black and white drawings fairly sparkle with color. In short, Mei Li may be placed alongside the best for adults and hold its own. This is a final test for any child’s book.

We come now to the first of the Caldecott Award books, Dorothy Lathrop’s Animals of the Bible. Because of its unobtrusive typography, this volume at first glance might appear to be an illustrated book rather than a picture book. But the more one studies it, the more one realizes that the lovely pictures are its raison d’être, and that there is perfect balance, both spiritual and typographic, between pictures and text. Since the text is the King James version of the Bible, this is no trivial accomplishment.

Only one other Caldecott Award book deals with a religious theme. This is Rachel Field’s Prayer for a Child, illustrated by Elizabeth Orton Jones. I should call it an illustrated book, rather than a picture book, for the pictures contribute little to its action. The reverent, mystical mood the prayer might awaken in a young person is not sustained by drawings of such a realistic nature. They appeal more to adults who enjoy looking with sentimental eyes at childhood scenes.

Three other Caldecott Award books seem to me to fall short of picture book standards. The pages of The Rooster Crows are in no way animated by the pedestrian drawings of the Petershams, who on previous occasions have gladdened us with works of true distinction. The Egg Tree by Katherine Milhous and Song of the Swallows by Leo Politi have a fault in common: the pictures, though pleasing, are used too profusely in conjunction with the text. The pages look too” busy.”

As for The Big Snow by Berta and Elmer Hader, other illustrations among the Award books may have been rendered with greater brilliance. But the Haders’s pictures have a sincerity that lends a special kind of conviction, and they have been well thought out in relation to the text. The result is a picture book worthy of recognition.

The picture books by Lynd Ward and Feodor Rojankovsky have a heavy air which, when one considers the fine talents of these two men, seems rather unnecessary. Ward’s drawings in The Biggest Bear are distinguished in draughtsmanship, but somber in their effect, and they fall always on the right-hand page with never a doublespread or an extra spot to break the monotony. Compare The Biggest Bear with an earlier book of similar format, Andy and the Lion. In Andy the pages are vivacious; even the white spaces glow.

Rojankovsky’s drawings for Frog Went A-Courtin’ lack his usual verve. Even at that, the book would be more spirited if there were greater variety in the disposition of the pictures. Compare Frog Went A-Courtin’ with Randolph Caldecott’s Frog He Would A-wooing Go, in which (as in The Queen of Hearts) the illustrations are so grouped that they contribute a special action to the book as a whole. Or if you prefer a modern example of fine picture book making, turn to I Play at the Beach, which was illustrated by Rojankovsky and published in the same year as Frog Went A-Courtin’. Here is a radiant little volume of fine drawings, handsome color printing and subtle typhography.

This year’s Award book, A Tree Is Nice, illustrated by Marc Simont, places me in a dilemma. The reason is a literary one. Although I’m not sure how important literary merit is in judging an Award book, I have a feeling it should count. At least it counts with me to the extent that even the title, A Tree Is Nice, disconcerts me. It belongs to a new school of writing for children, a school I don’t quite understand—and therefore cannot judge fairly.

As for the graphic aspects of A Tree Is Nice, I admire Simont’s color spreads and also his monotone drawings. There is plenty of diversity in the make-up of the pages. But to my way of thinking, there is so much diversity that the book does not hang together as a unit. Not only is the make-up extremely varied, but the drawings themselves seem occasionally to change in style. This may be intentional on the artist’s part. I myself prefer the wonderful harmony he achieved in his earlier work for The Happy Day—a harmony to be found not only in each drawing, but in each drawing in relation to its page, and each page in relation to the book as a whole.

Throughout this chapter I’ve been groping in the area of book design. Some of you may argue that the Caldecott is awarded solely on the merits of the illustrations. But illustrations are only one of the several elements of a book. Can illustrations really be good (in the sense that they function adequately) unless good book design is at their service?

The American Institute of Graphic Arts, with its various exhibits of children’s books selected on typographic and artistic merits, has set many of us to thinking along new lines. In a 1951 catalogue (Children’s Book Show 1945–1950. American Institute of Graphic Arts. New York, 1951) for one of these exhibits, James Johnson Sweeney, formerly Director of the Museum of Modern Art, has thrown light upon a matter which is obscure to many of us:

A child’s book is essentially a work of visual art—something that speaks directly to the eye and through the eye. It is a source of education to be sure, but never merely a vessel for the conveyance of information. Its real role is that played by a Gothic stained glass window in the Middle Ages, or a mosaic in the apse of a Romanesque church. It should be aimed primarily to stimulate the imagination through the eye—to educate in the true sense, by drawing something out of the observer—to mature the observer through stimulation, to exercise the imagination and develop the power for creating images. It is a work of visual art and should be approached, in the making, as one, and weighed on its completion by the same standards.

It is Mr. Sweeney’s contention that illustrations which do not function harmoniously with the whole book become mere decorations:

Where there is not a fusion of all the elements of a book – text, illustrations, format, typography – one element, or several, risks giving the appearance of a decoration, an applied embellishment in relation to the others. It may be the text, in the case of a young child’s book, it may be the illustrations, in an older one’s, it may be the type employed, or even the typographical decorations themselves.

I believe Mr. Sweeney would enjoy William Pène Du Bois’s Lion, one of 1957’s five Caldecott Honor Books, or runners-up. I do know that many who love the graphic arts wish a special Caldecott Medal might have been struck off to honor a book which makes fine typography such an integral part of the action. The lines of the drawings and those of the type seem made to match one another. The type page is handsome and enlivened with capitals and red letters. The paper is excellent, the margins are generous and the colors pure. I venture to say that a child who loves this book will never again be content with shoddy design.

Children, even though inarticulate, are capable of appreciating the niceties of good book making. For this reason one wishes that in the years to come the Caldecott Award list might be more representative of picture books judged as “works of visual art.”

In closing I take the liberty of quoting an incident related by Frances Clarke Sayers when she was Superintendent of Work with Children in the New York Public Library. Mrs. Sayers had had occasion to serve with Mr. Sweeney on the 1951 jury for the American Institute of Graphic Arts. In the catalogue of the exhibit she wrote:

The librarian-juror, all the while she chose books with her fellow jurors, was haunted by the memory of a thirteen-year-old boy in a branch library. He was picking out his Saturday’s quota of reading. “If there’s anything I hate,” he said, flipping through the books he was examining, and apropos of nothing that had gone before, “if there’s anything I hate, it’s a cheap-looking book.”

It may well be that when he was little the boy’s taste was formed by some of the fine books mentioned in this article. In any event, the incident serves as a reminder that picture books enter a child’s life during his earliest impressionable years, and the best is none too good for him.

This article is part of our Picture Book Month 2012 coverage.



  1. I very much enjoyed the article and especially the comment of the little boy saying he hated a cheap looking book.

    I agree.

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