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Mei Li and the Making of a Picture Book

This is the first of a continuing series of articles celebrating the history of the Caldecott Medal, which marks its seventy-fifth anniversary this year. Librarian and children’s literature historian Kathleen T. Horning will look at one seminal but unheralded Caldecott book of each decade — identifying trends and misconceptions, noting the changing nature of the picture book, wrestling with issues and definitions. Here she examines the 1939 winner, Thomas Handforth’s Mei Li (Doubleday), in the context of the question: What is a picture book?

Mei LiThomas Handforth was well known in his lifetime as a fine artist, most noted for his  etchings and lithographs, but is scarcely remembered today for his career as a children’s book illustrator. He illustrated just six books for children, including a 1929 novella by Elizabeth Coatsworth set in Morocco and an informational book about U.S.–Chinese relations, published by the Foreign Policy Association in 1944. He wrote and illustrated two picture books for Doubleday just before World War II, and if he hadn’t won the Caldecott Medal for one of them, he might have been completely forgotten by the children’s book world. And yet, shortly after his death in 1948 at age fifty-one, the Horn Book published a rare special issue devoted to him, including laudatory essays and poems as well as reprints of his writing and art. By then, however, three of his six children’s books were already out of print. So what inspired all the attention? The answer lies in a single book: Mei Li.

In May 1936, fourteen years after the  creation of the Newbery Medal, Jessie E. Tompkins, chair of ALA’s Section for Library Work with Children, wrote to Newbery founder Frederic Melcher to tell him that the Newbery committee emphatically endorsed the idea of a new medal for picture books. There had been rumblings about creating such an award throughout the early 1930s. The American publishing industry was beginning to produce outstanding picture books, and there was no way to formally acknowledge or encourage the artists or the publishers of these books. With the Newbery Medal’s focus on distinguished writing, books for young children were often disregarded, and the committee felt that picture books deserved their own award. Melcher agreed, and an award for distinguished illustration was established in time for the 1937 publishing year. Melcher named it in honor of British illustrator Randolph Caldecott. “The advantage of the word ‘Caldecott,’” wrote Melcher, “is not only that it has pleasant connotations for everyone, but…[his work] was very definitely the kind of thing where the interest was in the pictures, yet there was never a book where the text was inconsequential.”

After fifteen years, the Newbery selection process had been worked out and seemed to be running smoothly, and Melcher believed it could be easily used to select the Caldecott Medal as well. He decided that the same committee of children’s librarians who selected the Newbery Medal should select the winner of the Caldecott each year. Right away, there was great enthusiasm for the new award among children’s librarians. The only real sticking point was what defined a picture book.

Melcher’s original explanation for choosing Randolph Caldecott as the Medal’s eponym, with his specification that “there was never a [Caldecott] book where the text was inconsequential,” may have been misleading for children’s librarians and committee members. In fact, the first winner of the Caldecott Medal, Animals of the Bible, illustrated by Dorothy P. Lathrop, would more appropriately be described as an illustrated book, one in which the text (in this case, selected by Helen Dean Fish from the King James Version of the Bible) could exist independently of the illustrations, with the pictures playing a supporting role. The same could be said for the two honor books in the Medal’s first year: Four and Twenty Blackbirds, illustrated by Robert Lawson, and Seven Simeons, illustrated by Boris Artzybasheff. In Seven Simeons, a Russian folktale, the lengthy text dominates; the accompanying pictures illustrate parts of the story, but never really enhance or extend it. Lawson’s illustrations for Four and Twenty Blackbirds, a collection of nursery rhymes selected by Helen Dean Fish, provide more of an embellishment for most of the rhymes, with occasional full-page illustrations.

During his lifetime, Frederic Melcher was frequently consulted for help with terms and definitions: as the creator of both awards, he was considered the ultimate authority and always had the final say on such questions. The early Caldecott committees turned to him for further clarification on what, exactly, a picture book was. Irene Smith, in A History of the Newbery and Caldecott Medals (Viking, 1957), wrote: “The early committees did need admonishment to distinguish between illustrated books and picture books. The initiative and dominant feature must be the work of the artist, Mr. Melcher wrote the chairman, in reply to questions expectedly raised.”

The struggles continued at least through the first two decades of Caldecott winners, so much so that Esther Averill’s critical essay about the first twenty years of the award, published in Caldecott Medal Books: 1938–1957 (Horn Book, 1957), was titled “What Is a Picture Book?” Of the first twenty winners she wrote: “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.” She goes on to cite those that “fall short of picture book standards,” including Prayer for a Child, The Rooster Crows, The Egg Tree, and Song of the Swallows. Among the few books receiving her highest praise is Mei Li, written and illustrated by Thomas Handforth. She wrote of the 1939 Medal winner: “[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.”

When Mei Li was first published, it must have stood out as a true picture book to children’s librarians, and specifically to members of the Newbery–Caldecott committee, who were wrestling with definitions. It certainly rises above the other five books listed as runners-up for the Caldecott that year, three of which (The Forest Pool by Laura Adams Armer, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs by Wanda Gág, and Barkis by Clare Turlay Newberry) are illustrated books by anyone’s standards, and two of which (Wee Gillis, illustrated by Robert Lawson, and Andy and the Lion by James Daugherty) are debatable.

But Mei Li was different. Even before it won the Caldecott Medal, it was widely recognized as innovative and outstanding. Anne E. Eaton in the June 5, 1939, New York Times observed that both the text and the illustrations were created “with sympathy, affectionate understanding and a gentle humor.” In her Saturday Review column summing up the best children’s books of 1938, Louise Seaman Bechtel wrote of Mei Li: “For me, this is the most completely original and artistic picture book of the year.” The book was favorably reviewed twice in the Christmas 1938 issue of the Horn Book, once by the magazine’s editors and again by Anne Carroll Moore in her regular review column, “The Three Owls’ Notebook.” Moore proclaimed 1938 as “a picture book year par excellence,” and Mei Li topped her list of the fifteen best books of the year, a list that also included The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins, the second picture book by a young upstart named Dr. Seuss. Of Mei Li, Moore wrote: “I found this picture book so deeply moving in conception and execution that I sent a copy of it to [illustrator L.] Leslie Brooke as a Christmas gift.” (Incidentally, Moore had lobbied Melcher and ALA a few years earlier to name the new picture book award after Brooke instead of Caldecott.)

The May–June 1939 issue of the Horn Book, published just before the announcement of the Newbery–Caldecott Medal winners for the year, included a poignant essay by Thomas
Handforth titled “Moon Bridge in Lily Pond,” which describes how he developed an interest in Asia from an early age. And we find in the same issue yet another review of Mei Li, written by author Elizabeth Coatsworth, consisting of three pages filled with superlatives. Much of her review was devoted to Handforth’s “bold and extraordinarily vital” artwork: “The beauty of composition, of mass and line, the heavy grace, the flowerlike detail, delight the eyes and mind, but to me the outstanding quality of the book lies in the respect that the artist shows for his subject.” Not to be outdone, Anne Carroll Moore reports back in her column about the letter Brooke sent her, raving about Mei Li. She quoted extensively from his letter, which is of special interest since it represents the critical eye of another picture book artist of the time. Brooke wrote: “What strikes me first of all is the amount of skill shown in the blending of groups of figures with a background of buildings and of another smaller group of figures across the pages, attending always to the blocks of text which have always an integral effect in the design.”

As an artist, Brooke was responding to Handforth’s groundbreaking use of the picture-book plane, and the way he arranged shapes on the page. Handforth’s vigorous black-and-white lithographs show his mastery of double-page spread illustrations, using a technique that was still relatively innovative in 1938, even though Wanda Gág had first broken out of the frame in Millions of Cats ten years earlier. Nearly every page of Mei Li bursts with action spilling from left to right across double-page spreads as little Mei Li explores the wonders of the New Year Fair inside the great walled city of Peiping (present-day Beijing). Handforth’s expert use of horizontal and diagonal lines in his composition helps to move the story forward with a visual narrative that would become a convention in picture books in the years to come.

Robert McCloskey used this same technique a few years later in Make Way for Ducklings, but most Caldecott Medal books continued to use the more traditional formal design with a contained illustration facing or set atop a block of text. Averill lamented the fact that more illustrators didn’t take their cue from Handforth: “[Mei Li] 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 of the children’s book industry.”

Mei Li came along at a time when the Caldecott committee members were struggling to define what a picture book was and, specifically, how it differed from an illustrated book. It offered a clear example of how pictures could “walk pleasantly hand in hand with the text.” It also showed that fine artists could successfully create children’s picture books with art that was truly distinguished. As Esther Averill noted, “Mei Li may be placed alongside the best for adults and hold its own. This is the final test for any child’s book.”

Although Handforth never achieved the lasting fame of many of his contemporaries, he should at least be remembered for setting a visible standard at a time when choices were few and the field was murky. In the years to come, various Caldecott committees would continue to struggle with the difference between a picture book and an illustrated book in the context of an ever-changing publishing industry. But in 1939, at least, in the second year of the Caldecott Medal’s existence, the choice was clear.

From the January/February 2013 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. For supplemental material on Mei Li, click here.

Kathleen T. Horning About Kathleen T. Horning

Kathleen T. Horning is the director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, a library of the School of Education, University of Wisconsin–Madison. She is the author of From Cover to Cover: Evaluating and Reviewing Children’s Books and teaches a popular online course for ALSC on the history of the Newbery and Caldecott medals.

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