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Niño Wrestles the Caldecott Committee: a guest post by KT Horning

Ladies and gentlemen, señores  y señoras, now presenting Niño Wrestles the World. See how artist Yuyi Morales brilliantly combines two aspects of popular culture—comic-book style and  Lucha Libre (WWF with más drama y más flare). Watch her twist reality and fantasy as little Niño, in his red mask and tighty whities, takes on competitors in his extended imaginary play, until they become all too real in the form of his twin toddler sisters, Las Hermanitas. Marvel at her expert use of language, including onomatopoeia in both Spanish and English, all perfectly paced and perfectly placed for the humorous, expressive illustrations.

Enter the Caldecott committee, fifteen adults with a wealth of knowledge, experience, and opinions, but who may or may not understand Spanish, who may or may not have ever heard of Lucha Libre, who may or may not find comic art distinguished. Some may not like their realities mixed with their fantasies. Some may describe bright colors as “lurid” or “garish,” the twin kiss of death for timid critics. Some will want to push Niño aside in favor of a more painterly style. They may grasp at straws to bring Niño down.

But Niño is ready for the challenge. Niño’s artist brings into the ring not one, not two, not three, but six different font styles that are used consistently throughout to relay different levels of meaning and to show how the parts are related to the whole. So adeptly does she use them that she can win over even the least skilled sequential-art readers. Before Niño even puts on his mask, she offers visual hints that he will engage in imaginary play as we see him with the blocks, dolls, and puzzle pieces that he will use to vanquish his opponents. She uses brightly colored stars and exclamations throughout to convey the noisy spectacle of the match, as well as of a small child at play. Not everything is loud on these pages, however. There is plenty of subtle symbolism for observant readers. For example, the puzzle based on Just in Case, an earlier work by the author/illustrator, is used to conquer Olmec Head, an even earlier art form native to Mexico, and another sort of puzzle in itself. Most intriguing, perhaps, is the nuance she offers with El Chamuco, depicted in the illustration as the devil tempting Niño by offering him a melting popsicle (in the colors of the Mexican flag) in exchange for his building blocks. This sort of visual symbolism has the potential to keep the discussion going through multiple rounds of balloting.  But will Niño find a champion among the members of the 2014 Caldecott Committee who will bring a nomination to the table? And will Yuyi Morales ever get the accolades she deserves for her brilliant artistry? Niño Wrestles the World for the win!      


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.



  1. Lesley Colabucci says:

    This is awesome. I shared “Nino” with my undergraduates last week along with a ton of other buzz books (“Bluebird,” “Building Our House,” “Bully,” and “Mr. Wuffles” to name a few). I’m not saying they know a damn thing (okay, just what I’ve taught them in a month or so of classes), but they chose “Nino” over all the others.

  2. Robin Smith Robin Smith says:

    I just love this book and this explanation. I may have to abdicate my laptop to KT Horning, whose humor and brilliance is unmatched. And seeing the picture of “my” committee on a Lucha Libre card made my whole day.
    I can’t wait to hear what everyone thinks of this book.
    Though painterly style often trumps comic art, there are examples of comic art winning medals of gold or silver: My year, we awarded Interrupting Chicken an honor sticker and Officer Buckle and Gloria beat the spread in 1996. I am sure there are more, but that’s what popped into my head in the five minutes I had to think. More later.

  3. Martha V. Parravano Martha V. Parravano says:

    Yep, it’s KT for the win!

  4. Martha V. Parravano Martha V. Parravano says:

    I love the energy of this book, which I think is indisputable, manifested through the varied typefaces, the comic-strip-style sound effects (“WHUNK” “KRUNCH”), the superkinetic Nino himself. The art is sometimes so vivid it has imprinted itself on my brain — when I close my eyes I can still see the image of NINO! when he’s first introduced in his red mask and tighty whities. I also love how exactly Morales captures the nature of imaginative play AND little sisters 🙂

    I know one thing I cannot do, and that is talk knowledgeably about the art technique and mediums used here. Can anyone enlighten me?

  5. KT Horning says:

    Martha, I would talk about the art in terms of the actual Caldecott criteria, which are:

    a) Excellence of execution in the artistic technique employed;
    b) Excellence of pictorial interpretation of story, theme, or concept;
    c) Appropriateness of style of illustration to the story, theme or concept;
    d) Delineation of plot, theme, characters, setting, mood or information through the pictures;
    e) Excellence of presentation in recognition of a child audience.

    The main reason this book is a top contender for me is that I could take any one of those terms and talk for quite some time about Niño. So I’ll start with:

    a) Excellence of execution in the artistic technique employed
    Morales uses many of the conventions of comic-book art, such as dialogue bubbles and onomatopoeic fight words, like SPAK! and ZOK, set on boldly colored abstract shapes that are technically known as “kikis” if they have sharp angles symbolizing hard, sharp sounds and “boubas” if they suggest soft sounds like “splash.”

    One of my favorite examples of her creative use of kikis appears on the first double-page spread where you see, on the right-hand side, the edges of a big green kiki and a big red kiki, accompanied by the word “Niño!” appearing in the white space at the center of the page. The empty kikis suggest two loud sounds offstage; this could either be the wailing of his little sisters at naptime or two booming adult voices that the small child pretty much tunes out. Whichever it is doesn’t matter — it’s off-stage for now. What you see underneath Niño on the left-hand side of the page is a bouba — an abstract shape that suggests something quieter or softer. And, sure enough, here he seems to be engaged in some quiet play with his toys.

    Another thing she does so well in the use of comic-book art technique is the use of expressive anatomy, not just for Niño, but for his adversaries as well. We can’t really see Niño’s facial expressions since he is wearing a mask for most of the story, but his exaggerated postures and movement tell us exactly how he is feeling and what he is doing. Same for Olmec Head — he’s not wearing a mask but his expressions are carved in stone. By changing the angle and position of one arm, Morales is able to show him as threatening and then pensive.

    Although Morales uses these comic-book conventions, she does not use frames. Instead she relies on the more traditional picture-book technique of page composition to tell the story through the pictures. Look, for example, at the picture where Niño first meets Olmec Head. We see just part of Niño down in the lower left corner of the page, contrasts with a huge Olmec Head taking up the entire right-hand page in a classic example of asymmetrical balance, suggesting that Olmec Head is a formidable contender. Later on we see a perfect example of symmetrical balance when Niño faces a clock — they are an equal match.

    She also uses typography ingeniously. As I said in my original post, I counted six fonts in the story that each have a different function, for example, the big fancy font that represents the announcer’s voice when ever a new opponent enters the ring, or the italics that show Spanish is being used in conversation. These different fonts signal the adult who is reading the story aloud to change voices, but they also show how the pieces of the story they carry relate to the whole.

    As you can see, I could go on and on and haven’t even gotten to criteria “b” yet, but I’ll stop for now to give someone else a chance.

  6. Martha, Yuyi visited 7-Imp this year and talked about the media used/techniques. I don’t want to seem all blog-pushy, but here’s the link: Scroll down to “here are ink drawings and the acrylic painting colors …” She very briefly discusses her techniques there.

  7. p.s. So many people have already covered why this book is so impressive, but just to quickly add: I still think it’s the most distinctive, most visually appealing cover of the year.

  8. Wow, K.T. I don’t know which is more fascinating/awesome – your original post, or this comment. Unreal. I really liked this book when I first saw it… obviously heading right over to my library catalog to reserve a copy for revisiting.

  9. Martha V. Parravano Martha V. Parravano says:

    Thanks, Jules, and thank you, KT, for the explication of Nino as it fits Criterion A. I can’t wait for Criteria B through E (do they look like Thing 1 and Thing 2 in Cat in the Hat? sorry, feeling rather punchy today).

    But what I wanted to say is that KT’s in-depth discussion of Criterion A didn’t even need to mention the specific media/techniques, and it’s rather sold me on the argument that librarians (as opposed to fine artists, a la Barry Moser) are definitely qualified to serve on the Caldecott committee.

  10. I admire this book very much, and agree with KT’s clear and persuasive assessments of its artistic excellence. The thing I like the most about the book is its simultaneously culturally-specific and universally-understood expression of imaginative play and I’m curious about if and how that quality might be considered and appreciated by the committee.
    I think KT’s discussion of the comic book tropes makes a pretty strong case for “Appropriateness of style of illustration to the story, theme or concept” if we’re willing to look at comic books and lucha libre sharing a common hyperbolic sensibility (I am).
    And as far as “Delineation of plot, theme, characters, setting, mood or information through the pictures” there’s plenty of evidence of illustrative excellence going on.
    I guess my wondering has more to do with the inherent value of the cultural expression itself. Here, and in many other places, our community has had discussions about the general need for more diversity in publishing for children and teens, and the particular need for books that celebrate a culture with specific detail and richness, without a focus on the difficulty of belonging to that culture (racism, poverty, etc.). Niño is such a beautiful example of that kind of expression, and I find it hard to resist. I’m certain that it goes a long way to making it an excellent picture book. I would argue that it makes it one of the most distinguished picture books of the year. But I don’t know that kind of cultural significance would find space for consideration inside the Caldecott terms & criteria.
    What do you all think?

  11. Excellent point, Martha.

  12. Wow–must go back and reread again with all your comments in mind. (And I’ve read this book A LOT).

    And yes to Jules–the cover is the bomb.

  13. To further endear this book watch the author reading it :

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