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dipucchio_gaston_170x213I hate missing the Boston Globe–Horn Book Awards Ceremony and next-day Symposium for a lot of reasons. Besides getting to see everyone I already know, I love hearing the speeches by people I don’t know (but would like to). One new person whom I would have loved hearing is Christian Robinson, illustrator of Josephine and The Smallest Girl in the Smallest Grade, both out this year (in addition to Gaston, the book we’re discussing today). I wanted to know how he was so productive this year. I would have asked about the acrylic washes that add depth and character to each illustration. And I would have asked about the puppies in Gaston—how did he get that pure white? Did he just leave a dog shape behind when he painted the background color? And I would have done a little gushy dance about Rain!, the first book of his I ever saw.

Alas, I live in Tennessee, where the Southern Festival of Books was happening at the same exact time as all those people in Boston were hearing about children’s books.

Here we have a sweet dog book in which puppies Gaston and Antoinette have been switched at birth. Gaston, a bulldog, grows up in a family of poodles, and vice versa. But what might have been a calamity is a clever riff on gender roles, family, identity, and belonging. The style is certainly recognizable as the same person who painted Josephine, but the feel and tone of the art is completely different. These sunny greens and dark browns allow the white dogs to really pop. The first spread (after the title spread) and the final spread are the only ones set against blue paint, creating charming bookends of color.

Hard to guess how the Caldecott committee will see this one. The illustrations are beautifully composed, with the dogs always at center stage. All humans are shown in torso only, in the background, so they are barely noticeable, as appropriate for this dog-centered story. The colors on every page invite the eye to linger. I love the picture where the two dog families meet for the first time in the park. Little splashes of yellow—ducklings, daffodils, a jaunty scarf—help create balance. The brushstrokes around the puppies create movement. The varied typefaces add visual interest. The story itself is easy to understand and has tons of child appeal; the voice is engaging and even sometimes interactive (“Oh dear. Who do we have here? … Would you like to see them again?”).

But will it appeal to the committee? Does it appeal to 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. This book accomplishes SO much. For one, I love that a well-crafted book about dogs made me consider gender issues re human children — not some didactic book wagging its finger in my face.

    I don’t envy the committee. Josephine is still one of my top-three favorites from this year, yet there are these TWO great Robinson books.

  2. Martha V. Parravano Martha V. Parravano says:

    Maybe the recent Klassen double-Caldecott-recognition has shaken up things enough so that we don’t have to choose only one of an illustrator’s superb work in a particular year…

    GASTON is to me worthy of top-level Caldecott consideration. The art is so very *communicative*. You feel the puppies’ contentment and then their sense of displacement when Gaston and Antoinette switch places. It’s all in the art, palpable for the very youngest audience. I also think the typography is used brilliantly. The placement on the page, the size, the font, etc. I particularly love that Gaston’s name is in a fancy, more-stereotypically-feminine font and Antoinette’s in a blocky, no-nonsense, more-stereotypically-masculine font. It supports the theme and adds humor at the same time!

  3. It does indeed appeal to me, and based on my readings to four first-grade classes it appeals to them as well – in a big way. The sketch illustrations are lovely, and the sing “ooh-la-la” had them laughing in anticipation. A very close second to JOSEPHINE as far as 2014 Christian Robinson work goes, with THE SMALLEST GIRL – still a wonderful book for a number of reasons- in third. In addition to the superb art and typography -already discussed here and in the comment section- the firm paper is rather intoxicating as well.

    And yes, the Klassen double win has opened the door. Great review here, Robin!

  4. Niki Marion says:

    I adore Gaston, for probably more artistic reasons than ideological ones, though I love the playful inversion of traditional gender stereotypes here (and not sure if anyone else noticed that the doctor on the title page appears to be a person of color; a nice addition, in my opinion).

    I think Robinson’s transformation of negative white space into positive space is particularly note-worthy. Like Robin, I, too, have no idea how he got such crisp outlines. Some are sketchier than others, but I think the inconsistency only serves to highlight subtly the celebrated imperfections of Gaston and Antoinette. Robinson knows how to use white space extraordinarily well. His style in this book reminds me a bit of Hilary Knight’s Eloise illustrations, particularly the opening spread in which the reader is introduced to the poodle puppies and Gaston.

    I also love how he uses frames when the puppies are swapped to their “rightful” broods, as opposed to the full bleed illustrations throughout most of the book. For me, the frames function to demonstrate more obviously to the reader the themes of nurture and personal taste prevailing over nature and physical biology. The monochromatic backgrounds (the grey sailboat wallpaper!) make the white canines and the colorful bursts of detail (the fallen vase, the apple core) truly distinct to the eye. The white frame also makes the chromatic link between all the dogs more evident, celebrating their similarities in addition to their differences. And I’m not even going to talk about the framed portraits of the dog families within the illustrations’ frames.

    I will say that I wanted a more compelling final page turn, instead of the comforting and stabilizing final spread of the happy, healthy mixed breed family, but I think this book needed to end on such a note. Anything less would have felt unfaithful to the themes of the text.

    I could go on and on and on about Robinson’s illustrations, but I think it’s safe to say he’s got a special place on my Calling Caldecott list (and in my heart). I hope that the Caldecott committee feels the same way.

  5. Sam Bloom says:

    I had to wait for my copy to come in from the Library before I commented, so pardon me for running late! Martha, you talked about this in the JOSEPHINE thread, I believe, but the thing that blows me away most about Robinson’s art is his use of color. The palates he uses are just perfect (and I’m blown away by your comment about the blue backgrounds as “charming bookends of color,” Robin… I *NEVER* would have noticed it, but you’re so right). Is it weird to want to steal a room from a picture book? Because I really want my house to look like the houses in this book – the wallpaper (both the sailboat AND the oval-patterned wallpaper at the Bulldog house), but especially that killer rug in the last spread. Maybe Christian Robinson can come to my house and act as interior designer?

    And I’ve stared until my eyes were basically bleeding, trying to decide whether or not the dogs are painted white or whether Robinson painted the rest of the picture around the dog-shaped outlines. In a few of the illustrations I feel like I tricked my eyes into believing I saw brush strokes, but on others it really looks like there is no paint there at all. No matter, it’s all good; such a beautiful, charming book.

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