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Sam & Dave Dig a Hole

sam and dave dig holeWhat will the Caldecott committee be talking about when it turns its scrutiny to Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen’s Sam & Dave Dig a Hole? Maybe the question should be, What WON’T the committee be talking about? Like Yuyi Morales’s Viva Frida, this is one discussable book. Though, perhaps, for different reasons.

The art is certainly distinguished — excellent in execution and pictorial interpretation, appropriate in style for the story and mood, with plenty of child appeal. I don’t think the quality of the art will be in dispute here. Look how the palette gradually changes from soft and pale and airy in the beginning to dark and stark at the climax/nadir of the boys’ adventure and then back to soft and pale at the end. Look at how the considerable white space (well, actually, soft creamy space) at the beginning is gradually encroached upon as the horizon rises and the hole gets deeper. Look at how Klassen makes the earthen landscape so varied and textured and interesting without necessarily drawing our eye to it. Look at the contrast between the softness and texture of the art with the sparseness of the compositions and the clean edges of the white space/tunnel. Both the art and the book design use geometric shapes to great effect. The art, through the tunnel’s rectangles (echoed, often, in the upright figures of Sam and Dave) and the pentagons of the gems; the book design through the consistently columnar arrangement of the type. (Sometimes the art is columnar, too. Near the end, particularly. The wide vertical tunnels in the center of the page. The figures falling through space, vertically arranged in the center of the page.)

The interplay between text and art is perfect; this is a true, interdependent picture book. The simplicity and mundaneness of the text (“On Monday Sam and Dave dug a hole”; snacking on chocolate milk and animal cookies) contrasts humorously with the increasing wildness of the situation and exaggerated size of the gems the boys JUST miss as they dig. There’s also an implied contrast: between the boys’ limited perspective (ie, complete obliviousness) and the reader’s omniscient perspective. Not to mention the dog’s. That dog Knows All. Klassen’s ability to telegraph the dog’s bewildered awareness is brilliant: so simply, using just the eyes, whether it’s looking at the reader with a “what next?” appeal or directly at the buried, just-missed gems or, at book’s end, taking in the anomalies of the backyard in which they have just landed.

Ah, the ending. Yes, we’ve arrived at the discussable part. What happened?!? Where ARE they? The backyard looks the same, but the details are different: different tree, flowers, weathervane. (And either a different cat or a cat wearing a different collar.) Travis Jonker at 100 Scope Notes put forth a few theories, including It Was All a Dream and — my own favorite — They Have Entered an Alternate Reality. But whatever theory you subscribe to, there is no doubt that this is one open-ended story. (As Sam Bloom put it in his Horn Book Magazine review, “All that’s missing from the trippy conclusion is the theme music from The Twilight Zone. Mind-blowing in the best possible way.”) The story has just begun, it seems. What happens after the last page?

And there’s the rub. Will this Caldecott committee be intrigued by the possibilities or frustrated by the lack of closure? I hope it’s the former. There’s so much to appreciate about this child-friendly, carefully conceived and constructed, funny, provocative book.

Martha V. Parravano About Martha V. Parravano

Martha V. Parravano is book review editor of The Horn Book, Inc., and co-author of the Calling Caldecott blog.

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Comments

  1. I adore this one. The ending has provoked a never-ending conversation with my 4th graders and I think that is fabulous. For a book that is lovely in terms of the visual look to encourage such imaginative thinking is extraordinary. We are now doing a little puppet project with it and I’ll be interested to see how they decide to do the ending.

  2. Lolly Robinson Lolly Robinson says:

    I hope the committee likes the lack of closure, too. One thing the criteria doesn’t really address is that picture books should to be, as Barbara Bader says in American Picturebooks, “foremost, an experience for a child.” If you think about this book as an experience for a child, then it absolutely works. What an experience!

  3. I keep thinking about this book and how it seems to have just everything going for it, as it’s so well-crafted. And I keep pushing it on children and love to see and hear their reactions.

    In fact, I wish I could see Monica’s class’ puppet project.

  4. Reposting what I put on Travis’s site, slightly edited.
    It’s all about the dog. It always is. He gets the real treasure, after all. Do child readers even recognize a diamond? Do they care? No (and why should we, either? So ridiculous–this whole diamond business). Nothing makes any real sense: where does the dirt go? What hole can have straight walls? I am so literal–but this all makes it more hilarious. What’s it about? Something, maybe, about how all journeys change us; how we arrive back to where we began but nothing is as it was because we ourselves are changed. Maybe?

  5. Brenda Martin says:

    I agree with all of what has been stated above – as an adult reader of this book. I do wonder about the more literal-minded kids, and what their reaction to this book will be.

    From a purely committee-discussion point of view, I wonder if it could suffer from hype? I shared it with a couple other librarians who had read glowing reviews and were excited to read it…. but upon doing so were slightly underwhelmed. One of them also mentioned that there already could be a bit of Klaasen fatigue, even though she felt that his art was the strength of the book.

  6. Lauren Claymon says:

    For what it’s worth, my almost-seven year old and almost-four year old really love this book–especially the dog and cat. My older son immediately posited the “alternate reality” theory for the ending. He didn’t use that term but he said, “MOMMY! They fell through a hole; it’s almost like their normal life but everything is just a little different, kinda like it’s all upside down. THAT’S INSANE.” The younger one then went on a treasure hunt of sorts looking for all the differences between the first and final spreads. They both enjoy inspecting the illustrations for “clues” to the puzzle the end of the book poses. It can be a very participative read…not as much as SHH! WE HAVE A PLAN, but still very interactive.

  7. Eric Carpenter says:

    I’ve been thinking a lot about the “Can you spot the differences” aspect of SAM AND DAVE DIG A HOLE that Lauren alluded to.
    I remember seeing a Klassen “Can you spot the differences” illustration of two lighthouses on the back of a first grade “Time for Kids” about Klassen last year. After some digging I found the illustration used in the “Time for Kids” in a post on Klassen’s old blog. Turns out the same illustration was used previously in a McSweeny’s magazine.
    http://jonklassen.blogspot.com/2009/12/these-laurels-are-comfortable.html
    Anyway, the interesting thing about all this is Klassen’s comments (from 2009)on “spot the differences” games:
    “i was always kind of interested in ‘spot the differences’ games, because you go into them with such gusto, but they’re so unsatisfying to finish. once you’ve spotted all the differences, thats [sic] it.”
    I now wonder if part of the impetus for SAM & DAVE may have something to do with creating a more satisfying “spot the differences”. If so I would say that Klassen has certainly succeeded in creating a book that rewards the readers detective skills without offering any “that’s it” type completion. There is certainly nothing “unsatisfying” here.
    (Have I mentioned how much I love this book and love thinking about this book!)

  8. Sam Bloom says:

    I think it’s possible that committee members could see it as over-hyped, but I see two factors counter-acting the hype machine/Klassen fatigue issues: 1.) committee members probably (hopefully?) got the ARC months ago, therefore getting several good, long looks at the book before all the hype started; and 2.) I’m guessing they will have been sharing it in their classrooms/storytimes/personal read-alouds, in which case the sheer fun of this book as a read-aloud experience would cut through all of that. At least, I hope that is the case!

  9. Jill Bean says:

    My first and second graders loved the book! We read it four times in a row the first time we looked at it. In the first reading they were mostly focused on missing the diamonds. The second reading lead them to notice the all knowing dog. In the third reading they noticed the differences in the ending, causing an immediate fourth reading to look more closely at all the details. My students are sure Sam and Dave landed in “another dimension”! One student did question the structural integrity of the tunnels, especially when they split up, but quickly moved on to enjoy the adventure. They continue to read and discuss the ending with each other. They also love to read the book, and create thought bubbles for the dog.

    As with Klassen’s Hat books, my students love knowing more than the characters in the book. They are drawn right in and experience the book in a whole different way.

    Personally I’m impressed by all the white space, text placement, and the deceptively simply illustrations. Klassen, as does Mo Willems, expresses so much with small details.

  10. Benji Martin says:

    I’ve read this book to every grade from K5 to 5th grade. Every single class loved it, and started bombarding me with theories. I’ve heard some great ones, from Sam and Dave being dead to them being in a Minecraft-like video game and respawning. It’s definitely one of the best of the year (picture book or ANY book) for me.

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