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The Baby Tree

The Baby TreeSophie Blackall’s The Baby Tree was named to the NYT Best Illustrated List this year. Last year Blackall wowed us with her innovative, almost-3D pictures for The Mighty Lalouche — which fact is of course irrelevant to this discussion, since books from previous years are absolutely not allowed on the Caldecott table, literally or figuratively.

But one of the things I so appreciate about Blackall’s work is that it’s always recognizably her own yet it morphs to fit each text or subject’s needs. The Baby Tree is a gentle, sunny, playful domestic story; the Chinese ink and watercolor illustrations are gentle, playful, and sunny. The palette is, if not strictly pastel, definitely in that universe.

The book opens so appropriately, with a close-up, child-focused, step-by-step unfolding of a little boy’s morning. A series of eight vignette illustrations on a spread take the boy from waking up to waking his parents up (he has to wake up Dad twice) to getting dressed to having breakfast. The progression is easy to follow and very informative; we learn a lot about this little boy and his family. (He loves his cat and takes good care of him; his family is close-knit and easy-going; they all care more about books than they do furniture.) A page-turn bring us to a double-page spread in which the parents tell the little boy that “a new baby is coming.” See how the composition puts all the focus on the little boy, as Mom and Dad lean in on either side of him to tell him the big news. All is calm and attentiveness and happiness, and the boy, still processing the news, can only think to ask for a second helping of “cocopops” cereal. The next page-turn, though, shows the boy again, this time inside a whirlwind of activity as Mom and Dad, running late, rush about (Mom is shown with five arms — simultaneously doing her hair, hugging her son, wiping down the kitchen table, and pocketing her smartphone; Dad is only juggling three tasks at once so he has three arms. Good call, Ms. Blackall). Look at the expression on the boy’s face amidst all this commotion. The illustration focuses our attention on that face, and we can almost see the wheels turning in the boy’s head as he realizes that what he really wants to know is: “Where are we going to get the baby?” This one picture speaks volumes about a particular childhood truth: the adult world, however benign and caring, doesn’t always move at a child’s pace or have room for a child’s concerns.

And now the structure of the rest of the book is set up, with each new person to whom the boy addresses the question of where babies come from providing a slightly different answer. Shown in large thought balloons that take up most of a double-page spread, we see the boy imagining a baby tree; a hospital with a swaddled newborn in every window and marching out the door; a flying stork carrying a baby in its beak; a nest in which a baby has just hatched from a speckled egg. These imagined scenarios are somehow perfectly balanced: funny, but also respectful of the child’s imagination as he tries to make sense of his world.

Speaking of humor, it’s (gently) rampant. See the picture of the stork in Grandpa’s house; see the cat named Brian with his/her kittens on the back flap. If you look very closely, you can even follow the quirky behavior of one of the boy’s classmates.

This picture book has tons of child appeal; a satisfying structure; uses a style appropriate to its story, audience, and theme; movement throughout the book, and effective page-turns. Caldecott criteria: check! How will it hold up against the competition? One of which, by the way, is surely another 2014 Sophie Blackall picture book (though we won’t have time to cover it here): Judith Viorst’s And Two Boys Booed. Please let us know your thoughts.

 

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. As an aspiring librarian, this stands out as the book published this past year that I will recommend most often. It fills a niche. It explains how babies are made and, on top of offering a pitch perfect explanation for young kids, entertains and is beautifully illustrated by one of my favorite illustrators. While the story fits together seamlessly with the information presented, at its core this is a book for introducing kids to how babies are made. The question for me is whether a book about how babies are made can win the Caldecott. We learned last year that nonfiction picture books can occasionally garner the top award. But, I would be surprised if an informational book on this topic could win. Is that wrong? Should books on all subjects be considered equally Caldecott-worthy?

  2. Lolly Robinson Lolly Robinson says:

    I would say, Yes, a Caldecott committee considers all picture books equally Caldecott-worthy. When I was on the committee there were (if I am remembering correctly) two information books on our first ballot. Or maybe it had sifted down to just one by then. I do think it’s rare for a true information book to rise all the way to the top. Floca’s Locomotive was certainly exceptional, and I think the fact that there was an additional story about a family in the illustrations must have helped.

    That said, I don’t see The Baby Tree as an information book because the story is about a specific fictional family. True, we learn science facts along the way, but it would never be cataloged as nonfiction. I also have a hunch that this one, though much lauded by reviewers, is unlikely to make it all the way to the Medal. It’s a little too quiet for that, I think. Emotionally spot-on, cleverly presented, but it doesn’t have the bells and whistles you normally see in the winning books. I would LOVE for a Caldecott committee to award a quiet book, but it doesn’t seem to happen much.

  3. Robin Smith Robin Smith says:

    It’s funny, when I first read THE BABY TREE, I must have rushed the ending. I remembered the ending differently than it really is. Chalk that up to speed reading, I guess.

    Having said that, I loved the ending and found it perfect for a child’s sensibility. Squeamish American parents have long wondered how to answer the little boy’s question.

    So, this brings me to Amy’s query. Human reproduction makes folks (at least in this country) nervous. (And here I will attempt NOT to share my utter frustration at a recent Tennessee vote that will have enormous consequences for women attempting to control their reproduction.)
    So, will the committee be nervous about a book that deals with reproduction, even though the explanation is mild? (“They begin with a seed from their dad…which gets planted in an egg inside their mom…the baby grows in there for nine months.”)
    Short answer: I don’t know.
    Long answer: I imagine that someone on the committee will say something like, “In my library, someone will object to a book about reproduction for young kids.” And, I imagine that others will have some lively discussion about this issue. But, will it matter? I can’t imagine it will. The discussion will be steered by the chair back to the art and how the illustrations work to extend and explain the text.

    As you all know, former committee members cannot talk about what happens in committee. (What happens in that hot little room stays in that hot little room.) However, I think I can safely say that we discussed a number of books that might have been a problem in some little library in, say, Nashville. Or NYC or Sacramento or East Overshoe, Anytown. It could be sex ed or God or evolution or revisionist history or who-the-hell-knows-what. But, in the end, it’s the book. It’s the illustrations. It’s the CRITERIA folks. And, as long as the committee decides that the books is for children, then I don’t see anything that moves this book off the table.

    And, then, in the words of Taylor Swift, “Voters gonna vote, vote, vote, vote.” The committee members will have listened for themselves and will vote their hearts and minds.

  4. Robin Smith Robin Smith says:

    Lolly,
    Oh, and having served on a committee that awarded a quiet book (SICK DAY FOR AMOS MCGEE), I always hope for a quiet book too.

    But, I actually don’t see this as particularly quiet. It’s laugh-out-loud funny. (the babies parading out of the hospital make my chortle every time. There are teeny vignettes and large images. We see action in the moms arms, a hula hoop and a handstanding boy. We have one very funny speech bubble: I am confused. The pencil scratches are perfect. And, my goodness, the colors are fabulous.
    I think I am going to have to knit some pointy hats for all the babies in my life!

  5. It feels to me like elementary school librarians in the trenches should be the ones thinking about how parents will react to their kids checking out books about human reproduction, and the Caldecott Committee should be above that and evaluating this book based on its quality as a picture book regardless of subject.

    I do think, based on interviews with the illustrator, that the impetus for creating this book was to teach. The informational part came first and the story came second. The author and illustrator just went and did a fantastic job with creating a story that teaches. I also think of this book as an informational book because I will recommend the book to parents who want to teach their kids about how babies are made. If parents and kids are looking for a book to entertain, there are a lot of other books out there that I would likely recommend before this book.

  6. In support of this book for a Caldecott… I really like how the pictures and text are working together to tell a story that is richer and funnier and more unexpected than either the pictures and text on its own. I do not have a favorite book that I’m rooting for above this book this year.

  7. Sophie Blackall’s work here and in last year’s THE MIGHTY LALOUCHE is wholly exquisite. And it sure does fit the criteria. Only the most conservative and rigid educator will balk at utilizing this most unique and tasteful book – and I’ve met two such people in my school – but really the punchline occurs only at the very end – the art here is sublime and lively, and the story is infused with a candid perspective perfectly attuned to its audience. heck what is there not to love?

    Yes, it does indeed rank with the year’s best picture books, and most certainly should be included in the discussion. hence I applaud The Horn Book for this “nomination.” 🙂

  8. I was sorely disappointed to see The Mighty Lalouche overlooked last year. It didn’t even make the notable list. That being said, I didn’t find The Baby Tree as engaging.

  9. Brenda Martin says:

    I believe the problem Blackall runs into with award committees is her illustration style, which is no fault of her own, of course. But it is somewhat polarizing, and a group of 15 is less likely to select her work simply on numbers than a smaller committee who are pleased with it.

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