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colon_drawI’ve been a fan of Raúl Colón’s distinctive style for years, but this is the first of his books that I think has a really good chance at the Caldecott. It’s gotten starred reviews in The Horn Book, SLJ, Booklist, PW, and Kirkus. Not too shabby. But more than that, it just has an award-book feel to it.

According to the author’s note at the back, this is an autobiographical fantasy. A boy sits on his bed reading a book. We see the title Africa and a large elephant on the book’s cover. Nearby there’s is a toy pith helmet, a sandwich on a plate, and some art supplies. On the table next to the bed sits an inhaler and a bottle of medicine, and outside the window we can see a city. While Colón doesn’t mention being ill and confined to bed as a child in his author’s note, he has talked about this in interviews.

Next, the interior scene gives way to the boy’s sketchbook pages showing him walking through the desert wearing the helmet and carrying a satchel full of sandwiches, an easel, and a large sketchbook. He flags down a passing elephant, who poses for a portrait and then gives the boy a ride to see more animals for him to sketch. There is no text, and the scenes vary from peaceful spreads to fast-paced chase sequences shown in panels. There are a couple of hair-raising moments with the larger and fiercer animals, but the presence of that benevolent elephant keeps the overall tone cozy rather than scary. The sandwiches, too, come in handy for feeding and placating most of the animals. Finally, near the end of the journey, the boy takes a break to eat his lunch while a baboon sits at the easel and draws a passable sketch of the young artist.

Observant readers will notice that as the book progresses, Colón’s signature warm yellow light with deep blues has gone from morning to midday to afternoon and then sunset. Finally, the boy looks sleepy, leaning against his elephant friend. His eyes close, and we are back in the city with the boy sitting on his bed, sketching his imagined scenes. Or were they real?

As with the best of these sorts of enter-a-new-world fantasies, Colón employs a different style and page treatment for the two worlds. At the beginning and end, for the city-bedroom world, the illustrations are done with thin pen lines and light watercolor with space between the art and the edge of the page. The African adventure pages are full bleeds drawn with Colón’s signature glowing light sources, warm colors, heavy shading, and textures added by scratching into the pigments with sharp tools, often using parallel lines that reveal a light underpainting. And while the jacket contains the obligatory title and author’s name, the cover under the jacket is truer to the spirit of the wordless text, with no writing at all and a completely different scene.

Wordless books tend to fare pretty well with Caldecott committees, as do books about entering a different world. Remember Journey last year? For me, this book fits the Caldecott criteria to a T: excellence of execution; appropriateness and excellence with the interpretation of story, theme, and concept; plot, theme, characters, setting, mood shown through the pictures; recognition of a child audience. I suppose some might quibble with the last point; the book does have a nostalgic tone. But I don’t think that will stand in the way of kids enjoying the possibilities and the adventure.

What do you think? Is this book at the top of your lists? Do you think it’s got a shot at the Medal?


Lolly Robinson About Lolly Robinson

Lolly Robinson is the creative director for The Horn Book, Inc. She has degrees in studio art and children's literature and teaches children's literature at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education. She has served on the Caldecott and Boston Globe-Horn Book Award committees and blogs for Calling Caldecott and Lolly's Classroom on this site.



  1. Julie Corsaro says:

    I, too, have been a fan of Colón’s for a long time and have been very pleased with the grand reception this book has received. In addition to the reasons already cited, I think the wordless story’s humor and harmonious composition contribute to the “cozy” feeling.

    Looking at the dramatic cover, the repetition of triangular shapes in the letter A, the approaching rhino’s figure with its central horn, the A-shaped easel supporting the sketch and the outstretched stance of the young artist’s body unify the elements into a pleasing whole. The rhino’s body also forms a soft, rounded triangle with a cloud of dust — and clouds and cloud-shaped trees are repeated throughout the story.

    While the dramatic red lettering is connected to the boy through his red-strapped water bottle and the gray of the rhino links to the child’s shorts, the blue that connects sky, dust cloud and the child’s shirt is repeated on the endpapers. The latter provides continuity, as does the triangular shape of the sandwich-eating monkeys on the front flap. Like the boy on the cover, these creatures have their backs to readers and lead us into the story. The horizontal planes of the compositions –- backgrounds filled with clouds, hills and trees and the foregrounds of animals (human and otherwise) on the savannah — also provide a sense of harmony and forward momentum.

    With bold, sculptural forms, strong textures and the interplay of light and shadow, there’s a lot to see here. I’m keeping my fingers crossed!

  2. I am a 2nd grade teacher in NC and I am currently going through a Caldecott project with my students. After the hype that this book has received, I was expecting my students to be more enthralled with it. They did indeed love it, but not to the extent that they loved The Pilot and the Little Prince or Three Bears in a Boat or Gaston so far…. I know there are not children on the committee, but seeing as that is the intended audience I thought it was worth noting that my students were not blown out of the water by these illustrations.

  3. Can you discuss your 2nd graders’ responses to The Pilot and the Little Prince at greater length? His books never check out very much here which makes it easy to sympathize with complaints that his books aren’t really intended for a child audience.

  4. Lolly Robinson Lolly Robinson says:

    Hi, Linda. I’d love to hear what Erica says about this. I can add anecdotally that my own students who are experienced teachers (I teach at an ed school) have told me that Sis’s books tend to be a barometer for different kinds of learners. Interestingly, kinetic learners and even kids with ADHD have been hugely drawn to his books, provided they are about a subject that they enjoy. On the other hand, people who read a lot of fiction and like good linear stories are often frustrated by Sis’s approach. I think it’s interesting, though, that this kind of piecemeal delivery of information is similar to what one finds on websites. It’s a good skill to acquire: navigating a page or screen with small chunks of information, allowing yourself to take it in little by little depending on your interest rather than looking for the “right way.” I think this kind of book is not necessarily meant to be read in full. The different levels of information can be picked up bit by bit and if some of it is too dense, go ahead and skip it. This probably goes against what most people want to teach, though.

    Artistically, I find this kind of book to be similar to listening to jazz or some other music that is heavily layered and complex. Or reading poetry. If you let yourself off the hook about analyzing it to death, it can be really enjoyable. But if you want to have total understanding you may end up being frustrated.

  5. I admit to liking his work personally, I’ve just never found avid child readers. Since I’ve opened the can of worms, however . . . Can I question the existence of the entire picture book biography niche? I know that publishers love them, obviously, and they get great reviews, but children don’t read them. Not sure I’d go so far as to call into question the presentation for a child audience, but I do wonder every time I see one whether it’s The Pilot and the Little Prince or The Right Word or whatever.

  6. That is interesting to read about the different kinds of learners who are drawn to the Pilot and the Little Prince. The approach that I took to presenting the book was to read the general text meant to be the narrative and then explain to students that this was the kind of book an independent reader would have to go back and closely examine to take in all of the details (his family tree, the little captions, small details, etc…).

    I think they were particularly drawn to the adventure and epic qualities that his life story possessed– particularly how he lied to the pilot to go up in the airplane, how he joined the military, war came to France, he journeyed to America, he lived in the dessert, etc… they seemed to be really taken with how much could happen to just one person. “Is this person a REAL person?” they kept asking.

    I think the part that they enjoyed most was the connection between the text and illustrations. They were enamored with the page where the mountainous landscapes looked like faces, right after the author said that Antoine’s partner told him to read the “face of the landscape” … and they were also deeply impressed with two pages that connected his emotion with the illustrations on the page. For example, on the page where WWII is described, many noticed that the red watercolor in the air was kind of an “angry illustration” and he must have felt very angry when he had to leave France. They had a similar reaction to the page after his flight partner/friend was shot down and the next spread was just an expanse of blue. “Wow. He must have felt very sad and lonely.” I sensed a different reaction in them than for some of the other funny and childlike books which they laugh at and point out things on each page and smile and whisper to each other… their reaction to this book was more like they were captivated by it.

  7. Erica, my first graders were not so thrilled with it either. They were bored. Personally I don’t feel all that much different. Sure it is an accomplished book, and the style is rather unique, but it is distancing–there is an emotional spark missing, and the illustrations do not compare with the utterly sublime work done this year by Wendell Minor, Melissa Sweet, Christian Robinson, Evan Turk, S.D. Schindler, Hadley Hooper, Lori Nicols, Marla Frazee, Yuyi Morales, Aaron Becker, Peter Brown, Frane Lessac, Peter Sis, Steve James, and some others. There simply is too much great stuff out there this year for Mr. Colon’s book to compete with. But that’s only my opinion, and obviously some others think otherwise.

  8. THREE BEARS IN A BOAT is another I am underwhelmed with.

  9. You know, Sam.. that is what it was! It didn’t emotionally pull you in. I don’t even think my students fully comprehended that the reason he was drawn to his imaginary African world was because he was bed-ridden… They just kept going back and back to the idea that he travelled to Africa. So that emotional connection and empathy felt for the boy was not there.

  10. Robin Smith Robin Smith says:

    Thanks for your explaining comments. I have not had great success with interesting my second graders in this particular Sis book and I am amazed at your students’ responses. It makes me want to try again.
    And, Lolly, I have NEVER noticed that connection with kinetic learners and Sis. I am going to try again with my students. I wonder if I am not doing a great job introducing his work to them…
    Lots to think about!

  11. Robin Smith Robin Smith says:

    I think it really depends on the child and the book. There are so many picture book biographies that my students adore: On a Beam of Light, Teammates by Golenbock, The Iridescence of Birds, anything about Houdini, Helen Keller, Jackie Robinson and sports figures, A Splash of Red…
    As long as there is a compelling story and good pictures, my kids like reading about famous people. They love brave people and generous people the most, I would say.
    The Right Word was hard for them–I think the audience is a bit older for that one. But, I think there is definitely a child audience for it.
    Do you work with a particular age of child?
    Your question surprised me and I would love to know more.

  12. I’m a school librarian in an elementary school. I don’t see many picture book biographies getting checked out by young kids. Perhaps because they are interfiled with biographies for older children? I don’t know. Does it take an adult mediator to introduce them–or will children gravitate toward them on their own? Will you be posting about The Iridescence of Birds? Lovely book, but I wouldn’t call it a picture book biography.

  13. My position on this book has made a drastic turnaround. This is not the first time I was wrong and it certainly won’t be the last. The illustrations are just too spectacular to be compromised by the earlier issues I mentioned. Examining it over and over has confirmed my folly. After all isn’t that what Caldecott committee members do—look at books over and over for confirming of their original feelings or for flaws!

    The book really is a masterpiece, and I have fully surrendered.

    The same scrutiny I have afforded THREE BEARS IN A BOAT, however, has not changed my position. I continue to see it as nothing special, though fine enough in this realm.

  14. Chiming in late. I’m preparing for a short mock-Caldecott at VCFA, and just spent some more time with this book. I’m more and more impressed and find myself more moved the more time I spend with it. So many pages are drop-dead gorgeous.

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