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The Hug Machine: a guest post by Thom Barthelmess

hug machineMy choice for Caldecott 2015 consideration is Scott Campbell’s delightful, infectious, and secretly sophisticated Hug Machine. This is the kind of book that is easy to miss because it is disguised as a romp. It doesn’t pretend to be serious, and so doesn’t signal our serious attention. It’s up to us to apply that attention. So apply it we shall.

Ready? Here is a list of my award-worthiness enthusiasms:

1) The faces. Campbell does some good faces. His style is particularly loose and sketchy, but boy howdy, can he capture emotion and attitude in a few watercolor gestures. From the resolute purpose of the hugger, expressed in his firm mouth and closed eyes, to the variety of surprise among those being hugged (catch the look on his dad’s face, and that turtle!), the priceless range of emotion adds meaning and depth to what might have been one-note mawkish.

2) The composition. Some spreads are open, and some are crowded. But whether it’s the ominous space between the hug machine and his intended porcupine, or the busy, serial hugging along the dotted line (a la “Family Circus”), the composition is never accidental and always effective.

3) The font. Everything is hand painted, with the same easy watercolors as the pictures, reinforcing the child-perspective and adding to the insouciance. I think the committee would need to wrestle with the degree to which typeface is an element of illustration, but with hand lettering like this, with such an arguably big role to play in the experience, I’d be advocating for its consideration.

4) The arc. It’s not uncommon to happen upon a picture book whose words and images match its listeners. But I can’t remember the last time I encountered a book whose story arc was so well calibrated to its audience. The pagination, the pacing, the implicit pauses and inflections. Here is a book that will blossom when read aloud, over and over (and over). Pacing is another element not directly invoked by the Caldecott terms and criteria, but it is a critical element in picture book success. And with the imagery here playing such a big role in the pacing (see #2, above) I’d put it on the table.

5) The details. They got everything right here. The heavy buff stock feels delicious under your fingertips. The endpapers, with their empty and completed checklists, even the author flap of the dust jacket (with our hero hugging a fire hydrant while a curious dog looks on) — all of it contributes to a cohesive, thorough, and endlessly appealing experience.

6) The edge. I’m not exactly allergic to sincerity, but I do like my earnest cut with a healthy dose of dry. This is an undeniably sweet outing, but between the bodacious humor and the appreciable astringency, it is anything but cloying. And the irreverence and irony embodied in the illustrations (is that a snake?!) are the heart of the edge.

7) The gender expression. This is a book all about warmth, doused in pink and glowing with ardor, and the bearer of all of that fervent affection is a little boy. Boom. Here’s a place where we’d need to work pretty hard to tie this appreciation to the award. The last time I checked, “Thom is so happy this book exists” is not articulated among the Caldecott terms and criteria. Yet. But let’s think about it. I’d argue that the success here is the artist’s use of color and composition (among other things) to explore being a sensitive boy, in a particularly subtle and sophisticated way. Even if the function itself doesn’t count, we’re allowed — even called — to consider its artistic achievement.

That’s what I think about Hug Machine. What do you think?


Thom Barthelmess About Thom Barthelmess

Thom Barthelmess is Youth Services Manager for the Whatcom County Library System in northwest Washington State.



  1. Wow, this is an absolutely splendid and exhaustive review Thom! Like you I absolutely adore this book, and applaud you for being the very first writer to mention this as a possible Caldecott contender. I feel in love with the book immediately after buying it in Manhattan’s Book of Wonders two months ago after seeing dozens of copies of it in a creative and elaborate window display. My favorite spread is the double pager where he encircles the town hugging everyone and everything -a real tour de force of illustrative effervescence. But yes, Campbell’s talent is subtle, and his simple strokes in creating faces contributes to the warmth and appeal of this fabulously lid-friendly book. My own first-graders fell in love with it, and often ask me to read it again. This was rather a brilliant idea I must say, and in pink it is warm and eye-catching. Love to hear you have a sensory regard for paper in these books -so do I- and like you issue kudos for the pacing, composition, irony and irreverence. A real winner, and one well deserving of serious scrutiny. Again, just a marvelous review!

  2. Lovely review Rebecca! I added my two cents there in the comment section. 🙂

  3. Sharon Verbeten says:

    LOVE your review, Thom! I have to admit I’m not as enamored with this book as you (maybe I just need a hug!), but, boy howdy, I really love your thorough review.

  4. Robin Smith Robin Smith says:

    Thanks for this fabulous review. You know I have been a long time supporter of this one. Maybe there will be someone on the committee who will be its champion! Fingers crossed.

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