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Winter Bees and Other Poems of the Cold

sidman_winter beesBaby, it’s cold outside. Time to look at this very wintry book.

Taking it from the top…

We notice the arresting cover: the leaping fox; the contrast between the fox’s red coat /dark paws and the white, snowy background; the overlay of snow in the air.

Open the book to see endpapers the color of a winter twilight.

Right off the bat there’s an attempt to involve the audience, visually: that fox on the cover (what is it about to pounce on, we wonder); the moose looking straight at us from out of the title page; even the vole on the front flap seems to be looking at us. (I imagine this was a calculated decision, given the nature of the subject: winter being the least active season of the year. All this pulls the audience in before the majestic double-page spreads begin.)

Immediately we notice the sense of texture on the page; the overlay of falling or swirling or even just imminent snow. You can almost breathe this book; you can feel the frozen air in your lungs. There’s a lot of accomplishment on evidence in this book, but the palpable air in this book may be its most remarkable quality.

Then we are presented with one double-page spread after another of majestically composed winter scenes featuring a range of animals, large and small. We notice the care taken to present scenes from an animal’s-eye view, the arresting perspectives, the palette that somehow communicates the sense of cold and yet uses warm colors in spots — and sometimes more than that. Particularly the orange-red of the fox, the bees’ hive, the beavers’ lodge, the chickadees’ breasts. (The cover -and title-page type presages this constant contrast between cold and warm, with the word winter in a chilly blue-purple and the word bees in that orange-red.)

My favorite two spreads in the book, however, feature no animals at all. (I will not be able to be eloquent enough about them, so be sure to take a look for yourself.) A closeup of a single branch opens the book (coming directly after the title page and before the table of contents). On the left hand page, we see the branch as it would look in autumn; as our eye travels toward the right, that same branch gradually morphs into what it would look like in winter. At book’s close (just before the final glossary page), the left-hand page shows the branch in winter, and now as our eyes move to the right, the branch morphs into spring, with the snow disappearing and small buds beginning to appear. And on the tip of the branch? Green. A bud just flowering into leaf. Taken together, those two spreads are the most elegant depiction of the changing seasons I think I’ve ever seen.

About his process for creating the illustrations for Winter Bees, Rick Allen writes (on the copyright page): “The images for this book were made through the unlikely marriage of some very old and almost new art mediums. The individual elements of each picture (the animals, trees, snowflakes, etc.) were cut, inked, and printed from linoleum blocks (nearly two hundred of them), and then hand-colored. Those prints were then digitally scanned, composed, and layered to create the illustrations for the poems. The somewhat surprising (and oddly pleasing) result was learning that the slow and backwards art of relief printmaking could bring modern technology down to its level, making everything even more complex and time-consuming.”

Does this matter? Would a knowledge of the laboriousness and complexity of the artist’s process influence the Caldecott committee? Is the committee even allowed to take such information into consideration? or must they ignore it and simply consider the finished product?

Your thoughts are welcome.



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.



  1. Robin Smith Robin Smith says:

    Martha, you ask:
    Would a knowledge of the laboriousness and complexity of the artist’s process influence the Caldecott committee? Is the committee even allowed to take such information into consideration? or must they ignore it and simply consider the finished product?

    I am wrapping my head around this question. On one hand, the finished book is the thing we have to evaluate. On the other, it’s hard not to look at art that is complex and took a long time to create and not say, “wow,” look what he or she did here! This is the first time that I can remember that an artist has put a note like that on the copyright page–it was the first thing I noticed when I saw the book the first time.
    I think committees always try to figure out how art was made. I am not sure if it matters in the end, but people like to know. Seven Impossible Things Blog ( is invaluable for those of us who just have to know how the artist made the work.

  2. Thanks, Robin.

    I’ve been thinking about this since I first read the post earlier. I’ve never been on the committee, but of course we always hear about how committee members have to look at the final product. Even a book whose art was more simply rendered can end up more “distinguished” than the ones that took longer (for various reasons). (It IS tempting, though, when you read about something like print-making to not stop and wonder and stare all slack-jawed at the complicated and impressive process.)

    I also love the two spreads you single out here, Martha. So much communicated there — and so eloquently. And, like Robin, I love his copyright note on creating the art. Definitely memorable.

  3. (AND this book falls into the small handful of ones I categorize personally as If It Won, I’d Be Happy.)

  4. I love this question, and have very strong feelings about an answer. I’m team “finished product” myself. I think it’s fair and reasonable to talk about how a medium might connect to or reflect themes in a book (Robert Sabuda’s mosaic illustrations for his Saint Valentine biography, for example) but I think the laboriousness of an artistic process has no place in discussion. The book si the book, no matter how it got here. I have sometimes felt that committees are dazzled by what’s impressive about artwotk more than what is expressive about it, and that fundamentally misses the point. These are my $.02.

  5. I will add that, whatever the process involved, Rick Allen’s composite woodcuts here, with their crisp outlines, silvery palette, and huddled compositions, perfectly evoke the chill of winter, and are absolutely worthy of Caldecott consideration.

  6. Robin Smith Robin Smith says:

    Thom, I am on “team finished product” too, though I love knowing how art is made. For example, I still can’t quite get my brain around the lithography of the 1940s, no matter how many times I take KT Horning’s Caldecott class and she explains it slowly for me. It completely blows my mind. Knowing the process makes me appreciate the book even more, but the book has to stand on its own, no matter what.

    And, I actually am on the fence about the note on the copyright page. I DO want to know what the media is in every picture book (so I don’t make mistakes if I write about it), but if I need to know the nitty and gritty, I know where to go for that info.

    Off topic: Martha might remember a chapter book I reviewed some time ago where I called the illustrations pen and ink. Turns out they were made with some esoteric and challenging printmaking process and the illustrator was a bit insulted by my description. I had no idea. It looked like the kind of art that accompanies most chapter books and now I am really nervous about getting the media right.

  7. Robin Smith Robin Smith says:

    Completely agree ’bout that!

  8. Martha V. Parravano Martha V. Parravano says:

    I agree, Thom. As a reader and reviewer, I am very glad to have the information — but I don’t think it’s relevant to the Caldecott committee’s deliberations. It’s one more thing to remove from the equation — along with whether committee members might have a preference for a particular genre or palette or whether they met and liked/disliked an illustrator at a dinner, etc.

    By the way, I think I was once told that John Birmingham did some of the art for Mr. Gumpy’s Outing on a paper napkin while he was out having lunch. (Maybe somebody else can verify that.) And the finished product is one of the great picture books of all time.

  9. What is it about Joyce Sidman’s poetry that continues to result in some of the most aesthetically beautiful art in the field over and over again? Well, I think the answer is obvious. One of my favorite books of all-time is the Caldecott Honor winning SONG OF THE WATER BOATMAN, both for the sublime verse and the ravishing art from Beckie Prange. The rapturous RED SINGS FROM TREETOPS features more Sidman word beauty with wholly exquisite art by Pamela Zagarensky. Then, we have a collaboration of Sidman and Beth Krommes (SWIRL BY SWIRL) that takes your breath away. And now Rick Allen, who previously illustrated Ms. Sidman’s lovely verse in DARK EMPEROR. I received my own copy of WINTER BEES last week, and am still sorting things out. It is utterly magnificent and fully deserves to be spoken about in the Caldecott discussions.

    The question posed here is not an easy one to answer, though the respondents have come through with some terrific observations. For now I’ve take the fifth.

    Fantastic review!

  10. The spreads with the branches — yes! Those caught my eye, as well. This book is subtly well-organized:it doesn’t overtly state that it’s a journey from fall to spring, but if you look carefully, it is!

  11. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Back when i was reviewing at BCCB for Betsy Hearne, I once listened to her side of the phone conversation she was having with editor Patti Gauch, who was, it became clear, taking issue with a review i had written panning a Philomel picture book. Betsy listened kindly but spoke firmly, at one point saying “but Patti, a mud puddle can take three years to make.” Her point and the point is that we aren’t evaluating books on the basis of how hard their creators worked on them. I’m not suggesting at all that Rick Allen was engaged in special pleading; he clearly had discovered something interesting he wanted to share. But how a book was made, or how long it took, or what materials were used in making it are topics they don’t have a place in determining its worth.

  12. This one immediately jumped into my top 5, not just because I was totally wowed by the art but because it plays off the poems so beautifully. I spent a minute flipping back and forth between those two spreads you mention, and I also spent a while trying to find the fox (or his prints) in each spread (I can’t find evidence of him on the swan page, though – anyone?)

    It’s fascinating to learn about the process for making a book like that, but my appreciation of a process is totally separate from my appreciation of “this book WORKS.” I’d read this beforehand – – but actually holding the book is such a different experience that I stopped thinking about his process altogether.

  13. Brenda Martin says:

    Hoping not to hijack this thread but reading the book and this post reminded me of Tony Johnston & Jim LaMarche’s _Winter is Coming_ from a few months back – I haven’t heard any buzz for that one on this site, but it sure is a beautiful picture book with four stars (Kirkus, SLJ, Booklist, and PW). Not clear why it was published *quite* as early as it was, as it seemed nearly seasonally-inappropriate upon release.

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