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Caldecott and Newbery 2015

Handicapping the Newbery and Caldecott awards is a favorite pastime (blood sport?) among aficionados of books for children and teens. We gather in hallways, on blogs, around water coolers, to guess and argue and wonder. We postulate, some of us for twelve full months, until the ALA Midwinter meeting’s Youth Media Awards Press Conference when all is revealed. Some years there are odds-on favorites, some years there are crapshoots, and every year the only sure thing is that there are no sure things. Surprises abound.

For the most part, this speculation focuses on individual awards, as does our attention after the announcements. We celebrate the books that got the recognition we had hoped for them, mourn the books that didn’t, and engage in a little armchair quarterbacking. But every once in a while the sum total of the awards is at least as surprising and compelling as the individual winners, honors, and also-rans. 2015 was such a year, with fascinating relationships between the awards, and patterns among them.

Looking across the announcements that morning, diversity takes the biggest prize. The Newbery winner and honor books are all by authors from underrepresented backgrounds, three for three, as are the Caldecott medalist and three of the six honor books. The Wilder Award and Edwards Award, for lifetime achievement in books for children and teens respectively, both go to African American writers. The Arbuthnot Lecturer is Latina, as is the Morris Award author. The Printz winner and one of the four Printz honor books explore the LGBTQ experience. The Geisel Award author is Asian American. The Odyssey author, illustrator, and narrator are African American. And all of this exists in addition to the many winners of awards that are specifically dedicated to celebrating the work of diverse authors and illustrators. There is diversity in the diversity, and this simultaneous recognition of books by and about people of different cultural experiences is stunning, and historic.

There are also patterns that emerge in format, in theme, and in literary approach, between and within each award grouping. Looking only at the 2015 Caldecott and Newbery classes, there is much to consider. Before rolling up our sleeves, it is helpful to remember that these relationships occur not by design but by accident. Committees consider the books in front of them, individually. There is no discussion of what came before, or what did not. There is no discussion of balance on a given list. Indeed, both the Newbery and Caldecott terms and criteria state that “the committee in its deliberations is to consider only the books eligible for the award, as specified in the terms.” Because committee members cannot reflect on the canon, they therefore cannot put forward arguments about how necessary a book is, how deserving its originator, or how overdue its representation. Books rise to the top according to their own merits, one by one, and every year a new list of titles is added to the canon. The way those books compare to one another, and to their forebears, exists by happenstance.

Though there is no architecture to the relationship between Newbery and Caldecott books, close inspection can reveal interesting patterns. The 2015 winners and honorees come together in unexpected ways.

Caldecott

rosenstock_noisy paint boxThe unprecedented naming of a Caldecott medalist and six honor books provides a generous slate from which we can make quite a few comparisons. Three of the seven books are biographies, and two of those three are biographies of artists. In her swirling, clamorous illustrations for Barb Rosenstock’s The Noisy Paint Box: The Colors and Sounds of Kandinsky’s Abstract Art, Mary GrandPré takes a fairly literal (albeit painterly) approach to exploring the artist’s synesthesia. Representative figures in period dress, depicted with a mannerist chiaroscuro in a grayed-out palette of blues and greens, occupy lavish rooms, establishing a recognizable backdrop. And from it explode grand artistic gestures, jagged flashes of orange and red, and their accordant onomatopoeic descriptors. The tension between the recognizable if rarified setting and the tumultuous abstraction makes each the more indelible. By contrast, Yuyi Morales’s incandescent Viva Frida eschews a linear description of Frida Kahlo’s life and work, opting instead for an utterly abstracted distillation of her essential being. Each spread offers a singular phrase in Spanish and English — “Juego / I play” “Sueño / I dream” “¡Vivo! / I live!” — with an image of the artist in such a pursuit. The illustrations are created as almost hallucinogenic dioramas, with Frida herself a doll-like figure posed on a vibrant stage, accompanied by a resident Chihuahua and monkey, and photographed with shadow and perspective to enhance the three-dimensional depth of field.

morales_viva-frida_170x170On the one hand, we have a biography of Kandinsky, an artist whose work is wholly abstract, that feels like a straightforward, almost traditional portrait. The contrast between his own explosive images and the book’s staid narrative backdrop highlights the transformative place of his paintings in art history. On the other hand, the dreamlike images in Viva Frida perfectly echo the spirit of Kahlo’s work, mirroring the naive, essential nature of the painter’s own self-portraits. The two books differ fundamentally in their approach, but each delivers its subject’s personal and artistic identity.

bryant_right wordMelissa Sweet’s sculptural collages for Jen Bryant’s The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus provide insight into the life of Peter Mark Roget in a few different ways. Compositionally, Sweet offers repeated nods to Roget’s fascination with organization, carefully arranging elements on the page in keeping with her subject’s curious compulsion to identify and capture connections between ideas. She also marks the gradual development of Roget’s organizational disposition, beginning with alphabet blocks (the tools of a young child) on the title page, and becoming more and more sophisticated, ending with all one thousand concepts from the original thesaurus on the closing endpapers. Bryant’s text gives readers the facts of the man’s life, but Sweet’s collages convey the complexities of his mind.

nana-in-the-city-300x300Nana in the City is an amiable story of a preschool boy going to stay with his grandmother in the big, overwhelming city. This One Summer, a picture book for older children, is a graphic novel about a preteen girl leaving the city with her parents for their annual summer visit to a lake cottage. Lauren Castillo’s gentle drawings for Nana in the City simultaneously evoke the bustle of the city and the refuge of Nana, always from the perspective of the little boy. With deliberate line, friendly color, and perfectly balanced composition, she tells a story of courage and security. By contrast, Jillian Tamaki’s raw, surly, elegant indigo-hued drawings for This One Summer express the sharp disquiet of oncoming adolescence as Rose struggles to connect with her depressed mother and less-mature summer friend, Windy, all the while following the illicit exploits of the older local teens with puppy-dog fascination. tamaki_this-one-summer_170x241Playing with pacing, perspective, and light, Tamaki interjects moments of cricket stillness among crowded pages of busy panels, organically building and releasing tension. Where Nana in the City resolves its opening uncertainty with comfortable sweetness, This One Summer allows the seedy elements to persist, even after Rose makes peace with her mother and her friend. Though markedly different in tone, each is carefully calibrated to its intended audience, and each is powerfully affecting. Indeed, the two books share a kind of intimate tenderness and a deep understanding of a particular place in childhood.

barnett_samanddave2013 Caldecott medalist (for This Is Not My Hat) Jon Klassen and author Mac Barnett have worked together before. Their earlier collaboration, Extra Yarn, received a Caldecott Honor (and a Boston Globe–Horn Book Picture Book win), and their most recent book, Sam & Dave Dig a Hole, brings Klassen his second Caldecott Honor. Sam & Dave charms and puzzles with wry wit and an I’ll-never-tell wink. Two boys dig a hole, in search of something spectacular, and while they just miss a succession of enormous jewels, over and over, their final arrival at a not-quite version of home promises a different kind of spectacle. Klassen is a master of the visual punch line — the duo’s dog repeatedly points and signals, to no avail — and the jokes fire in sequence with consummate composition and pacing. And look at the little illustrative details. Comparing the new world to the old one, we see tiny differences in the weather vane, the fruit tree, the flowerpot — differences that point to a deeper meaning without any concrete explanation. Many have offered their interpretation of the tale, but the important thing is not so much to understand it as to appreciate the curiosity it invites.

santat_adventures of beekleLooking at the Caldecott Honor books with an understanding of the role of consensus in the deliberative process, the choice of The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend as the medal winner makes perfect sense, as it shares qualities with the honor recipients. It is itself a sort of biography, telling the life story of a heretofore-unimagined imaginary friend. It invites the reader into a warmhearted relationship painted with tender intimacy. Again, look closely at the details. The playground at the story’s center reflects Beekle’s own odyssey, place by place. Is this where Beekle is (going to be) imagined? Who is imagining whom? With artful references like these, Santat blurs the line between children’s interior and exterior lives, adding layers of meaning to be felt more than strictly understood.

Newbery

Where the 2015 Caldecott class gives us six honor books to consider with the medalist, Newbery 2015 gives us only two. (On average, the Newbery committee selects 3.25 honor books, compared to the Caldecott’s 3.19.) But this particular collection of three books makes for a fascinating grouping, in all kinds of ways.

woodson_brown girl dreamingJacqueline Woodson’s vivid, observant verse memoir Brown Girl Dreaming paints an indelible portrait of the author’s childhood growing up in the 1960s and 1970s. First in South Carolina and then in Brooklyn, Woodson experiences the unfolding unrest and galvanization of the civil rights movement, viewed through the lens of her close but complex family relationships.

eldeafoCece Bell’s uplifting graphic-novel memoir El Deafo frames the particular difficulties of one girl’s childhood in an entirely different way. Transferring her experiences to a cast of friendly-looking, pastel-colored rabbits, Bell finds and dramatizes the humor in her circumstances, battling the isolation of hearing loss, her ambivalence about her new Phonic Ear, and the struggles to make and keep friends, emerging victorious. Many Newbery honorees have drawn on personal experience, and more than once an actual autobiography has been recognized. Some have been grave. Two Holocaust memoirs have received Newbery Honors: The Upstairs Room in 1973 and Upon the Head of the Goat: A Childhood in Hungary 1939–1944 in 1982. Other Newbery-recognized memoirs have been more comical. Tomie dePaola’s 26 Fairmount Avenue, an honor book in 2000, front-loads the humor in a series of precocious, sometimes slapstick vignettes. But 2015 marks the first time two memoirs have been selected in the same year. Many children may read them both, given their simultaneous recognition and shared accessibility, and together they demonstrate the remarkable breadth of the form.

alexander_crossoverThe Crossover, 2015’s Newbery winner, is a pulsing, dazzling, yet contemplative story of a young basketball player whose life is coming together on the court and coming apart at home. Josh’s father is ailing, his twin brother JB is crushing on a girl, and Josh himself is struggling. Kwame Alexander’s smooth, confident verse plunges readers into the tumult of adolescence and sweeps them up in the action with poignant introspection and dynamic bravado. With sensitive character development, sensational poetry, and potent emotional resonance, there is much to recommend in this artful, agile novel. But perhaps its most distinctive, distinguished characteristic is the narrative’s careful balance of action and meditation — and the way this balance reflects Josh’s own search for equilibrium.

There are thematic commonalities among the three, each dealing with identity and family and connection. The books share elements of form, too, or at least a dependence on that form to convey meaning, using the visual appearance of the words on the page to enhance the narrative. Alexander audaciously plays with font size and capitalization. Woodson judiciously arranges line breaks and verse placement. Bell manipulates text in and out of word balloons, depicting noises in red and making words fade as they become inaudible. Indeed, the diversity of all three Newbery authors this year is not the only statistic of historical significance: this is the first time since 1926, eighty-nine years ago, that there has not been at least one prose novel among the books recognized by the Newbery committee.

Of course, when we combine the 2015 Newbery and Caldecott honorees, even more patterns emerge. How remarkable to have a graphic novel on each list, with the Caldecott honoree targeting an older age-range than the Newbery honoree. A full half of the books are biographies (sixty percent if you count Beekle…).

Every year the process is the same, and the results are different. We can be confident that the 2016 award committees will approach their task with care, insight, and seriousness of purpose. We can be confident that their choices will bring some surprises. And we can be confident that among the honorees will be some meaningful, curious, and thought-provoking juxtapositions.

From the July/August 2015 Special Awards Issue of The Horn Book Magazine. For more speeches, profiles, and articles click the tag ala 2015.

Thom Barthelmess About Thom Barthelmess

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

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