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Lenny & Lucy

lenny lucyIt’s hard to believe that there was once a time when full-color picture books were uncommon. It was usually an indication that the artist had somehow proved himself worthy (::cough:: Maurice Sendak) and was awarded with a full palette to use on his masterpieces (::cough:: ::cough:: Where the Wild Things Are). When you look back on the Caldecott Medal books prior to the mid-1970s, one thing that stands out is the near absence of full-color books. And it’s amazing to see what artists like Evaline Ness, Marcia Brown, and Lynd Ward were able to create with black and white or one, two, or three colors. These books don’t look at all flashy to our modern eyes, accustomed to full color. But the books are a testament to the artistic discipline and commitment to craft that we often see in the picture-book artists of yore.

Erin Stead would likely be right at home among these artists. Her latest picture book, Lenny & Lucy, gracefully written by Philip Stead, is a quiet, understated story about fear, specifically fear of change, as represented by the dark woods on the other side of the bridge. Peter can see them from the bedroom window of his new house, and he knows scary things are hiding behind the trees. Accompanied by his golden retriever, Harold, he creates a gigantic figure out of blankets and pillows, names it Lenny, and places it as a sentry next to the bridge. Lenny does the job but he looks lonely, so Peter creates another pillow person, Lucy. Lenny and Lucy give Peter a bit of added security, but he doesn’t start to feel truly safe and comfortable until his new next-door neighbor Millie stops by to play.

It’s interesting to note what Stead has done with color here — or perhaps to note what she hasn’t done. She hasn’t splashed it all over the page, covering every bit of white space with pigment. She has used it sparingly — a touch of blue on Peter’s hat, gold on his jacket and shoes and all over Harold (of course), green on Lenny’s blanketed torso and pink on Lucy’s. And when Millie shows up, she’s dressed in red. These small bits of color are amplified against the monochromatic gray background used to illustrate the woods and the loud floral wallpaper on the wall in Peter’s new house. Both the woods and wallpaper loom large, and are almost claustrophobic, representing Peter’s fear of the unknown. Once he meets Millie, the woods recede, and the gray pages open up to wide white spaces.

Stead’s use of gray and white with just a bit of color demonstrates that a picture book does not need to be flashy to be distinguished. Too often, it seems, we fall victim to what I call the “magpie syndrome” — always reaching for the brightest, the shiniest, the most dazzling when we look for the best in picture books. I’m glad we have artists like Erin Stead to remind us that less is often more. Her pictures leave room for interpretation and the reader’s imagination, just as Philip Stead’s text has left room for the artist to add her own touches to the story.

It’s rare for any picture book to hit all of the criteria the Caldecott committee uses to identify a “distinguished American picture book for children.”

  1. Excellence of execution in the artistic technique employed;
  2. Excellence of pictorial interpretation of story, theme, or concept;
  3. Appropriateness of style of illustration to the story, theme or concept;
  4. Delineation of plot, theme, characters, setting, mood or information through the pictures;
  5. Excellence of presentation in recognition of a child audience.

This one has it all.

 

Kathleen T. Horning About Kathleen T. Horning

Kathleen T. Horning is the director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, a library of the School of Education, University of Wisconsin–Madison. She is the author of From Cover to Cover: Evaluating and Reviewing Children’s Books and teaches a popular online course for ALSC on the history of the Newbery and Caldecott medals.

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Comments

  1. I remember Evaline Ness was a master of this sparing two toned style.. Her magisterial SAM, BANGS AND MOONSHINE of course won the Caldecott Medal. I love the Steads’ work, like everyone else am a huge fan of A SICK DAY FOR AMOS MC GEE. It took me a little longer to warm up to this book, but I now see it as one of the supreme picture books of the year, and fully concur with this wonderful review. Yes, no doubt it has successfully negotiated the criterion lock, stock and barrel.

  2. Susan Dailey says:

    Great comment about the “magpie syndrome.” This book didn’t immediately grab me, but the more I look at it the more I appreciate it! That cover says so much with the trees that look like prison bars. The single yellow leaf clingy to the tree in several early spreads suggests that happiness is still possible, the little girl’s tenuous body position with the crossed feet when she first meets Peter. Wonderful! I think this is the kind of book that the committee will pour over and find much to discuss. One minor quibble/questions–on the first spread with the house, it looks to me like the father is carrying the box out of the house to the car. They are at the new house, right?

  3. THIS BOOK IS THE MOST WEIRD THANG EVA

  4. My issue with this book isn’t the palate but that it simply left me cold. Of course that feeling fits the fears that are being dealt with, but even in the end it seemed oddly unfinished and incomplete. I really do like the Steads’ work in general, but I wonder if this one will make it to the finish line simply due to its dark theme and uncertain pace. All depends on the RC, of course.

  5. *palette

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