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Reviews of the 2017 Caldecott Award winners

Winner:

Radiant Childstar2 Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat
by Javaka Steptoe; illus. by the author
Primary    Little, Brown    40 pp.
10/16    978-0-316-21388-2    $17.99

Picture books about artists are tricky. Should the illustrator mimic the subject’s style, or instead attempt to capture his or her essence? Steptoe does a little of both in this introduction to Jean-Michel Basquiat, one of the most visionary — and misunderstood — artists of his generation. Born in 1960 and raised in a loving, trilingual home in Brooklyn, Basquiat was encouraged by his parents (of Puerto Rican and Haitian descent) to follow his talent from an early age. The art world first took note of Basquiat’s graffiti art in the late 1970s. Later, his mixed-media paintings on unusual surfaces (such as windows and refrigerators) earned him a large following and several art shows, but during his short life he was often discouraged by racism, particularly when people labeled his style “primitive.” Steptoe focuses on the artist’s childhood, including a long recuperation after a car accident, and his mother’s mental illness and its influence on his art. Because Steptoe’s own style, with its vivid palette and use of found objects, is similar to Basquiat’s, he provides a close impression of the painter’s work, including many of the artist’s motifs. While Steptoe’s compositions are more representational than Basquiat’s and easier to “read,” they radiate a similar sense of energy and immediacy. For many personal reasons described in his heartfelt author’s note, Javaka Steptoe is the perfect person to create this book: a tour de force that will introduce an important artist to a new generation. Appended notes provide more information about Basquiat’s life and art; there is also a brief bibliography. LOLLY ROBINSON

From the November/December 2016 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

 

Honor Books:

brosgol_leave me aloneLeave Me Alone!
by Vera Brosgol; illus. by the author
Primary    Roaring Brook    40 pp.
9/16    978-1-62672-441-9    $17.99

Graphic novelist Brosgol (Anya’s Ghost, rev. 7/11) makes an impressive picture-book debut with this inventive story about an old woman’s quest to knit in peace. The tale begins with traditional narrative trappings: “Once there was an old woman. She lived in a small village in a small house…with a very big family.” Overrun by her thirty rambunctious grandchildren and determined to finish her important knitting project before winter, the dour woman packs her things and takes off, shouting, “Leave Me Alone!” shown in a huge speech balloon. Brosgol’s richly colored illustrations in an autumnal palette also place us in familiar folktale territory, combining an early-twentieth-century Eastern European vibe with a contemporary sense of humor. Alas, things are no better for the disgruntled woman in “the deep, dark forest” (curious bears) or in a mountainside cave (yarn-eating goats). “Leave Me Alone!” she hollers again and again. In a surprisingly surreal double-page spread, she trudges up to the mountaintop and straight onto the surface of the rising moon. Fleeing a crowd of “little green moon-men,” she enters a wormhole and finds solitude in the void on the other side. After six striking pages of white-line drawings on solid-black backgrounds — the void — her knitting project (“thirty little sweaters”) is complete, and all ends happily in a satisfyingly circular way. Repetition and patterned storytelling ground the out-of-this-world elements for a thoroughly entertaining adventure. KITTY FLYNN

From the September/October 2016 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

 

weatherford_freedom in congo squarestar2 Freedom in Congo Square
by Carole Boston Weatherford; 
illus. by R. Gregory Christie
Primary, Intermediate    Little Bee    40 pp.
1/16    978-1-4998-0103-3    $17.99    g

In historic Louisiana, enslaved Africans were provided a half-day of rest each Sunday, and in New Orleans their official and legal gathering place was Congo Square. With two spare couplets for each day of the week, Weatherford tells readers what slavery looks like. The verses count down to Sunday: “Mondays, there were hogs to slop, / mules to train, and logs to chop. / Slavery was no ways fair. Six more days to Congo Square.”  A slow, steady rhythm builds as the many labors and horrors (“the dreaded lash, too much to bear”) of enslaved people are described. Weatherford sugarcoats nothing, but because of the poetic form, the text is not mired in sadness or pain; Weatherford just respectfully and soberly acknowledges it throughout. Christie’s illustrations, whose colors and components recall the work of Jacob Lawrence, add even more emotional depth. Though most of the faces are featureless, Christie’s use of sharp angles in the slaves’ bodies as he depicts their back-breaking work evinces their ever-present emotional and physical suffering. When they reach Congo Square, though, the figures elongate and have softer curves and angles, allowing them to relax and to dance; they leap as high as Weatherford’s joyful verse. A foreword provides historical context for the real place the book describes. SARAH HANNAH GÓMEZ

From the May/June 2016 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

 

ellis_du iz takstar2 Du Iz Tak?
by Carson Ellis; illus. by the author
Primary    Candlewick    48 pp.
10/16    978-0-7636-6530-2    $16.99    g

Picture books have traditionally been a rich source of neologisms. Grinch, knuffle: plums in the puddings of picture book texts. In this story, told in dialogue, Ellis pushes that tradition and invents an entire language. On the first spread an elongated Edwardian-style dragonfly points to a small green shoot poking out of the ground. “Du iz tak?” the creature asks its equally elegant companion. “Ma nazoot,” is the reply. We decode the meaning from the picture, much in the way an emerging 
or ESL reader might. (The giant 
expanse of creamy page gives us room to ponder.) Five words, and we’re already starting to get a handle on the grammar. The green shoot grows, and a different group of sartorially splendid bugs, this time a trio, has its say. The bugs need something: “Ru badda unk ribble.” What is a ribble, and where will they get it? Page design and language get progressively fancier as the bug people build a tree house — with the use of the ribble — in the plant. Joy explodes when the plant flowers. “Unk gladdenboot!  Unk scrivadelly gladdenboot!” Then fall comes, the plant withers, and the bug family moves on. In a wordless coda of successive double-page spreads we are comforted by the cycle of the seasons. By the final words, “Du iz tak?” we are fluent speakers of Bug. Completely scrivadelly, this is a tour de force of original storytelling. SARAH ELLIS

From the September/October 2016 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

 

They All Saw a CatThey All Saw a Cat
by Brendan Wenzel; illus. by the author
Primary    Chronicle    40 pp.
9/16    978-1-4521-5013-0    $16.99

Seeing is perceiving. As a cat walks “through the world, with its whiskers, ears, and paws,” a diverse assortment of creatures happens upon it, each with a distinct (if sometimes enigmatic) perception of the feline. To the fox, the cat is a frightened, plump morsel; to the fish, it is a fuzzy blur through a glass bowl; to the flea, it is all hair; and to the mouse, the cat is a nightmarish combination of ferocious eyes, claws, and teeth. Rendered in “almost everything imaginable” (including colored pencil, oil pastels, acrylic paint, watercolor, charcoal, Magic Marker, and more), Wenzel’s colorful, dazzling illustrations are as varied from page to page as the animals represented. The text is spare but steady, with all-caps and italics used for emphasis, and plenty of rhythm and repetition. The story apexes in a mash-up showing the cat on a double-page spread reminiscent of Eric Carle’s Mixed-Up Chameleon. “YES, THEY ALL SAW A CAT!” The book ends in a question as the cat looks at its reflection in a pond, and readers are asked to “imagine what it saw.” When the cat is illustrated without a particular character’s lens provided, it is sleek and realistic-looking with a face that is never shown directly; that mystery, given the sense of inquiry and wonder this book constructs, is fittingly left for readers to contemplate. ELISA GALL

From the November/December 2016 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

For more, click on the tag ALA Midwinter 2017.

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