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Calling CaldeNott

For years I’ve been running a Mock CaldeNott, in various contexts, applying the Caldecott terms and criteria to books ineligible for the Medal itself because their illustrator is not American. Even as I type this, I can hear my friend (and fellow Calling Caldecott guest blogger) Elisa Gall shouting, “But it’s not a mock — it’s its own thing!” While I agree with her, it is the “mock” piece of the investigation that I find the most interesting. It’s easy enough to think of a mock as a chance to handicap the Medal selection, but I appreciate even more the opportunity to play with the terms and criteria. And engaging in that play with books that exemplify all of the attributes we’re looking for in a medalist, but can’t win themselves, subtly shifts the focus onto the process, in a way that I find especially gratifying.

So, when I was asked to write about international picture books for Calling Caldecott, I immediately started thinking about exceptional books published in 2017 that might help focus our attention on some of the stickier wickets of Caldecott Medal selection.

The first wicket I’d like to investigate is the question of what actually constitutes a picture book. According to the Caldecott Terms and Criteria, “A ‘picture book for children’ as distinguished from other books with illustrations, is one that essentially provides the child with a visual experience. A picture book has a collective unity of story-line, theme, or concept, developed through the series of pictures of which the book is comprised.” To poke at this question, let’s look at Crazy about Cats by Owen Davey, published by Flying Eye Books, the latest in his series of informational animal books. There is much to admire in Davey’s content, from the structural arrangement of his well-researched information to the punny section headings (“Eat, Prey, Hunt”; “Pride and Predators”). But the images here are the real star, delivering at least as much information as the words, in exciting ways. The two-page spread called “Hide and Seek” subtly employs color and pattern to demonstrate exactly how camouflage works, with different cats in an amalgamation of different habitats. And the spread on scale — with eight cats lined up beside one another, behind a woman, each identified on a line demarking the tip of the nose — beautifully and clearly makes its point with almost no text at all. I know some would argue that without a narrative structure an informational book like this is not really a picture book. But, for me, these images are undeniably “a series of pictures” and their excellence is impressive. That they recall the elegant mid-century geometry and grace of Charley Harper is simply a bonus.

Another informational book worthy of our attention is Taro Gomi’s I Know Numbers, originally published in Japan (in 1985) and published in the United States this year by Chronicle Books. Why a concept book hasn’t won the Sibert is a question for another forum, but this exploration of simple numeracy ticks lots of Caldecott criteria boxes. The structure is simple enough: a series of spreads showcases all of the different ways numbers make a difference in our everyday lives, from measurements to addresses, sizes to scores. In some cases situations seem to have been Americanized (prices at a vegetable market are calculated in dollars, by the pound), but by and large the numbers function in Japan in exactly the way we’re accustomed to. Gomi’s saturated watercolors echo the simplicity of the concept, with straightforward compositions (that make the most of the wide landscape orientation), elegant organization, and lots of white space for thinking. Plus, in almost every case, a child is actively engaged in the counting, whether dialing a telephone or calculating sums at a chalkboard. Even the endpapers, with those at the front featuring numerals 1 through 10 on an emerald green ground and those at the back featuring 1-100, subtly signal progress.

Like nonfiction, graphic novels may be subjected to the same “is this really a picture book for children?” scrutiny. But to discount them would be to miss Isabelle Arsenault’s stunning work illustrating Fanny Britt’s text in Louis Undercover, published by Groundwood Books, translated from the original French. The book chronicles young Louis’s life, his family cracked open by his father’s alcoholism; his heart attached to Billie, the new girl at school; and his spirit connected to Michael Jackson, the wounded raccoon he finds in the brush. These circumstances converge in the messy ways we’d expect them to, and Arsenault’s smudgy charcoal work, embellished with spots of transparent color, expresses their complexity and fragility. A couple of gut-punching spreads, detailing his father’s fall(s) from grace, pack a real wallop, but there are a thousand tender moments of sweetness, too, and we should judge the book not by the difficulty of the things it has to say but by the glory with which it says them. And it’s hard to find any fault with Arsenault’s accomplished illustration in that regard.

Another of the criteria that is harder to nail down is “Excellence of presentation in recognition of a child audience.” That can mean very different things to different people. Does that recognition take the form of accommodation, making complex concepts more easily accessible? Is it about respect, acknowledging children’s general intellectual prowess and superior comfort with ambiguity? When We Were Alone, illustrated by Cree-Métis artist Julie Flett, written by Norway House Cree member David A. Robertson, published by Highwater Press, challenges its young audience with its unflinching look at the history of First Nation children forced into residential schools in Canada. A little girl asks her grandmother a series of questions and her grandmother replies with stories of her boarding school childhood. She wears her hair long now, because her hair was forcibly cut as a child. “They didn’t like that we were proud.” She speaks Cree, because as a child her Native language was forbidden. The girl’s kókom offers no details about her transition to the school, referring to it each time as “the school I went to, far away from home,” but the images subtly and powerfully communicate the violence and cruelty of the program. The spread showing the haircut positions the child on a chair, off to the side of the frame, small and bowed, her back to us, while a large woman chops. The composition reflects her alienation and isolation with graphic brutality. Each response to one of the girl’s questions includes both the hurtful imposition of the cultural erasure, followed by a moment of resilience, when the children rolled in autumn leaves to return color to their clothes, or separated siblings held hands in a wintry field, to connect, momentarily. Flett makes the most of these juxtapositions, reinforcing the hard cold of the school setting and the vibrant color of home.

The last element of Caldecott selection I’d like to examine is not codified in the terms and criteria, but in the process itself. The medal is chosen by committee, with 15 individuals coming to consensus, and that kind of agreement cannot happen without each member working hard to set aside personal responses to books to focus on more professional assessments. It’s the hardest part of the process, without question, and perhaps the most illuminating, as it allows for each of us to see and appreciate things we can’t find on our own. But it can require letting go, and the book I’d struggle to let go of, this year, is Town Is by the Sea by Joanne Schwartz, illustrated by Sydney Smith, published by Groundwood Books. This quiet, melancholic look at the life of a boy growing up in a Cape Breton mining town expresses both the joys of a quiet seaside town and the foreboding of a life underground. Smith’s loose, luminous watercolor paintings alternate scenes along the shore, washed in light, with overwhelming scratchy black scenes underground. The pictures here are everything, establishing setting, tone, pace. They also communicate the deepest truths of the story. The book ends at the close of day, when the darkness overtakes the light. The boy contemplates his own eventual life underground and the final spread echoes the transition, blending the brilliance of the town with the black beneath. Everything, I tell you.

These are but a few of the extraordinary international picture books I’ve come across this year. What are some of your favorites?


Thom Barthelmess About Thom Barthelmess

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



  1. Thom, I am so so thrilled to see this fantastic post, and have long appreciated you holding the torch for international releases for many years now. And this presntation is a banner one in all regards, including the valuable information/recommendations it imparts to the readers. I thought I had all bases covered until I came here. lol. This is the first I have come upon “Crazy About Cats,” “I Know Numbers” and “When We Were Alone”, and buoyed by your persuasive qualification analysis and estimation I will track them down pronto!

    I have long been a huge Isabelle Arsenault fan and own a half dozen of her picture book titles. This Canadian artist is surely one of the best in the world, and every new release from her is a treat. I especially adore “Cloth Lullaby,” “Jane, the Fox and Me,” “Migrant” and Spork,” but there isn’t a single one I haven’t cherished. Alas I have not yet laid eyes on “Louis Undercover” and am excited to read what you say here so eloquently: “Arsenault’s smudgy charcoal work, embellished with spots of transparent color, expresses their complexity and fragility” as well as the special focus on some of the book’s ravishing spreads.

    Sydney Smith is another superlative talent, and like you and the Horn Book fraternity, I roudly applaud the masterpiece “Town by the Sea” for all sorts of reasons. His previous “Sidewalk Flowers” and “The White Cat and the Monk” are among my favorite books of the past years. Wow, this is a breathtaking capsule on the book, and I note this especially: “This quiet, melancholic look at the life of a boy growing up in a Cape Breton mining town expresses both the joys of a quiet seaside town and the foreboding of a life underground. Smith’s loose, luminous watercolor paintings alternate scenes along the shore, washed in light, with overwhelming scratchy black scenes underground. The pictures here are everything, establishing setting, tone, pace.” Bravo!

    My additions to this international melting pot are ALL books that if the rules were different would be MAJOR contenders for Caldecott recognition. Each one is masterful:

    King of the Sky (Nicola Davis; Laura Carlin) The arresting smudy colors of a Welch mining town and the subject of birds in flight remind me of Ken Loach’s cinematic British masterpiece “Kes” in more ways than one. But seriously “King” for me would contend for Number 1 overall worldwide.

    Plume (Isabelle Simler) Precise, technically adroit, sublime. The kids do adore it too.

    La Princesa and the Pea (Middleton Elya; Matinex-Neal) Gorgeous charcoal work, ornate and intricate and beautifully complemented by the bi-lingual text) OK, this COULD be eligible as Martinez-Neal now lives in Arizona, afterliving most of her life in Peru, but I place it here just in case. Thank you Brian Wilson for this alert!!

    Feather (Remi Courgeon) This French gem uses fiery read to great effect, but overall one fo teh year’s best books period.

    On A Magical Do-Nothing Day (Beatrice Alemagna) Italian moved to France, a major artist–loved her Paris book and now this treasure sporting splendid use of flourescent orange.

    Come with Me (Holly McGhee/Pascal Lemaitre) Very moving text with enveloping art, subtle and emotional work. I know the illustrator is French, so again no qualification for Caldecotts here.

    This Beautiful Day (Richard Jackson/Suzy Lee) Lovely, atmospheric work by South Korean illustrator for Jackson who also wrote the text for a magnificent picture book with Katherine Tillotson this year.

    The Tea Party in the Woods (Akiko Miyakoshi) Charcoal, pencil and color with a surreal Lewis Carroll slant, and wonderful balanced and dream-like.

    Thank you for this masterful post!!!

  2. Thom Barthelmess says:

    I feel compelled to add that when I say that the pictures in Town is by the Sea are everything I mean that in the bees knees sense of the word. Joanne Schwartz’s text, with it’s “It goes like this” refrain, has its own mesmerizing charm and contributes so much to the wonder of the book.

  3. When We Were Alone is one of the most moving picture books I’ve read this year. Thanks for bringing it and the work of Julie Flett to wider attention.

  4. Thom, I always look forward to your CaldeNotts thoughts. Thanks for contributing.

    When I wonder about my favorites this year and force myself to choose those (though I haven’t yet seen When We Were Alone and reeeally want to read it), I think one of my top three faves is Nicola Davies’s King of the Sky, illustrated by Laura Carlin. I was happy it received a NYT award. Carlin’s work is nearly breathtaking.

  5. Laura Harrison says:

    I truly love Hortense and the Shadow by Natalia and Lauren O’Hara. A fun and interesting story with some of the best illustrations I have ever seen. It’s fabulous!

  6. Molly Watkins says:

    Thank you very much for this post. I recently added Town Is by the Sea and When We Were Alone to my collection, but I’ve been struggling with how to present them to 7-9 year olds. The content is so moving, so important. I’ll put them on my desk again and start thinking! Perhaps I’ll start with a Visual Thinking Strategies lesson.

  7. Thom, I feel I must add another comment to this truly motivational post, having now done some further investigation. My wallet took another hit, but heck there are some titles one simply must own. Ha! A few more treasures here on the international scene methinks:

    A Walk in the Forest (Maria Dek) Poland
    My Dog Mouse (Eva Lindstrom) Sweden
    Only in My Hometown (Arnakuluk Vuriisan) Lappland, Canada
    Walk With Me (Jairo Buitrago/Rafael Yockteng) Columbia

    The Buitrago/Yockteng collaboration has produced yet another masterpiece by the pair who are arguably the greatest in the world. (Really adored TWO WHITE RABBITS). Ms. Lindstrom’s beautiful book captivated my classes, and they voted it their favorite book of the week. Spare and sublime. The Lappland book is quite unique and artful, and Ms. Dek’s Polish work is a masterpiece.

  8. Town is By the Sea and On A Magical Do-Nothing-Day were my favorite picture books of 2017, and perhaps the best picture books I’ve seen in a long, long time. It’s a shame that neither are eligible for the award, but if memory serves me, they did both get listed in the NYTimes Best Illustrated.

  9. Susan Dailey says:

    Thom, thanks so much for your insights! I create presentations for the Mock Caldecotts I conduct each year. I shared your comments about the winners being selected by committee and what that means for individual’s favorites. I also ask the attendees to fill out a “Personal Choice Survey” this year. I asked what book they would LIKE to win the Caldecott, what book they thought SHOULD win and what book they thought WOULD win.

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