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After the Fall

At the start of each school year, I choose one picture book to read to every class when the students come for library orientation. I like the idea of building a community around a shared understanding, as well as sharing a great new book with all of our students. Last year, during the first week of school, I read Adam Rex and Christian Robinson’s School’s First Day of School to every class of students. This year, I decided to use Dan Santat’s After the Fall: How Humpty Dumpty Got Back Up Again.

The overwhelming effect of reading the same picture book back to back (to back) over the course of a week can potentially be exhausting. Cracks begin to form in the narrative, and mistakes appear as you share the same pages over and over again. In this case, however, no such flaws arose. After 25 reads in the course of five days, I had the incredible opportunity to share the stunning full-page reveal of Humpty’s transformation with classes ranging from kindergartners on their very first day of school to fifth graders ready to embark on their final year of elementary school. Each class of students sat in awe as we shared that “light-bulb moment” that concludes the story, each time wondering why we’d never thought about Humpty’s logical fate in this way before: of course out of an egg a bird should hatch. Mouths agape, teachers and students alike sat in awe of the sheer power of the storytelling — and the story told.

Santat has crafted a read-aloud classic out of a classic nursery rhyme, a book that will be in heavy rotation in libraries across the country, regardless of the results of the Caldecott committee’s work this February. The real committee will certainly read this book even more than I did that week in early August, and they will also put the book in front of children. Whether with small groups of students/patrons or perhaps with their own children as lap reads, committee members will have a chance to see how well this book works at eliciting a powerful emotional response in its audience.

In the end, the committee will also have to hold After the Fall up to the criteria laid out in the Caldecott manual and determine not if After the Fall is an instant classic but if it is the most distinguished picture book of 2017. Does this book rise above all others published in 2017?

Santat’s story asks readers to consider what happens after Humpty’s famous fall. This is a picture book about fear, anxiety, passion, perseverance, and, finally, transformation. Santat accomplishes so much in the 32 pages of After the Fall by allowing his images to do the heavy lifting. Through Santat’s artwork, the reader understands Humpty’s fears and the tension these fears create when bumped up against his passions. The use of shadow throughout the book, specifically the shadow’s edge, clues readers into Humpty’s internal struggle. Notice how Humpty walks a tightrope created by the wall’s shadow as he walks through the city — his body split between light and dark, the desire to be near the birds, and the crippling fear that keeps him on the ground. Here even on the city’s street he’s reminded of his fall. Compare this spread with one later in the book as Humpty arrives on top of the wall, fear conquered, arms held high in victory. Here we see Humpty fully illuminated by the sun. Shadows still exist lower on the wall, but Humpty has risen above them. He is no longer afraid.

In her 2013 Calling Caldecott post, “How to read a picture book, the Caldecott edition,” Robin Smith wrote:

Read the book all the way through without reading the words. I know. But this has to be essentially a visual experience. Does it hold up with no words? (This is NOT to say the words don’t matter, it’s just important — at least to me — to see how the book works without words.) LOOK AT THE PICTURES VERY SLOWLY. This was the hardest part for me when I started reading and evaluating picture books. You just don’t want to miss any detail. Read from left to right, paying very close attention to the page turns. Pay attention to white space and pacing.

I think about this process whenever I evaluate picture books. Rarely does a book pass this test as well as After the Fall. By focusing purely on the visual storytelling, it becomes clear that Humpty’s story is fully told, even without his first-person narration. We can understand Humpty’s fears, as well as his passion, and we share in his triumph over his anxiety through the art alone.

In its criteria the Caldecott manual specifically points to “delineation of plot, theme, characters, setting, mood or information through the pictures.” In terms of this particular criteria, I believe After the Fall is the most distinguished example this year. What do you say?

Read the Horn Book Magazine review of After the Fall: How Humpty Dumpty Got Back Up Again.

Eric Carpenter About Eric Carpenter

Eric Carpenter is the school librarian at Fred A. Toomer Elementary School in Atlanta, Georgia.

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Comments

  1. “This is a picture book about fear, anxiety, passion, perseverance, and, finally, transformation.”

    I quite agree and commend you for brilliantly posing the book’s myriad themes, Mr. Carpenter. Well, it has seemed abundantly clear for quite some time that this is one of the flirting-with-poll-position picture books in the Caldecott equation. Others here have broached possible Top 3 choices, and I’d venture to think “After the Fall” would land on a good many; I know full well what Elizabeth “Betsy” Bird meant a few months back when she bolding stated that the book is greater even than Dan Santat’s magnificent Caldecott Medal winner “The Adventures of Beekle.” Assuming there are others who feel that way (I certainly do even though I adore “Beekle”) it is not hard to imagine “After the Fall” ending up as one of the winners in either annointment. Certainly this is a far more complex book than what may meet the eye, both pictorially and thematically, and at teh end of the day is a stunningly gorgeous. When I think of revisionist picture books I almost always firstly recall James Marshall and Szieska and Smith. I totally agree on the vital matter of white space and pacing as integral to qualification points, and of course this particular books aces those aspects. I also enthusiastically concur that the book is an instant read-aloud classic, and it has been one of the most popular titles this year for the five first grade classes and one second grade group I read to. I much enjoyed your own description the open mouthed students who were dazzled by this brilliant revision and visceral art. My personal favorites are the four row cereal spread (“After that day I became afraid of heights; I was so scared that it kept me from enjoying some of my favorite things.” and the electric wing spread following “Hopefully you’ll remember me as the egg who got back up.” The Barnes & Noble exclusive even offers up a fantastic orginal print of Humpty and his plane. The dust jacket cover, inside cover, spine and end papers are first-rate and make this presentation one of consumate excellence. But heck, I’ve said nothing revelatory, I’ve simply joined those on this rapturous bandwagon.

    I am most appreciative for this superlative essay, riveting and all encompassing. Mr. Santat has again moved picture book mountains here.

  2. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I seesaw back and forth between AFTER THE FALL and WOLF IN THE SNOW as the most distinguished. This book is ultimately about trauma and how, in time, we can rise above it. I love all the little wonderful funny moments in the book. One of my favorite spreads is the cereal aisle with the desired cereal (Sugar Frosted Sugar and Free Toy, for example) in full color on the top shelf and as you scan down the shelves it fades to black and white. On the bottom shelf you have cereals like Flax, Bland, Leaves, Cardboard, Bo-Rings, and Grown-Up Food. I love it!

  3. Susan Dailey says:

    Thank you, Eric, for sharing your experience of sharing this book with your students. And for your insightful review. This one is in my top five! I, too, love the cereal aisle. Santat chooses some unusual perspectives for his various illustrations that are very effective. His use of white space is superlative. I would be delighted if Mr. Santat becomes a multiple Caldecott winner this February.

  4. I have nothing to add. Eric, you nailed all of the peaks in this book. I liked BEEKLE, but AFTER THE FALL is definitely Santat’s masterpiece. The composition, the perspective, the angles, the thoughtful use of color, and that dynamite final spread. It’s nothing short of brilliant.

    At AASL, Santat told a hilarious anecdote about the final spread: some people just don’t understand the connection between the egg hatching and various fates surrounding the egg. One person thought a bird had flown through the egg, shattering it. To his credit, Santat has an excellent sense of humor about readers not making the connection (I personally think it’s insane that the spread could be interpreted any other way), but a little piece of me worries that this nit-picky quality could cost the book a gold. And this book – this sweet, magical, powerful, beautifully composed book, deserves the gold. All the gold.

  5. Mairi R Ross says:

    I’m glad to have another perspective as it is very different from the one I have. I found the book very unsettling in its promotion of self-absorption “I’m sure you’ve heard of me…Now you won’t think of me as the egg that fell off the wall” Actually most children will not have heard of “you” and have probably not “thought about you.” That is fairly psychotic/neurotic thinking No, everyone isn’t thinking about you.. I don’t have the book with me so I am paraphrasing.

    Also it seemed to me to encourage magical thinking (not healthy fantasy). Thinks are broken beyond repair….but wait… no, they aren’t. Children do know that things get broken and can’t be repaired. That is reality. I also thought that there was an unrealistic recovery fantasy of trauma and fear…. Just climb up the stairs and climb…. and Wow I’m free from fear. That is really not how the human psychology works. I was also disturbed by the “magical” hatching of the egg. Eggs do not hatch upon walls. Eggs hatch under mother birds.

    So, I appreciate all that you said, but I am quite unhappy with this choice for the Caldecott.

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