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Rivers of Sunlight

For the third time since Calling Caldecott started, I get to talk about a new book in the Sunlight Series. I hope you all know these books. The first (My Light, 2004) was by Molly Bang alone. For 2009’s Living Sunlight and the following three books, Bang shared writing credit with Penny Chisholm, bringing out a new entry every two or three years (Ocean Sunlight in 2012, Buried Sunlight in 2014, and now Rivers of Sunlight). These are books I wish I’d seen as a middle schooler trying to wrap my brain around the larger aspects of earth science. Encountering them as an adult reader has led me to understand how several large systems are interconnected, as well as explaining facts that I half remembered in a perfectly concrete and visual way.

In Rivers of Sunlight, the narrator is once again the Sun, of crucial importance to the topic at hand: how water flows around the planet. There’s no question these books are a labor of love, providing good science (six pages of back matter in this one!) that is presented in a visual language that is both clear and breathtakingly beautiful.

Does this book deserve to be looked at closely by the Caldecott committee? Absolutely! Do I think it really has a chance at a Caldecott Medal or Honor? Honestly, I doubt it. Maybe a Sibert, though? None of the previous books in this series have been given medals, but maybe this is the year.

What might the Caldecott committee make of this book? What reservations might they have?

It’s part of a series, so it would need to stand on its own, regardless of previous volumes. I think the art will be parsed more quickly by those who are already familiar with Bang’s art in the previous books — yellow dots in waves to show light as both particle and wave; yellow outlines denoting energy originating with the Sun; molecules shown as colored dots stuck together. That said, all of the choices Bang makes in Rivers of Sunlight would make sense to someone reading this book first.

Would the committee need to worry about the audience age for this book? No. According to the Terms and Criteria, children must be the “intended potential audience,” but “children are defined as persons of ages up to and including fourteen and picture books for this entire age range are to be considered.”

I think the criteria-related discussion is more likely to focus on the question of whether this book is “one that essentially provides the child with a visual experience.” There should be “a collective unity of story-line, theme, or concept, developed through the series of pictures of which the book is comprised.” Yes, the award has gone to nonfiction in the past, but those books tend to be biography (like last year’s winner Radiant Child) or history (2016 winner Finding WinnieLocomotive in 2014). I think a science book like this fits the collective-unity criterion because of the concepts developed through the series of pictures. But in case anyone feels strongly about needing a unity of story-line, the red-shirted child on each spread should do the trick.

I think a rational discussion would prove that this book is eligible. What concerns me more is that the cleverness of Bang’s illustrations might mask their artistry. Like all the books in this series, this one explains some pretty complex systems that require complex art. If a lesser illustrator were to attempt to accomplish everything Bang does in each spread, these books would look crowded and off-putting. Somehow, Bang manages to include tiny details along with large movements of water on spreads that are both gorgeously colored and that also have a clear focus. I’ll admit there are two spreads where the heavy white text gets a bit lost within the art, despite the use of a deep blue dropshadow. But that’s only an initial impression on first turning the page. Once the reader has committed to understanding the science, it becomes clear that the text must overlap those specific portions of the art. But still, this is such a minor quibble compared to what this book does well.

There’s another reason why I think this book has a chance this year. By book’s end, the fragile balance of this particular aspect of our ecosystem has become crystal clear. Might certain political choices bring this book’s importance forward? On the last spread, the red-shirted child holds a drop of water, while the text asks if we can do our part to keep the Earth’s water clean: “Your life depends on the whole web of life.”


Read the Horn Book Magazine review of Rivers of Sunlight here.


Lolly Robinson About Lolly Robinson

Lolly Robinson is the creative director for The Horn Book, Inc. She has degrees in studio art and children's literature and teaches children's literature at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education. She has served on the Caldecott and Boston Globe-Horn Book Award committees and blogs for Calling Caldecott and Lolly's Classroom on this site.



  1. “Does this book deserve to be looked at closely by the Caldecott committee? Absolutely! Do I think it really has a chance at a Caldecott Medal or Honor? Honestly, I doubt it. Maybe a Sibert, though? None of the previous books in this series have been given medals, but maybe this is the year.”

    I agree that the book’s chances are very slim, especially since it would have to be chosen over both Katherine Roy’s elephant non-fiction book and Jason Chin’s Grand Canyon to score in the Caldecott equation. One non-fiction book expanding out from the Sibert is rare enough, but two is practically unprecedented. I think these are useful and beautiful books, and this series as you note when you professed a wish to have these during your own formative years is superlative. Still I could well understand the timing and topicality you explain in the final paragraph upping the odds a bit. What complicates the situation here is that the previous books need to be read first. And though deservedly acclaimed none of the books received Caldecott recognition. The art is sublime, the style dazzling, the incorporation with text inspired. As to the complex art, we saw what Peter Sis did his three Caldecott Honor books (ROBINSON by comparison is simple, though just as sublime) so I am not sure that would be a problem with the committee. Anyway, fantastic case for this book, much as you accomplished for the others in the series. The book is an amazing achievement.

  2. Lolly Robinson Lolly Robinson says:

    I actually think the authors do a good job re-introducing the premise in each book. BUT I read each book when it was published, so I may be wrong in imagining the experience of reading this book first without the others.

    Sam, I’d be interested in hearing specifics about how you think this one works/doesn’t work on its own.

  3. Lolly, I have the book right in front of me now. Well, I don’t feel there can be any doubt that this book works on its own, and spectacularly at that. You are the one who initially alerted me to this series years ago, and your championship of it is not only artistically warranted but an alert to science teachers and librarians to avail themselves of such a remarkable, invaluable resource. The often exquisite art interacts with the text impressively and in an interactive manner. The utilization of size comparison (balls in the “Almost all of the Earth’s water is in your salty seas”) to show how little of the Earth is really composed of water despite the covering (a thin, thin film says Bang and Chisholm) which is roughly two-thirds of the planet’s surface. The floating molecules are presented with splendid color and buoyancy, topped by the boy being carried up into the air by balloons. The boy is actually a central character, in a learning narrative, one kids will much enjoy following. During the well explains rain sequence he floats by in a boat, protected by an umbrella, and in the subsequent water vapor spread he rides through on a flying carpet.

    The mountains/And so water cycles round and round, over and over again employs geographical terrain to excellent effect, bringing pictorial allure to the natural process that ends with plant nourishment. Symbolically the boy moves water from a well; on the following canvas he is shown as a juggler, simplifying for readers the sun’s explanation of why the rivers down’t dry up – it is in fact on endless cycle.

    Outstanding illustrations to explain and visualize circulation and how on the earth the process is comparable to that of a human’s own use of water. Squiggling lines go a long way to enhancing the entire gulf stream effect. A particularly efficacious canvas is the one explaining that water is heavier than ice, salt water heavier than fresh water and cold water holding more oxygen than warm water resulting in a waterfall inside the sea. The art is captivating and confirms the various comparative points. The boy riding the conveyor belt is educational and loads of fun. The ancient waterworks, and water balance change tapestries are simply STUNNING. And the final page is as you note a real deal breaker.

    Thanks for inviting me to engage with this book again. The art is immersive and it is bold and often delightful. But it does what the best art in picture books accomplish: it takes words to a new dimension, providing compelling comparative pictures that probably eclipse anything the mind could conjure up.

    Lolly this book is simply a MASTERPIECE.

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