Subscribe to The Horn Book

Silent Days, Silent Dreams

Like many of you, I reckon, I did not know about artist James Castle until I read Silent Days, Silent Dreams by Allen Say. Castle is described as deaf, mute, autistic, and probably dyslexic, yet for over 70 years he created a staggering range of stunningly original folk art objects.

In this fictionalized, biographical treatment of Castle’s life, Say uses several different mediums to great effect: watercolor, pen and ink, charcoal (what is actually soot mixed with spit), sculptures made from found objects, and other materials reminiscent of the style of James Castle.

In an interesting side note, the estate of James Castle found the book too reminiscent and sought an injunction to have the publication halted, due to copyright infringement, but the court ruled in Scholastic’s favor. You can read the decision here, view some of Castle’s original artwork here, and make your own decision. The Caldecott committee may discuss if this is “original work,” but it’s not bound by the same legal definition, and it seems unlikely to me that this would be a serious problem. My Caldecott committee recognized two books in this vein, Viva Frida and The Noisy Paint Box: The Colors and Sounds of Kandinsky’s Abstract Art, and last year’s committee gave the Medal to Radiant Child; The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. It’s always interesting to see illustrators make choices about how closely to hew to the spirit and style of the artist they are depicting. If nothing else, this digression makes for fascinating reading and good fodder for that integrated Caldecott/copyright-law lesson you’ve always wanted to put together!

Often, Say’s art is confined to panels that are strategically arranged on the page but complemented by generous white space, hand-drawn spot illustrations, or photographed reproductions. (The layouts are reminiscent of his memoirs Drawing from Memory and The Inker’s Shadow, and they are equally effective here.) Some of the art illustrates the text, but a good portion of the art is editorial, expanding on the textual narrative with a visual one. The interplay between the text, the art, and the layout leaves lots of room for readers to construct their own meaning, making the book eminently discussable in committee.

I’d like to add a word about the portrayal of disability here. I think it presents an interesting foil to the deaf character in Erin Entrada Kelly’s Hello, Universe (a middle-grade novel getting its own Newbery buzz), who functions exceptionally well in a hearing world. James Castle is at the other end of the spectrum. He was severely impaired in terms of his linguistic ability. I taught a DHH (Deaf and Hard of Hearing) class for one year (I have had a moderate-to-severe hearing loss since birth, and I am fluent in American Sign Language), and most people are surprised to learn that most deaf students fall into the severely disabled category. Make no mistake: young children have a very narrow window in which to acquire language, and those who do not are linguistically challenged for the rest of their lives.

To my mind, the highest moral purpose of art and literature is to fully explore what it means to be human, and what this book says quite powerfully is that to be human is to express oneself through the process of creation. Viewing the Caldecott criteria through this lens is what elevates this book to serious contention.

Read the Horn Book Magazine review of Silent Days, Silent Dreams.

About Jonathan Hunt

Jonathan Hunt is the coordinator of library media services at the San Diego County Office of Education.



  1. “Like many of you, I reckon, I did not know about artist James Castle until I read Silent Days, Silent Dreams by Allen Say. Castle is described as deaf, mute, autistic, and probably dyslexic, yet for over 70 years he created a staggering range of stunningly original folk art objects.”

    Yep, precisely. And I think so many of us are lucky the court did rule in Scholastic’s favor, as it serves for children and their adult guardians an inordinately beautiful record of a unique, too-long-obscured talent and of the wrenching story behind his difficult life. Say is a technical master of the highest order, and his GRANDFATHER’S JOURNEY one of the most magisterial of all Caldecott Medal winners. This new book is a marvel of diversity, probably too pictorially complex for the youngest readers, though for adults an instant classic. Obviously it is a long shot for Caldecott recognition, as it doesn’t exactly ace all the stated qualification points, but methinks it is one of the most magnificent books released in 2017 for the poignant and often rapturous art, the lovely pose and the irresistible subject. (I do well remember your Caldecott committee’s work, and applauded your six Honor book choices and bold decision making though personally since you opened the door here I will say I had a slight personal preference for the MacLachlen/Hooper collaboration “The Iridescence of Birds” and the Burleigh/Minor teaming “Edward Hopper Paints His World,” though I still love your Kandinsky selection exceedingly.) VIVA FRIDA is a supreme masterpiece as is last year’s gold winner from Javaka Steptoe methinks. But heck these are the musings of an outsider, you people spent a full year in exhaustive immersion, so kudos to you for that, and in the end like many others I celebrated your selections!)

    With book in hand I am again in awe of the art, the effective use of monochrome, the sparing color, the arresting sketch drawings, the unique ability to shift tone from page to page, and perhaps more amazingly how these shifts contribute to an artistic whole. Though overused I’ll still say there is a cinematic quality to this presentation, images and tapestries flow in a manner comparable to silent cinema, with the prose paragraphs as inter-titles. It is an amazing work, a supreme example of book craftsmanship and though a dark horse, could well reach the finish line with a committee surprise. I know I’d stand up and cheer if that were to happen.

    Thank you for a most informative, candid and riveting qualification essay, as well as a marvelous delineation of the work’s artistry. Much appreciated those links too!

  2. I must say, as the HB reviewer of this book, that I was so unclear about whether all the art in the book was Say’s that we waited for a finished copy (with the appended notes) before reviewing. The art IS all by Say (and his wife, for the assemblages) but the imitations of Castle’s work are so close–and so different from Say’s watercolors–that I can see why the estate raised its eyebrows.

  3. I was disappointed when I found out that the work was not that of Castle’s, and almost betrayed in some sense. It felt to me, especially given the informal text, that the work was being presented as Castle’s work. This was especially frustrating to me given that most of the people reading this book will not be previously familiar with the artist or his work, and will likely walk away assuming that it is his, not reproductions.

    I feel that it’s different from last year’s Radiant Child. With that book I thought the work was a brilliant homage, using some of the techniques and images of the featured artist, but still clearly the illustrator’s own work. This just felt deceptive to me. I can’t put my finger on exactly why, but it didn’t feel like an homage, it felt like replacement.

Comment Policy:
  1. Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  2. Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  3. Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through (though some comments with links to multiple URLs are held for spam-check moderation by the system). If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.

We accept clean XHTML in comments, but don't overdo it and please limit the number of links submitted in your comment. For more info, see the full Terms of Use.

Speak Your Mind