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A Big Mooncake for Little Star

Jules got to write the Magazine review for this book, so I need to thank her for letting me take it on for Calling Caldecott. It has been on my top five list since I first saw it in the Horn Book office. It’s the story of Little Star, who helps her mother bake an enormous mooncake, then sneaks off night after night to nibble away at it. In case it wasn’t obvious from the start, a spread halfway through the book (and on the cover boards under the jacket) makes it clear that this is about the phases of a waning moon from full to nearly new.

I’ll get around to why I think it’s such a strong contender for the Caldecott in a bit, but first I want to say something the real committee will not be allowed to mention. As you may know, the Caldecott Manual specifies that books being considered may be compared only to other books published that year and that members are “not to consider earlier works of any author.”

Fadeaway art by Coles PhillipsLin’s style has become easily recognizable. She might have continued to create excellent and award-winning books (Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, etc.) illustrated with her tried-and-true swirled and patterned backgrounds, but she goes way out on a limb here. Or way up into the sky. The background throughout this book is flat black, sometimes with tiny dots of stars — a black that merges with her characters’ black clothing in the fadeaway style popularized by Coles Phillips early in the twentieth century. I love that Lin chose to dive into new illustrative territory for this book. When Phillips used this style, he was setting up an interesting figure drawing challenge that resulted in fashionable ladies who faded into their surroundings in a somewhat ghostly way. Or maybe a self-effacing way, depending on your perspective. For Lin, this style works perfectly with her characters, providing a subtle clue from the start that these characters might be more than your average mother-and-daughter pair.

A detail from the cover art under the jacket.

Even though Lin’s new style can’t be mentioned as being new to her, committee members may still choose to comment on the unusual blending of the background into the edges of each figure. Does it work with the overall tone of the book? Absolutely. The text, art, characterization, and tone are all cheeky and a bit mysterious. For those on their second, third, or fiftieth readings, hidden clues point to the actual nature of this duo’s activities. The revealing cover (under the jacket) is probably the most obvious clue, but the endpapers, with their homage to Robert McCloskey’s Blueberries for Sal, contain numerous visual references to constellations. (Lin talks about some of her influences in this video.)

Look at the book’s design from start to finish, especially as it relates to the experience of reading this book aloud. The rich black background allows every word placement extra significance, as when Little Star runs toward the mooncake — “Pat / pat / pat.” — with the text starting large and getting smaller, encouraging the reader to become quieter. Up to that point, the book’s horizontal shape and left-to-right trajectory follow a traditional journey format. But on this spread the diagonal juxtaposition of mooncake, girl, and text toward the upper left reinforces the fact that Little Star is making a detour in the wrong direction. Suspense!

Most of all, I admire Lin’s ability to allow this book to explore such a vast idea using a dramatic style and black-and-yellow palette in a way that allows the reader to feel both the hugeness of space and the coziness of a loving mother-child relationship.

 

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.

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Comments

  1. The book strongly echoes Ida Pearle’s “The Moon Is Going to Addy’s House” from a few years ago and to a lesser extent the Caldecott Medal winning “Many Moons” by James Thurber and Louis Slobodkin. It is to be sure a captivating, exquisite work that surely deserves strong consideration from the committee, a conviction that applies to past titles reviewed here and a number of others to come. Love the lush contrast accentuated by the black base and the intrepid nature of these two expert cake makers. When you add the magnificent inside cover and the end papers (yep I saw that McCloskey title too!) you have a lush package and a book that will never fail to have students smiling, much as I can report first-hand. Beautifully written and passionate presentation here Lolly, with a full mastery of the book’s structure and word integration. The art is really sumptuous with some indelible vignettes.

  2. Allison Grover Khoury says:

    I was transfixed by this book as I stood at the bookstore counter reading it for the first time. I was not prepared for the mystery only really catching the clues at the end. This book has stayed in my top 10 all year. Grace Lin is an artistic treasure and we are lucky to have her publishing in the United States. I love your review and I have high hopes for this book in the Caldecott process.

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