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Dreamers

Martha referred to 2018 (back in this post) as a “year of blockbusters,” and Yuyi Morales’s Dreamers may be the biggest blockbuster of them all. It’s a picture book that has gotten a lot of attention and adoration this year (one professional review calls it nothing less than a “masterpiece”) and is, in fact, already an award-winner. It was also a finalist in the category of Young Readers’ Literature for the 2018 Kirkus Prize. I don’t think it’s received a single review without a star attached to it.

Dreamers is a picture-book memoir: Morales tells her personal story of migrating from Mexico to the United States with her baby son in her arms, and she does so via acrylic illustrations into which she incorporates scanned photographs of things that have special meaning to her (a brick from her house, her son’s childhood drawings, leaves from her garden, her first handmade book, etc.); traditional Mexican fabrics; occasional embroidered text; and much more. Morales finds both refuge and her voice in the public library. It is there that she feels welcome and learns to trust. It is there that her journey to learn to read and speak English begins. It is there that she finds her life’s passion — writing and illustrating picture books. (Unable to read English, she learned to understand the picture books she saw by following the illustrations, which eventually inspired her to make her own books. Readers learn more details about this in her closing author’s note.) The story is in English with Spanish words incorporated — refreshingly, they are not italicized in the way Sabrina Montenigro addressed in this earlier Calling Caldecott post — and a Spanish edition of the book was also published.

This is a powerful story that may endear itself, in particular, to not only immigrants — many immigrants in a new country can attest to the power of libraries — but also book-lovers and librarians. And this is a book that is an ode to the picture book form itself. (For the books in Dreamers that we see on library shelves, Morales even paints the covers of specific picture books from past and present that mean a lot to her.) It gives me happy goosebumps every time I read it, especially when they enter the library and the spare, concise text reads: “Suspicious. Improbable. Unbelievable. Surprising. Unimaginable.” The look of wonder on their faces here, as they realize books are free for the taking, is a thing of beauty.

And, needless to say, on a political level, given the current administration’s immigration policies, the president’s utter disdain for all immigrants, and even this past weekend’s horrific tear-gassing of refugees at the U.S. border, it is also a timely book, an emotionally compelling story that asks us to consider what it is like for a mother and son to acclimate to a world foreign to them — with all the fears, anxiety, hopes, and dreams attendant to that experience. To be clear, the committee is charged with looking at the artistic merits of the books on the table in front of them. Period. The book’s political significance isn’t part of the criteria. At the same time, however, book evaluation doesn’t happen in a vacuum. (I suppose this is a complicated topic for a whole new post!)

And though this book is timely, it is also a book for the ages. It is a many-splendored thing, this book. Will the Caldecott committee be impressed? I’d bet my library card that they will be, but the big question is whether or not they think the book will rise above others. Only one book gets the big award. (I don’t envy the committee’s task this year.)

There is surely a lot to admire here. There’s abundant symbolism in the creatures of flight/freedom Morales paints, all creatures who migrate from Mexico to the U.S. to find places to feed their young. This includes one or more monarch butterfly on each spread after mother and son cross a bridge at the book’s opening, as well as birds (barn swallows) and free-tailed bats (who migrate north from Mexico to give birth to one pup each). There are also symbols of Mexican mythology — mother and son’s gifts to their new country — including a playful, red-cheeked, smiling skull Morales carries in her backpack, likely representing Día de Muertos, and a Xoloitzcuintli, or Mexican Hairless Dog. In that backpack also sits what looks like a sacred heart of Mexican folk art with an eye on it, as well as a pencil; in other words, she brought with her to this new world her unique vision, her passion, and her talents. Also note that on the second library spread there is someone who has wings on her feet. Could it be a librarian that Morales sees as a winged Mercury, messenger/communicator of the gods? (Note: I wondered about the book’s symbols and looked them up, especially the meaning of the creatures; this kind of research is something committees often do. Morales also visited my blog earlier this year to talk about some of these symbols.)

Morales also plays with perspective in meaningful ways throughout the book. When she depicts her arrival in this new country and notes that the “sky and the land” used words that were not “those of our ancestors,” words are depicted as clouds, written backwards in the sky, as if the sky itself is saying them. We are momentarily put in her shoes, struggling to read as she did. We as readers are behind her, as she holds her son’s hand and attempts to read a map that reads very differently if you don’t speak its language. And when they first enter the library, we as readers are placed behind mother and son and see what they see: the shelves of books loom large, and the two see the library as if through tunnel vision. It is both overwhelming and awe-inspiring. (This spread’s composition is slightly imbalanced, but perhaps Morales intended this, as it is not a moment without some tension.)

The colors here are vivid. Morales’s own skirt — composed of what appear to be flower petals oriented vertically, as if she herself is in bloom — is distinctive, and she and her son, who is sometimes diaper-clad, form an indelible image. I think they’re two of the most visually distinctive characters we’ve seen in picture books this year. (I can already imagine them standing in Lolly’s mock voting booth.) Also indelible to me is the opening image of mother and son, stretching toward each other, as she “dreamed” of him. Morales’s vistas here are dreamlike — buildings that look like they’re undulating in fog when they first arrive, a snake outlined in the sky (most likely, a constellation), mushrooms the size of buildings, houses that stand askew — because they are the stuff of memories here, and they are imbued with the emotions she felt at the time, both fear and wonder.

Morales is an artist with a distinctive style. She has a unique way of composing spreads, and we see that here again in Dreamers. Some of her compositions do not have a singular focus; she tends to scatter objects about (as on the “Unimaginable” spread, in which floating around mother and son as they read are objects/creatures we assume are from the books they hold) with not necessarily one path on the page to draw readers’ eyes. In Dreamers, I think this is fitting. There is a lot on each page for readers to take in and a lot of intricate symbolism to consider, but this is a transcendent and grand story (every spread is full-bleed, as Morales has a lot to say) about discovering new worlds, about creativity itself, and about finding one’s voice, which Morales manages to make both personal and universal. Will the committee think of her composition choices in this way? We will find out in January.

At the end of her closing author’s note, Morales writes: “Now I have told you my story. What’s yours?” One story that hasn’t been told yet in its 80-year history is the awarding of the Caldecott Medal to a female illustrator of color. If this committee likes what they see here, Morales could be the first. That would be another powerful story worth telling.

Julie Danielson About Julie Danielson

Julie Danielson writes about picture books at the blog Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. She also writes for Kirkus Reviews and BookPage and is a lecturer for the School of Information Sciences graduate program at the University of Tennessee. Her book Wild Things!: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature, written with Betsy Bird and Peter D. Sieruta, was published in 2014.

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Comments

  1. Yes it is at in Las Vegas it is the prohibitive betting favorite.

    Just kidding of course, as no such line to me knowledge exists in the gambling capital of the world but it is no stretch to assert that DREAMERS is a major, major, major, major contender for this year’s Caldecott in a remarkably rich and competitive field. I own BOTH the English and Spanish language versions which are ideal for a school district of 85% Hispanic registration. The book is loved, and your final observation which informs that there has never been a female illustrator of color in the winner’s circle is a telling one. It appears you have meticulously examined the book’s style, content, theme, color and perspective in such a comprehensive way that there is little to add aside from jumping on the bandwagon for this masterpiece, arguably Morales premiere creation yet. I am still gathering my own notes but suffice to say this is quite a spectacular entry in this year’s Calling Caldecott. When the Horn Book voters have their say (presumable in early January) we all can be rest assured this will perform mightily.

  2. Dean Schneider says:

    Thank you, Julie, for your thorough and thoughtful reading of DREAMERS. This is what I’m loving about Calling Caldecott–the beautifully written and carefully analyzed treatments of such good books, helping all of us to look more closely as we find our own favorites.

  3. Jonathan Hunt says:

    This would be my choice for the Caldecott. Are you planning to cover Duncan Tonatiuh’s UNDOCUMENTED?

  4. Jonathan, yes!

  5. Brenda Martin says:

    I, too, feel that this is the definite frontrunner for the 2019 Caldecott, which could go two ways. It could be The Lion and the Mouse, which everyone expected, OR it could become an honor or also-ran when consensus cannot be brought around it. Despite the feel-good angle of how the library helped Morales, there will be some who may find it just a little saccharine and playing to those conveying the award. And while it may come as a shock, not everyone loves Morales’ illustration style, while I would hope that most can at least appreciate the amazing amount of effort she puts into each page spread.

    There were also a couple moments when I wondered if the Spanish needed clarification in the English version of the text for non-Spanish speaking readers: “caminantes”, “lucha”, but that is not related to the illustration.

  6. Susan Dailey says:

    What a fantastic review for a great book! I told co-workers when I read it that this will win the Caldecott. (Of course, I’m rarely right so…) What an ode to the power of libraries and picture books! Julie, you cover many great details/strengths of the illustrations. A couple of things that impressed me–Morales was able to mimic the illustration style in the various picture books so that they were instantaneously recognizable. There are so many details to pour over that I think the committee will keep coming back to this book to discover new things each time–like the apparent “sun” over the librarian’s desk when they first come to the library. I also like the difference between Morales and her son’s eyes on the paper jacket and the cloth cover. What a different feel those illustrations provoke.

    When I showed it to a co-worker, she was bothered by the skirt. She felt it was upside down. It was interesting to read your interpretation of Morales blooming.

  7. Susan, my youngest daughter still talks about that skirt — and how it’s upside-down, in her mind. That skirt is a mystery, isn’t it? They could even be flames, not flower petals. It’s definitely open to interpretation.

    I also noticed that about the cover and dust jacket. So many details, as you said! Thanks for pointing that out here.

    Brenda, I would think that what you point out about the Spanish text (though I realize it won’t be an issue for everyone) would actually be a consideration for the committee. As Dean Schneider pointed out in a Calling Caldecott comment recently: “Joe said that text is not under much scrutiny by the Caldecott committee, but it is, really, and it’s important for us to be aware of this as we discuss all of these books. The Caldecott Award is primarily for illustration, but when the text ‘makes the book less effective as a picture book’ it is a part of the discussion, and this is the case fairly often. In a picture book, where the interplay of illustration and text is essential to the success of the book, a weak text makes that interplay less effective.”

    (And as a member of last year’s committee, Dean would certainly know!)

    So, maybe what you are saying WOULD be a factor after all.

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