2021 CaldeNotts

If we here at Calling Caldecott ran the world, one of the first things we’d do is make it so that the Caldecott award could become an international award. The Caldecott manual states: “The award is restricted to artists who are citizens or residents of the United States.” But, as Martha noted in this Horn Book Magazine editorial from early this year, this is an antiquated rule. “We should be,” Martha wrote, “celebrating — and recognizing — the whole glorious world of children’s books published in the United States in 2019, not an arbitrary and exclusionary subset.”

To that I say: Hear! Hear!

Alas, this U.S. restriction still exists. The least we can do here at Calling Caldecott, and we like to do this every year, is acknowledge some "CaldeNotts." CaldeNotts—a term coined by Thom Barthelmess—are exceptional picture books published in any given year that are not eligible for the Caldecott, because the illustrator doesn’t have U.S. citizenship or residency or because the book was originally published in another country. (The manual also says any Caldecott-wining book must be published by an American publisher in the United States in English.) 

I think it’s been an exceptionally good year for such books, and it’s hard to narrow, but here goes:


I Talk Like a River — This is a picture book you won’t soon forget, and it is nothing less than a masterpiece. Both author Jordan Scott (also a poet) and illustrator Sydney Smith are Canadian, so no Caldecott for this one. It’s the story of a boy who struggles with stuttering. On a “bad speech day,” his father takes him to the river and says to him about the whirling, bubbling, and crashing water, which eventually becomes calm beyond the rapids: “See how that water moves? That’s how you speak.” This framework for understanding provides clarity for the boy. Smith works wonders here, playing visually with Scott’s figurative language; capturing with impressionistic touches the boy’s tumultuous interior world; and also capturing with eloquence the river—both churning and smooth and always shimmering with sunlight—as the boy comes to understand that “even the river stutters. Like I do.” Powerful. And utterly exquisite.



Letters from Bear — This Belgian import is the epistolary tale of one bear’s strange, surreal, and touching journey to find a beloved friend — and the adventures had along the way. A note on the book’s copyright pages states that illustrator Marie Caudry had begun a series of paintings about “globe-trotting bears,” and it’s these very paintings that inspired her partner, Gauthier David, to write this story. It is a text that is lengthier than your average picture book, but Caudry’s illustrations, possessing an understated humor, extend and interpret the text in distinctive and offbeat ways.



Migrants — In this powerful wordless story from Peruvian author-illustrator Issa Watanabe, we follow a group of animals trekking across land and sea. A skeletal creature, assumed to be Death and accompanied by a tall blue ibis, follows these migrants. There is danger, death, and loss, which the group pauses to mourn. I reviewed this for the Horn Book earlier this year and noted its severe, distinctive palette, which includes a pitch-black background on each spread and a thin, green strip of grass, as if a stage the animals walk across. There are pops of color in the animals’ clothing and rose-colored blooms on the trees they pass, which ultimately represent a sign of hope. This story, altogether devoid of sentimentality, is stark. And it stays with you.



The Paper Boat — If this wordless book were eligible for the Caldecott, I’d love to be a fly on the wall to hear committee members dive in to and discuss it. At the age of three, author-illustrator Thao Lam arrived in Canada, where she still lives, as a Vietnamese refugee. She was but a child when her family fled their home country on a small fishing boat with nearly 30 other passengers. Landing in Malaysia, Thao and her family lived in a refugee camp. This book is her personal story, but it’s told with an unusual twist — ants. The ants’ journey, mirroring the ones refugees still take all over the world, is perilous. Not all of the ants survive. Lam works in a distinctive paper collage style, and this particular story makes use of panels to pace the narrative. Her limited palette uses color effectively, and the visual storytelling here is rich and layered.


Mexique: A Refugee Story from the Spanish Civil War — María José Ferrada dramatizes the story of over 400 children who fled the violence of the Spanish Civil War on May 27, 1937, and sailed for Morelia, Mexico. Told from the point of view of one child who says goodbye to her mother and thinks it will be “an extra-long summer vacation,” the story invites us into the journey: “War is a very loud noise. War is a huge hand that shakes you and throws you onto a ship.” Illustrator Ana Penyas, like Thao Lam, uses a limited palette; in this story, she utilizes a spare and powerful use of red. (I’m not sure the medium here, but it looks like perhaps charcoal was used, at least in part, and charcoal illustrations are the way to my heart.) You may be noticing a theme here; this is yet another powerful, somber story of people being misplaced. These are stories that need to be told. And Penyas’s illustrations extend the story in poignant ways.



Green on Green — In a spare and eloquent rhythmic text, author Dianne White takes readers through the seasons of a year — from spring to winter. “Yellow the flower,” the book begins. “Yellow the seed. Yellow and black the buzzing bee.” Rich colors dominate these sensory observations; readers go from the yellows of spring to the blues and turquoises of summer to the browns of fall to the whites of winter. But we see faithful green every season. Each season seamlessly flows into the next, thanks in large part to the choices of illustrator Felicita Sala, who draws many parallels on these expertly composed spreads. Some of these spreads are simply breathtaking (O! the sumptuous COLORS!), and all of them provide such delightful, rewarding details. But! Sala lives in Italy. So, though this book won’t get Caldecott love, I’m giving it lots of CaldeNott love.




Neighbors — This is the debut picture book from Kasya Denisevich, a Russian-born author-illustrator now living in Barcelona. “If you stop to think about it … My ceiling is someone’s floor, and my floor is someone’s ceiling.” A contemplative young girl moves into a new apartment and wonders who lives in the building: “If I could stretch my hand through that wall, I could actually touch someone. And that someone is my new neighbor!” Denisevich’s fine-lined ink drawings are beguiling, and there’s a lot of detail to pore over here. She uses color, sparingly, to great effect. The grayscale illustrations pop with subtle spots of red, including occasionally in the text, to represent our narrator. It is not until her first day of school that we finally start to see shades of other colors, including a sunny spot of yellow for a new friend in the hallway—and then in the blossoms of trees as they walk to school. The book’s endpapers—the tiles of the building’s hallway—also play cleverly with color. And this is a lovingly designed book: The typeset is called Kasya Hand — a font created from the author’s handlettering.

If you want to read even more picture book imports from this year, or those illustrated by international artists, I'd also recommend these: 

  • The Bear and the Duck — a French import from author-illustrator May Angeli
  • Every Color of Light — a Japanese import, written by Hiroshi Osada and illustrated by Ryōji Ara
  • My Little One — a French import from Germano Zullo and illustrated by Albertine, the 2020 Hans Christian Andersen Illustrator Award winner
  • Nasla's Dream —a French import, written by Cécile Roumiguière and illustrated by Simone Rea
  • The Shadow Elephant — a Canadian import, translated from French, written by Nadine Robert and illustrated by Valerio Vidali
  • A Story About Afiya — written by late Jamaican poet James Berry and illustrated by Anna Cunha, a Brazilian artist 
  • The Old Woman — written by Joanne Schwartz and illustrated by Nahid Kazemi, who studied art in Tehran; has taught art and exhibited her art all over the world; and who currently lives in Montreal
  • This Old Dog — written by Martha Brockenbrough and illustrated by Gabriel Alborozo, who lives in England
  • The Wanderer — a Dutch import from Peter Van Den Ende, who was just awarded the Dilys Evans Founders' Award from the Society of Illustrators
  • Where Are You, Agnes? — written by Canadian author Tessa McWatt and illustrated by Zuzanna Celej, who is originally from Poland and currently lives in Barcelona

I love reading across borders. I find it fascinating to see what other countries are doing with picture books — and to see the visual (and visionary) landscapes of illustrators from across the globe. I'm sure there are even more outstanding CaldeNott-eligible picture books I haven't seen. Tell us about your favorites in the comments! 


Julie Danielson
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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Angela Reynolds

There are so many beautiful Canadian books this year! I do love Talk Like a River. There's also "When Emily was Small" by Lauren Soloy; "The Invisible Bear" by Cecile Metzger; "I dream of a Journey" by Akiko Myakoshi, to name a few. And I second "A Story about Afiya", such a beautiful book!

Posted : Nov 23, 2020 03:44

Allison Grover Khoury

Thanks for this review - what beautiful and intriguing books. I read Martha's piece earlier this year with interest. The same goes for this piece. I don't know what to think, frankly. I appreciate the ongoing discussion about the national restrictions on our ALA awards.

Posted : Nov 17, 2020 06:16

Betsy Bird

Oh! Oh! Sugar in Milk, illustrated by Khoa Le. Or, if you prefer, The Most Beautiful Thing, illustrated by . . . . Khoa Le. Basically, pretty much anything Khoa Le has created. For that matter I adore I Dream of a Journey by Akiko Miyakoshi. (Can you tell I like this game?)

Posted : Nov 17, 2020 05:21


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