A Stone Sat Still

Cover of A Stone Sat StillRecently at his blog 100 Scope Notes, Travis Jonker set about calculating the likelihood that a Caldecott winner may repeat his or her win in the future. He’d crunched similar numbers for the Newbery already, but even so, the results surprised him. He wrote:

“I didn’t expect the number of repeat winners (47%) to be so high! Nearly half of all Caldecott Medal/Honor winners (between 1938 and 2010) have won multiple awards. That’s a big surprise to me. Much higher than the number of Newbery repeats.”

I mention this because, when it comes to prime candidates for multiple wins, Brendan Wenzel immediately comes to mind. Now, I should preface this by noting that while we might note whether or not an artist is a previous Caldecott winner or not, the Caldecott committee is forbidden to think in this manner. When they award the books before them, they do so based on the merit of the material, not the quality of the artist. Even so, I cannot help but think that if you scrubbed all memories of Wenzel’s previous books from the committee members’ minds (particularly his Caldecott Honor–winning They All Saw a Cat), they would still be just as delighted and intrigued by the work he’s produced in his newest title, A Stone Sat Still.

As with Cat, Stone is all about multiple perceptions of a single thing. A single stone stays still and silent, while all around the world is changing. It is a marker and a map. It is a feel and a smell. It’s a pebble to some and a mountain to others. The stone does not move, but neither does it exist in a vacuum. The world around it changes, and the fate of the stone changes with it. Cat was about how our perceptions of something guide our actions. Stone, in contrast, is about how our actions guide our perceptions. A stone can only be acted upon. Unlike the cat, it is inert. And, like the stone, this book will bear the weight of the perceptions of the people that examine it closely.

Just as the stone is many different things to many different creatures, so too is this book different to each reader that encounters it. Some will just view it as a sequel to They All Saw a Cat. Others will consider it a logical extension of that first book — but one with an increased depth and perspective. They may say that this isn’t just about one thing seen, smelled, touched, and loved from all possible angles. It’s a clever pairing of permanence in a changing world. That, naturally, will cause some to think of the book as an environmental tale. Though Wenzel himself has said that the slow submerging of the stone into the water is based on a rock of his own acquaintance at high tide, it’s not hard to extrapolate this book’s consideration of change into something much bigger than itself. Rising sea levels, anyone? Publishers Weekly probably said it best when they wrote that “the wonderful mixed-media creatures and their encounters entertain, while bigger ideas suggest all kinds of conversations about perception and perspective, wildlife and habitat, local and global change, and eternity and evanescence.”

[Read the Horn Book Magazine review of A Stone Sat Still]

And it’s Wenzel’s art that will linger in the minds of readers, long after they’ve closed the pages of this book. His distinctive mixed-media style. His choice of color, shade, tone, and hue. His big old buggy eyeballs, coming off sometimes as what would happen if Matt Groening had ever gotten artsy. And this art supports the writing. It interacts with the words on the page. This book might easily have been a wordless one, but because of the words, the result is a stronger product in the end.

The book’s Caldecott chances are noteworthy, yet those same chances may be affected by criticisms regarding its design. Kirkus, for example, cited “three unnecessary spreads” that they truly felt threw off the book's pacing. And as anyone who has ever served on a major ALA award committee knows, such critiques can take on huge proportions when you’ve as strong a year as 2019 has been. Perhaps at 1 a.m., when the committee has been meeting for hours, when their supply of chocolate has run dangerously low, when some of them are doing yoga against the walls to relieve lower back pain, maybe the combination of all these factors and a desperation to select a winner will lead the committee to pass this book over for something they deem stronger. It could happen. But just as the stone sits still, my faith is rock hard. This book is a powerful Caldecott contender. On this point, I shall not be budged.

 

Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is collection development manager of the Evanston (IL) Public Library and former youth materials specialist of the New York Public Library. She reviews for Kirkus and blogs for SLJ at A Fuse #8 Production. She is the author of Giant Dance Party (Greenwillow) and co-authored (with Julie Danielson and Peter D. Sieruta), Wild Things!: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature.

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