Drummer Hoff and “Didactic Intent”

This is the fourth of a continuing series of articles celebrating the history of the
Caldecott which marks its seventy-fifth anniversary this year. Librarian and children’s literature Kathleen T. Horning will look at one seminal but unheralded Caldecott book of each decade — identifying trends and misconceptions, noting the changing nature of the picture book, wrestling with issues and definitions. Here she examines the 1968 winner, Drummer Hoff (Prentice-Hall), adapted by Barbara Emberley and illustrated by Ed Emberley, for its “excellence of pictorial presentation” as contrasted with “didactic intent.”

drummer hoff"Drummer Hoff fired it off.” So begins the ingenious picture book by Ed and Barbara Emberley, winner of the 1968 Caldecott Medal. Each line of cumulative rhyming text introduces a soldier, from private to major, who brings a piece of the cannon they are assembling in time for General Border to give the order to fire, which lowly Drummer Hoff does while the cannon is pointed at the line of his military superiors. An intensely vibrant double-page spread shows the explosion, with the word KAHBAHBLOOOM, and a final wordless single page shows the decaying cannon in a field of flowers, taken over by nesting birds, a spider in a web, a butterfly, worms, and a grasshopper.

The visual conclusion is bound to leave young readers with a question: “Where have all the soldiers gone?” It’s the same question that was asked by Pete Seeger in his famous folk song from the 1960s, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” Those who know the song will know the answer: “Gone to graveyards every one.” And, as with Drummer Hoff, the graveyards end “covered with flowers.” Whether the Emberleys had the song in mind while they were working on Drummer Hoff is not known. But today it certainly appears that the book and the song have the same message: men destroy one another through warfare, after which peace prevails — but at a cost.

A note appended to the very end of the terms and criteria for the Caldecott Medal reads: “The committee should keep in mind that the award is for distinguished illustrations in a picture book and for excellence of pictorial presentation for children. The award is not for didactic intent or for popularity.” Within the children’s literature field, we talk a lot about the fact that the Caldecott Award is not for popularity. We talk less often about didactic intent. Perhaps this is because children’s book critics are so leery of anything that smacks of didacticism. No one wants to be preached at through art, we argue, especially not children.

And yet we preach to children all the time through their books. We preach that they should share with others. We preach that they should be proud to be individuals. We preach that they should not be bullies. We preach that they should learn to be independent. We preach that they should be really, really sleepy at bedtime. Through Drummer Hoff, we preach that flowers have more lasting power than bombs. The didactic intent is clear. But so is the “excellence of pictorial presentation.”

The text for Drummer Hoff was inspired by an old English cumulative folk rhyme called “John Ball Shot Them All,” about a group of men building a gun:

John Patch made the match,
And John Clint made the flint,
And John Puzzle made the muzzle,
And John Crowder made the powder,
And John Block made the stock,
And John Wyming made the priming,
And John Brammer made the rammer,
And John Scott made the shot,
But John Ball shot them all.

It’s easy to see why this rhyme had faded into obscurity by the twentieth century, if only for the outdated weaponry it describes. And, clearly, the conclusion, in which all the men are shot, is not the stuff of the contemporary nursery, at least not when adults are in charge. In his Caldecott acceptance speech, Ed Emberley said as much: “John Ball shooting them all did not seem an appropriate ending to the tale, and so the refrain was changed to ‘Drummer Hoff fired it off.’” Part of the Emberleys’ genius was in bringing this old rhyme back in a socially acceptable form by placing it in an antiwar context.

The original rhyme might also have its roots in a political context. Some folklore scholars, most notably James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps (The Nursery Rhymes of England, 1842), have linked it to a real historical figure, a priest named John Ball (1338–1381) who took part in a peasants’ revolt against Richard II. Ball rebelled not just against the king but against the church itself, and was famous for saying, “When Adam delved and Eve span, / Who was then the gentleman?” His challenge to England’s aristocracy was considered so incendiary that he was arrested and eventually executed.

It sounds like John Ball would have been right at home in the American political landscape of the 1960s, with the Woodstock generation trying to get itself “back to the garden.” And so, too, was Drummer Hoff, not so much for his politics as for the psychedelic color scheme and military uniforms that owe as much to Sgt. Pepper as they do to Napoleon. Artist Peter Max, who influenced so much 1960s art, could have been talking about Drummer Hoff when he recently described (in the Huffington Post) the transformation of art in the 1960s as arriving “like a surrealistic bullet full of rainbows.”

The colors of Drummer Hoff were noted in every single review of its time, as “bright,” “vivid,” “gaily colored,” “wildly colored,” “cheery,” “brilliant,” or simply “colorful.” They must have been especially conspicuous in a time when so many books were produced in two or three colors, and even Drummer Hoff ’s full-color Caldecott Honor Book counterparts (Frederick by Leo Lionni, Seashore Story by Taro Yashima, and The Emperor and the Kite by Jane Yolen, illustrated by Ed Young) were subdued by comparison.

Drummer Hoff’s colors stand out as even more remarkable once you learn about the process Ed Emberley used to create them. As he explained in his Caldecott acceptance speech:
Although only three inks were employed — red, yellow, and blue — we were able to create the impression of thirteen distinct colors. This effect was accomplished by taking advantage of the fact that the inks with which most picture books are printed tend to be transparent. Therefore, by printing one ink over another, or “overprinting,” a third color is made. For instance, if blue ink is printed over yellow ink, the yellow ink shows through and turns the blue ink green. Blue ink printed over red makes purple, and so forth. A separate drawing has to be made for each of the three colors, to show which color went over which color to make what color.

It’s extraordinary that Emberley was able to create that rainbow effect with just three colors of ink. His desire to achieve this full spectrum of colors inspired his decision to use woodcuts as his medium:
Why I cut the pictures in wood instead of using a faster method like pen-and-ink drawing is hard to explain in a few words, but I suppose the most important reasons are that the pictures looked better and the method pleased me. It is easier to explain why we decided to use that particular method of printing the color. The sharpness and brilliance of the color in Drummer Hoff cannot be duplicated by any other practical printing process, including any “four color-full color” process.

Emberley’s Prentice-Hall editor, Jean Reynolds, further explained the advantage of woodcuts in a 1968 School Library Journal profile of the artist: “One color could be printed over another to create a third color without the inevitable danger of slips in the registration as the book was printed. The heavy black lines of the woodcut would be able to absorb any stray colors that slipped out of position.” Reynolds also noted that Emberley had an “aversion to repeating a style he had mastered,” so he decided to “use the woodcut as a line drawing, dropping small patches of color into the open spaces in the cuts.”

This creative approach to woodcuts troubled critic Barbara Bader in her look back at the past ten years of Caldecott winners in the 1975 essay “Picture Books, Art and Illustration,” published in Newbery and Caldecott Medal Books: 1966–1975 (Horn Book). After calling Drummer Hoff a “heavy-treading, high-keyed picture book,” she went on to criticize what she saw as a lack of artistry in the illustrations:
It is difficult to imagine a plausible defense of the worked-up woodcuts that form the basis of its humor…Emberley cuts this way, that way, every which way. Far from defining form, all that wild cutting effaces it; and the arbitrary application of patches and stripes of garish color serves only to increase the disjunction between form and design. The simple, direct manner of the popular woodcut and its value as illustration are sabotaged by superficial elaboration

In other words, Emberley did not follow the traditional form of woodcut illustration that was employed by artists of the very earliest chapbooks and that continued to be used as a model for children’s book illustration in modern times, particularly to lend a sort of authenticity to the retelling of traditional rhymes. As if to drive home the point, rather than having Emberley’s Drummer Hoff illustrations accompany Bader’s essay, the choice was made to include reprints of nineteenth-century woodcuts of soldiers lined up and firing a cannon, as if to say that these illustrations were what Emberley should have strived for.

But Emberley rebelled against that tradition, and he did so intentionally. “The style that was later to become Drummer Hoff was based on Ed’s thought that there was no rule that a woodcut had to look like a woodcut,” wrote his editor.

Even though Bader clearly did not appreciate the art in Drummer Hoff, she was one of the few critics who said anything substantive about it other than the fact that the art was “brightly colored” and that the medium was woodcuts. In describing the illustrations, reviewers used words such as “sprightly,” “jolly,” “humorous,” and “delightful.” Even the Caldecott committee’s official statement in its February 26, 1968, press release said, “The artist’s unerring sense of design enables him to pace the text as it moves in a snappy tempo.”

Snappy. Jolly. Sprightly. Humorous. Delightful. Not exactly the adjectives one would expect to see in a description of a picture book for tots about blowing people to smithereens. Were critics of the day ignoring the message? Did they not see a message? Or did they expect people to read between the lines? Perhaps in 1968, even at the height of the antiwar era, there was more tolerance for — or even outright acceptance of — the strong interest many young children have in toy guns and pretend explosions. This may be what led the reviewer in Book World to say, “No small boy should be able to resist this one.” Or perhaps the psychedelic counterculture colors and the final image of the cannon rusting in a field of flowers were enough to balance the violent action with an antiwar message.

We’ll never know, because none of the professional reviews mentioned that the book might have a message. The only one I’ve found that says anything at all about it appeared in the Los Angeles Times shortly after the book was announced as the winner of the Caldecott Medal. Critic Mark Taylor wrote, “It is a simple, cumulative, rhythmic tale about the building of a cannon which when finally fired self-destructs, and the last picture, without words, is a cheery visual homily on the futility of war, saying in effect that when the battles are done and the pomp and violence of soldiery gone, birds and flowers return to proclaim the triumph of nature.”

But what about the librarians? While a few of the reviewers mentioned “jolly” details in the illustrations, from the soldiers’ ornate uniforms to the birds and flowers, not a single one mentioned the detail of battle wounds seen on two of the soldiers: specifically, Sergeant Chowder, who is missing a leg, and Captain Bammer, who is missing an eye. No one mentioned that the carriage for the cannon bears the name Sultan, a word that means “king,” implying that the weapon is the ultimate ruler over men. No one mentioned that the cannon is aimed at his fellow soldiers at the time Drummer Hoff fires it off, although every review made mention of the KAHBAHBLOOOM double-page spread illustrating the cannon being fired. Those reading the reviews were left to draw their own conclusions about what happened to the soldiers on that explosive double-page spread. (By contrast, Jon Klassen used a similar design technique to suggest a violent resolution in this year’s Caldecott winner, This Is Not My Hat, and most professional reviewers felt the need to explain exactly what happened.) Only the reviewer for Kirkus stated what happened as a result of the Drummer Hoff blast, albeit via a rather vague reference: “and then even Drummer Hoff burns” — a rather strange observation, given that he is the only one left standing.

Even more conspicuously absent from the contemporary reviews is the mention of the final illustration of the cannon abandoned in the field of flowers. More than anything else, this single illustration carries the book’s strong antiwar message, and yet it was mentioned in only one review. An unattributed Zena Sutherland, in The Bulletin for the Center of Children’s Books, wrote: “The lurid, dramatic double-page spread in which the cannon is finally fired is followed by a single page in which the passing of time has clothed the weapon with sweet signs of bucolic peace — a lovely surprise.”

Why the reluctance to talk about the story as a political message? Was it because the critics were in agreement with it? Or was it because the artistry of the book took precedence over the message?

Still, Emberley addressed the book’s political message in his Caldecott acceptance speech:
The book’s main theme is a simple one — a group of happy warriors build a cannon that goes “KAHBAHBLOOOM.” But, there is more to find if you “read” the pictures. They show that men can fall in love with war and, imitating the birds, go to meet it dressed as if to meet their sweethearts. The pictures also show that men can return from war sometimes with medals, and sometimes with wooden legs.

The book can have two endings. Many people prefer to stop at the “KAHBAHBLOOOM” page. And for some purposes that is where the story should end. But others prefer to go on to the next page, which shows the cannon destroyed. The men have gone, and the birds and flowers that appear to be merely decorative through the first part of the book are in the process of taking over—again. The picture of the destroyed cannon was purposely put on a half page to keep it in its proper place as a minor theme. The main theme of the book is, I repeat, a group of happy warriors building a cannon that goes “KAHBAHBLOOOM.” The book’s primary purpose is, as it should be, to entertain.

It’s interesting that in 1968 Emberley felt the need to relegate his antiwar message to a “minor theme” status, subservient to the main theme of “a group of happy warriors.” What he managed to accomplish with Drummer Hoff was to create a picture book that would please both the hawks and the doves, no small task in the Vietnam era. And just as it is possible for a picture book to be both distinguished and popular, so too is it possible for a picture book to be distinguished and to have didactic intent. Ed Emberley demonstrated this by creating an extraordinary picture book with a strong political message that didn’t overwhelm the artwork, a message of love, peace, and happiness that Drummer Hoff fired off like “a bullet full of rainbows.”

From the July/August 2013 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. For supplemental material on Drummer Hoff, click here.
Kathleen T. Horning
Kathleen T. Horning
Kathleen T. Horning is the director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, a library of the School of Education, University of Wisconsin–Madison. She is the author of From Cover to Cover: Evaluating and Reviewing Children’s Books and teaches a popular online course for ALSC on the history of the Newbery and Caldecott medals.
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Kimberly Cordray

I am so happy to have found your article. I found and read this book to my son for the first time tonight and had so many question. “Wasn’t the cannon pointed at his fellow soldiers? The beautiful scenery amid a soldier with a wooden leg assisting in the completion of a weapon of was seems intentional.” When I went to Goodreads, it seemed nobody shared these thoughts/questions. Thus, my relief upon reading your analysis of the story. Thank you for your insight and well-written words. I am now relieved that my brain seemed to be on the right path and I look forward to having discussions with my son about the book as he grows older.

Posted : Aug 16, 2020 03:51

James Williams

Thanks so much for posting this! What a fascinating and informative piece! I stumbled across this today while looking for a video on "Drummer Hoff." An Army Artillery officer who was a fellow instructor in the History Department at the Naval Academy gave my son that book for his 4th birthday in 1981. Over the years, "Drummer Hoff" has been reread/repeated innumerable times across three generations in our family. However, until I read your piece today, I'd never known of the literary lineage nor thought about the antiwar message/context, even though I was a child of the 1960s and tied (despite my wearing a uniform for 30 years) to the antiwar movement of that time.

Posted : Aug 01, 2020 12:34


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