In the Woods

We’ve already had a half dozen nature-themed books highlighted at Calling Caldecott, and there are at least that many still to come! Will In the Woods, a poetry collection exploring woodland life during the course of a year, be a stand-out in this impressive field?

Veteran illustrator Rob Dunlavey has built his career focusing on details of the natural world through watercolor and other media, and this offering is no exception. Each double-page spread allows readers to encounter forest animals up close. A fox creeps out of the woods in search of food for her kits—fiery, as David Elliot’s poetry reminds us, against the light-dappled snow. The scarlet tanager is a dash of red, as if we startled the bird ourselves, but we can still make out its black wings and yellow beak in the blur. The bobcat leaps across the page, scattering snow, near a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it white rabbit hopping to safety in the other direction. Stop and take in each scene. The poetry may entice you to enter this world, but the images will hold you there for a few breaths longer.

Caldecott committee members will spend more than a few breaths looking at each spread up close and far away, and I would urge you to look the same. Hold the book close to you and look at Dunlavey’s lines. He uses what looks to be pencil in a variety of colors to add fine details, such as the veins of leaves, the ridges of a beaver’s tail, or blades of grass. These strokes are light and gestural, reminding us that there is energy everywhere in the woods. But also, as committee members may do, look at these images across the room and see if the art holds up from a distance, often how children experience illustrations during a group read-aloud. Now readers can see swaths of watercolor, expertly mixed to show gray-purple brown mountains framing a moose and her cub, along with yellow-green skies poking through the trees on bright days.

What I admire about Dunlavey’s work is that it breathes. In reality, illustration is a static art form, but a talented artist offers the illusion that the creatures depicted here could take a breath of their own and start moving at any minute. The bear’s nose will continue to stretch out of the den. The dog truly is about to get sprayed by a couple of skunks. The moose will continue in “ungainly” grazing, even after the pages are turned. And a skilled artist can modulate this energy to change the mood. Snow sweeps across the page in diagonal lines or gentle puffs, depending on the weather and the intent of the text. We can almost feel the commotion of the truck barreling around the bend, in stark contrast to a porcupine slowly ambling out of the way.

When committee members review hundreds of picture books, what stands out? I looked for work that would make me catch my breath after a page-turn and continue to haunt me after I had turned another. For me, with this book, it is the raccoon on the cover against a warm, green background. Another (or maybe the same?) raccoon makes an appearance on the inner pages, now looking a bit more scraggly, in the midst of winter. In both images, the raccoon’s direct and intelligent gaze shines through and stares directly at the reader. While the eyes are hidden in a dark mask, specks of light register the animal’s perception. These small white brush strokes make all the difference. Readers truly feel that this creature “understands,” as the text reminds us, ensuring that this image will have staying power.

And don’t forget about the endpapers. Yes, the endpapers, which can be more than just something to flip through when in the right hands of the right illustrator. Here they perfectly frame this year in the life of the woods. Thickly layered spring leaves adorn the opening endpapers, almost as if they just fell from the trees to cover the forest floor. After a year has passed, the closing endpapers depict the same leaves, positioned identically; they are now products of fall or early winter, brown and leached of color. But it is not only the leaves that have changed. Readers have made this journey through the pages and learned that these rotting leaves are a source of life. They are the favorite food of the millipede we met on the inner pages. Nature recycles everything, and Rob Dunlavey has beautifully recycled this image.

Dunlavey has done a masterful job of putting us in the role of the naturalist. There are even fellow nature-watchers who subtly appear in the background, canoeing by a colony of beavers as well as paddling through the back cover. 

So, spend a year in these woods. Pause, take a breath, and let the images haunt you. Take in the whole scene from afar and look close to examine the details. And you don’t even have to put on boots or rain gear for the journey.


Rachel G. Payne

Rachel G. Payne is coordinator of early childhood services at Brooklyn Public Library. She co-authors the “First Steps” column for School Library Journal and has also written for The Horn Book Magazine, Library Trends, and Kirkus and was a contributor to Reading with Babies, Toddlers and Twos (2013) and Library Services from Birth to Five: Delivering the Best Start (2015). Rachel served as chair of the 2016 Caldecott committee and as a member of the 2009 committee.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.

Rob Dunlavey

Besides thanking you for this lavish attention, if it's not inappropriate, I'd like to deflect credit to the creative and patient art direction by Heather McGee at Candlewick which made for a much better book.

Posted : Nov 07, 2020 09:17

Yesha Na

Lovely and sensitively written article about a gorgeous book! Thank you for bringing our attention to this one!!!!

Posted : Nov 07, 2020 12:27


Get access to reviews of books, ebooks, and more


We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing.