Reviews of the 2020 Caldecott Medal winners


The Undefeated
by Kwame Alexander; illus. by Kadir Nelson
Primary, Intermediate, Middle School     Versify/Houghton     40 pp.    g
4/19     978-1-328-78096-6     $17.99
e-book ed.  978-0-358-05761-1     $12.99

Alexander and Nelson honor the achievements, courage, and perseverance of ordinary black people as well as prominent black artists, athletes, and activists. The free-verse poem begins: “This is for the unforgettable. / The swift and sweet ones / who hurdled history / and opened a world / of possible. The ones who survived / America / by any means necessary. / And the ones who didn’t.” While some events (e.g., the transatlantic slave trade) are “unspeakable,” Alexander’s words convey a sense of pride at what his “unflappable” and “unafraid” ancestors have accomplished and continue to do despite racial oppression. He incorporates the words of black icons (such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) and movements (Black Lives Matter), creating a through-line from past to present. Nelson’s paintings effectively use white space to extend the text and amplify its meaning. For example, the image of enslaved people on ships shows the figures in cramped quarters — a double-page spread compact with black bodies; while what accompanies the text for “the ones who didn’t [survive]” is simply two blank pages. The realistic oil paintings convey racial oppression in the past (black-and-white images of the four little girls who were killed during the church bombing in Birmingham) and present (full-color paintings of African Americans killed recently by police) — demonstrating that racism remains deeply entrenched in America today. Nelson depicts numerous famous people whom adults and children may recognize, from Billie Holiday to LeBron James, as well as others (Sarah Vaughan, Romare Bearden) whose faces and stories they may not know. The book concludes with an afterword by Alexander and an annotated list of historical figures and events featured in The Undefeated. JONDA C. MCNAIR

From the March/April 2019 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. More by and about Kadir Nelson.


Honor Books

Double Bass Blues
by Andrea J. Loney; illus. by Rudy Gutierrez
Primary    Knopf    32 pp.    g
10/19    978-1-5247-1852-7    $17.99
Library ed.  978-1-5247-1853-4    $20.99
e-book ed.  978-1-5247-1854-1    $10.99

Told entirely through dialogue and sound effects, the story follows double-bass player Nic as he performs an “epic solo” at band practice at school, then heads out toward the city on foot (many of his fellow suburban students are picked up in SUVs). On his journey Nic encounters such obstacles as rain (“plunk, plunk, plunk”), a threatening dog (“grrrrrrrr!”), taunting passersby (pointing at his instrument: “It’s bigger than him!”), and a broken elevator (“Oh, man!”). Finally, he arrives at his destination — not home, as readers might expect, but the Sunset Ballroom, where he is warmly welcomed by his grandfather. Careful readers will spot the “Nicodemus Grant & Band” sign that tells us Nic’s grandfather is himself a musician. At book’s end, the boy reprises his double-bass solo with his grandfather’s band: “Hey, Granddaddy Nic! Listen to this!” The vibrant, dynamic illustrations fairly hum with energy — curved lines swoop and jagged lines angle across the pages, adding movement here; tension there. Musical notes and clapping hands appear throughout, reinforcing just how much sound the story contains. A book about a lot of things — music, and determination, and straddling worlds, and the celebration of Black boyhood and family — that nevertheless feels cohesive and effortless. MARTHA V. PARRAVANO

From the September/October 2019 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.


Going Down Home with Daddy
by Kelly Starling Lyons; illus. by Daniel Minter
Primary    Peachtree    32 pp.
4/19    978-1-56145-938-4    $16.95

Lil Alan and his family are heading "down home" to the farm where Daddy was raised. Although Alan is excited to see his family, he's nervous about what to share at the celebration. With his family's help, Alan finds the right words to say. This relatable story of a multigenerational family reunion is strengthened by the acrylic-wash paintings, mixed with African symbols, of the family gathering. NICHOLL DENICE MONTGOMERY

From the Guide/Reviews Database.


Bear Came Along
by Richard T. Morris; illus. by LeUyen Pham
Preschool    Little, Brown    40 pp.
6/19    978-0-316-46447-5    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-0-316-46445-1    $9.99

This boisterous adventure is a story about discovery, the twists and turns a day can take, and the ways in which friendships can be forged when least expected — all in the form of a wild log-ride down a river. Morris kicks things off: “Once there was a river,” giving the story a timeless feel right from the start. The river “didn’t know it was a river” untilBear shows up. Bear doesn’t know he’s on an adventure untila frog leaps onto his head. Froggy isn’t aware how many friends she has untilsome turtles show up. And so it goes untilBear, Froggy, the Turtles, Beaver, the Raccoons, and Duck all plummet over a waterfall in an exhilarating vertically oriented spread. Morris’s pacing is spot-on, many page-turns propelled by the enticing use of “until…” Pham’s illustrations, rendered via watercolors, ink, and gouache, have a somewhat retro feel (think 1980s cartoons) yet remain fresh. A cool teal dominates the palette, and the characters have particularly expressive eyes. Occasionally, the action is divided into panels, enhancing the story’s already dramatic pacing. Playful perspectives abound, especially a gasp-inducing one just as the creatures reach the waterfall and descend. Morris brings the text full-circle with mention of the river: the animals — exhausted but ecstatic at the base of the waterfall — were “living their separate lives, but they didn’t know they were in it together…until…the river came along.” This high-spirited tale is a metaphor for life itself, and “Oh, what a ride” it is! JULIE DANIELSON

From the May/June 2019 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. More by and about LeUyen Pham.


For more, click on the tag ALA Midwinter 2020.

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