Action!: How Movies Began

When the Caldecott was first created, lo these many years ago, there was a certain expectation that it separate itself from the Newbery with its special focus on images. In every other way, however, it mimicked the Newbery’s requirements: that the artists be American, that the book be distinguished, and so on and so forth. The restrictions beyond that were minimal. Nowhere does it state that the award be restricted to fictional tales, and so informational texts have seen a number of awards over the years. It’s so pleasing to note that in recent years there always seems to be at least one nonfiction title receiving a Medal or Honor. I consider that a testament to the strength and elasticity of the American work of informational nonfiction in the early twenty-first century.

This past March I attended the Bologna Book Fair, the world’s largest international rights fair, and while there paid particular attention to an award called the BolognaRagazzi Prize, which is “aimed at selecting the finest illustrated children’s books worldwide.” There’s a special category for nonfiction, and the winners this past year were notably different from those published here in the States. Endpapers, notes, bibliographies, and other types of back matter are a particularly American creation, the focus of these winners generally being less on strict accuracy and more on artistic merit. But why choose? The lovely thing about the informational titles of 2022, published here in America, is that they can be both exceedingly pleasing to the eye AND unfailingly historically accurate. There are scads of such books produced on a regular basis every year, and that’s a wonderful thing. The downside, however, is that it can all feel a bit samey after a while. That’s why a truly great work for kids must need that little something extra. It must be wholly accurate, written with aplomb, beautiful to the eye...and a little weird.

“That book is NOT going to win a Caldecott”, said my daughter, looking at Action! How Movies Began by Meghan McCarthy. Why would she say that? “They’re never going to give an award to googly eyes!”

In the old days, she may have been right. And the blame falls on a single word: distinguished. “The Medal shall be awarded annually to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children…” I’ve served on award committees. I’ve seen the word weaponized. But aside from being entirely subjective (there is no universal litmus test for distinguishability as of yet), the definition itself is a bit on the hazy side. Merriam-Webster would have you believe that the word means “marked by eminence, distinction, or excellence.” Friends and neighbors, I am pleased to announce that Action! embodies all three of these ideals. Of this there can be no doubt.

Let us start with eminence, or “a position of prominence or superiority.” If you have not yet had the pleasure of encountering the work of Meghan McCarthy, then you may be unaware of how good she is at what she does. Typically, and throughout her career, she has taken the historical or scientific and rendered it entirely palatable to young readers through her marvelous artistic style, while at the same time cramming the books full of fascinating factual information. Whether it’s bringing the Orson Welles radio production of War of the Worlds to life in Aliens Are Coming!, featuring the life of Charles Atlas in Strong Man, or delving into the complex history of bubble gum in Pop!, McCarthy is drawn to tales that other folks never think to tell. And her most ambitious project to date is Action! Summarizing the early days of cinema for young readers while also making it into an interesting story is a challenge, to say the least. Other nonfiction authors could have taken this book in a million different directions. Yet it is the choices that an author/illustrator makes that sets their book apart. In the case of McCarthy, her book would be superior to its peers based on the writing alone, to say nothing of the art (which I’ll get to in a moment). Much of this is evident in how she chose to tell the story. From Metropolis to Star Wars, from Josephine Baker to the Black Panther, McCarthy links old films to new ones that kids today would recognize. In doing so, she gives them what they love with a context they might otherwise never have. She makes it clear that we build off of what came before, while still being capable of making something entirely new.

Distinction and excellence are the last of the virtues of the distinguished criterion, and here we are in safe territory. My daughter is not wrong. Googly eyes would normally be quite a detriment to a serious award committee. But if all you can see are the whites of these eyes, then I would ask that you recuse yourself from determining the best books of the year. One story that McCarthy likes to tell is of when she was in art school and considered becoming the kind of artist that painted the covers of romance novels. This idea came at the urging of a professor who said that few could pull off photorealism the way that she could. The fact of the matter is that McCarthy does not draw googly eyes because she has to, but because she chooses to. Take this book, created entirely in acrylic paint without a lick of computer imagery. Now flip it over to its back. There you will see a scene from Metropolis of the city from high above. The linework, shading, shadows, and more are utterly beautiful. Look at the delicately rendered lace of Elizabeth: The Golden Age or the gleam of the disco ball in Saturday Night Fever. But, you say, how is this any different than simply copying what already exists? True enough. If McCarthy were only replicating film stills on the page, that wouldn’t be a sufficient example of “excellence.” But remember, it’s not what you draw alone. It’s also the choices you make. McCarthy’s use of design and space are marvelous. Look at how she pairs three different films in which men hang from clocks. Look at the clever way in which she brings color into what could have just been a black-and-white book, coming up with the hand-tinted films of the 1800s and the dyed films of the 1920s. The paintings end up being so interesting that they make you want to know more. I would be unsurprised to hear that kids, having read this book, head over to YouTube to see if they can find any scenes of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and more.

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.
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.

Jen Bryant

I was on a NF panel several years ago with Meghan McCarthy and wasn't familiar with her work until then. Since then, however, I've been a huge fan of her books and continue to be puzzled as to why it consistently flies under the radar. She has one of the most creative and original voices in our field, and her quirky art style belies her very high level of talent. This book, as you say so well here, Betsy, SHOULD be on on the ALA/ ALSC's committees' radar for its wonderful text, thorough (and thoughtful) research and one-of-a-kind art. If the committees are truly looking at overall quality, then this should be Meghan's year.

Posted : Nov 16, 2022 01:22



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