2022 CaldeNotts

I first played with the idea of the "CaldeNott," applying the Caldecott criteria to ineligible picture books, some ten years ago when I was on the faculty at what is now the School of Information Studies at Dominican University. I find there is real value in the exercise: one understands the books in question as well as the Caldecott criteria more fully. I’m happy to see the term, and the practice, spreading and taking root, and I’m happy to shine a Caldecott light on some international picture books with you today. All of the books we’ll examine today were published in 2021, and none of them is eligible for the Caldecott because of the citizenship or residency of its illustrator or the country of its publisher.

The Most Beautiful Story, illustrated by Øyvind Torseter and written by Brynjulf Jung Tjønn

This Norwegian exposition on death and loss almost defies description. It is mesmeric and obtuse, alarming and atmospheric, and ultimately peaceful and unresolved — much like death and loss themselves. A child mourning her younger brother ventures into a wood with her brother’s spirit (?) in tow, passing creatures familiar and menacing, to arrive in the presence of a lake-bound lady who recounts their story. The scratchy black-and-white figures move through dark, densely colored landscapes full of inexplicable detail on a propulsive quest for something, a hurried passage through the hardest part of their story, to come out the other side. Torseter’s imagery defines their journey, indelibly imprinting on the reader myriad confounding and consuming emotions, in tension with one another. We are left with many questions, but beneath them a definite sense of it’s-going-to-be-okay. This is what art is for.

We All Play, illustrated and written by Julie Flett

Flett’s gentle tribute to the animal kingdom, and our place in it, captures the beauty of the natural world with deceptive simplicity. A series of spreads features animal families native to her Cree homeland, most including an adult and offspring at play — hiding, hopping, wiggling, wobbling — and peppered among them are spreads of human children playing, too, in the same delightful ways. There is extraordinary harmony to every element of the imagery that quietly conveys our interconnectedness. The pure, earth-tone palette, the spare composition, the buff backgrounds, and the friendly figure work, all reflect and assert an organic kinship that is indelible, unavoidable, and most welcome. 

The Wind and the Trees, illustrated and written by Todd Stewart

Each double-page spread in this book features the same two trees, a new sapling on the left and an established elder on the right, who develop a relationship across their long lives, until the elder succumbs, a new sapling takes its place, and the cycle continues. On the surface, the trees’ simple discourse examines the ways wind strengthens their roots and spreads their seeds and carries their messages. In the background, animals visit, seasons pass, and the trees’ relative statures trade places. The consistent composition adds real impact to changes in color and movement and clouds and stars and invites the reader to follow a deeper narrative. Like the trees themselves, this is quiet grandeur.

How to Find a Fox, photographed by Ossi Saarinen and written by Kate Gardner

This nonfiction picture book employs breathtaking photography to investigate red foxes, their habitats, and their natures. Some photos feature close-up portraits that capture incredibly expressive faces and demonstrative postures. Others operate like hunt-and-find pictures, communicating foxes’ sly and furtive manner by making us search for them in expansive landscapes. But the genius here comes in the many photos that aren’t about foxes at all — images of places where foxes can’t be found, tracks foxes don’t make, and even animals that foxes are not. Defining something in negative space heightens our understanding of its essence. These photos do just that, complementing facts with questions, adding wonder to knowledge. On the surface these photographs are captivating. We might well get lost in their beauty and look no further, but the choices behind them, intriguing and inspiring, warrant our careful attention.

Moon Pops, illustrated and written by Heena Baek

A power outage in a busy housing block on a dark, hot night inspires some ingenuity and builds community in the bargain. Baek offers the reader a Rear Window view into a three-dimensional model of an apartment building, rich with mixed-media detail. The residents, two-dimensional charcoal cutouts of wildish animals, are photographed to heighten their presence, with shadows and blurred backgrounds behind them. The gritty, concrete backdrop makes the perfect setting for the magic afoot, wherein a grandmother wolf cools her neighbors with ice pops made from drips of the moon. This contemporary reimagining of a traditional Korean folktale finds its own magic in the quiet, electric synergy of urban realism and long-ago fantasy.

The Problem with Pierre, illustrated by Suzanna Hubbard and written by C.K. Smouha

This story follows two neighbors, Bertram the minimalist and Alan the mess, who find harmony in a shared love for a cat. Pierre initially comes to live at (decorate?) Bertram’s sleek flat — but prefers the comfort of Alan’s chaos. The inevitable solution: pull down the party wall and co-habitate. Illustrative attention to detail makes the most of these contrasting lifestyles, emptying Bertram’s spare, white flat and filling Alan’s with dead plants, loo roll cozies, and dirty y-fronts. The final spread allows some of Alan’s bits to move their way onto Bertram’s side, while his own floor is (mostly) picked-up. Hubbard’s old-school style and curated 1970s palette gives the whole affair a timeless feel. 

Impossible, illustrated and written by Isol

Argentine virtuoso Isol offers a hilarious tale of one terrible toddler, two exhausted parents, five insurmountable problems, and one alarming, though scientifically based, solution. Toribio’s parents have had it, and when they see an ad from Mrs. Meridien promising fast results, they’re off. Everything here is tone — scribbly line work atop shadowy, approximate shapes; exasperated expressions; crowded compositions; motion lines — and the distress is almost palpable enough to warrant the ending. Almost. A visual denouement explains Mrs. Meridien’s thinking, and even the endpapers, which feature what appears to be actual toddler destruction of property, get in on the game.

Moose’s Book Bus, illustrated and written by Inga Moore

This story of a bibliophilic moose who brings the joy of reading to his community certainly plays to my (our) professional commitments, but the wit and warmth with which Moore executes the tale are noteworthy themselves. This is a master class in setting and character. The shop windows, the dappled boughs, the toadstools, and the wallpaper (?!) all evoke a palpable sense of place. And the animals! There are roughly 374 animal portraits in these 48 pages, and not a single one is a cardboard stand-in. Moose himself is so big that he needs to stoop over to place a call in the phone booth or to drive his book bus. And the little wild boar, stretched out before the fire, hooves behind head, basking in the glow of story. Shut up. I have no problem with honoring the avant garde when it succeeds, but there’s nothing wrong with a consummate telling of a more traditional tale.

The Story of Bodri, illustrated by Stina Wirsén and written by Hédi Fried

This picture book memoir by a Swedish-Hungarian Holocaust survivor is at once gentle and unflinching, committing the author’s story with child-centered clarity. The author frames her memories around Bodri, the family dog, whom she and her sister leave behind when they board the train and with whom, miraculously, they are reunited when they return. There is tender power in Fried’s forthright telling, but Wirsén’s illustrations carry much of the narrative weight. Hédi wears a dress with the same pattern as the wallpaper in their home, and her sister wears a dress that shares a pattern with her mother’s. When they are imprisoned, the loss of those clothes indelibly imparts the loss of home and family. And young readers understand the specter of evil, in sinister inky shadows that obscure and contaminate, in a profound way that lives beneath verbal explanation.


Thom Barthelmess
Thom Barthelmess
Thom Barthelmess is Youth Services Manager for the Whatcom County Library System in northwest Washington State.
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