Yes & No

In my previous post about Matthew Cordell’s Bear Island, I noted that I had been on the 2018 Caldecott Committee, which picked Cordell's Wolf in the Snow as our medal winner. Now I’m looking at Elisha Cooper’s new book, Yes & No, and his Big Cat, Little Cat was one of our honor books. Clearly, a good year! However, none of that is germane to the work of this year’s committee, which considers only the books in front of them — not previous books by an illustrator, or a body of work. (Though it's fun for me to have both of Cooper’s books in front of me, I’ll resist making comparisons.)

First, the jacket: The story begins. There's a big, friendly-looking dog (I read the dog as a yellow Lab but Cooper presents the dog as practically white and outlined in thick ink lines), pink tongue lolling, running toward the reader. The cat? Not so much. The cat is a silhouette, its back toward us. This is the opposite in gesture of the dog.

The case cover: A blue-gray depiction of the borders of the protagonists’ world. We will see, mid-story, that they transcend the borders that circumscribe their domestic lives and head out into the natural world.

Endpapers: I always look at front endpapers. Frequently, there’s no image, just color or a nondescript design. Here, though, we see a sunrise scene. There is a pinkish-orange watercolor silhouette of a house, trees, and a hill with a cat perched on top, looking toward the house. When there’s something occurring on the front endpapers, I always immediately check out the back endpapers: same image, but now it’s nighttime — with a blue-black, shadowy world and a white moon above. And still the cat sits. Clearly, a day has passed, and the story of that day — and that cat — is what the pages between the endpapers are all about.

Cover page: The story continues, and we’re not even to page one yet. On the left side, the black cat is coming in through the window. Where has it been? On the right side is the dog. Clearly, it hasn’t been anywhere, just sound asleep on a blanket. They face each other — but don't make eye contact.

Turn the page. Most picture books start on page one, but we’ve already been primed for the drama to come. Dog and cat sleep, backs to each other, but they do share the blanket. The dog seems to have slept for a while. Did the cat just settle in, having just come through the window?  But turn the page, and the story continues; the character study unfolds.

Minimalist is the word here. Lots of white space on every page allows the ink-and-watercolor illustrations to take center stage. Well, at least the dog assumes center stage. Just one little black line indicates the wag of a tail — maybe two when the dog is very excited. “Would you like something to eat?” asks an off-stage voice. The dog’s reply: “Yes, I would! I would like to eat something very much” (its voice in Roman type). The dog proceeds to cavort around the kitchen, stuff its face in the bowl, and knock things off of a table. The cat? “No. I already ate.” (Its voice is in italics.) Two double-page spreads show the dog playing, exploring, chewing a boot, digging holes; the cat is always in the background, not joining in. Twenty-eight illustrations of the dog (if I counted correctly) fill these pages. It’s the dog’s show, but as disdainful and aloof as the cat seems to be, it is always in the picture, and young readers will enjoy looking for it. Eventually, the two go on a mini-journey together, more of a parallel-play kind of togetherness, with warm watercolor washes in grass-greens and sky-blues and blue-gray hills, offering color to the pages and lighting up the protagonists’ black-and-white existence.

“Hello out there! It’s time to come in.” Cat and dog return home together. This time it’s all no’s from the dog, and each of five illustrations of the dog is accompanied by one word: “No.” The cat simply walks in the door. Did the dog have a good day? “Yes and no. The day was good but now it’s done.” But that’s dog’s point of view. The final illustration shows the dog asleep, but the cat is heading out the window, into that back-endpaper night. The cat sits atop the hill, perhaps contemplating the universe. Or not.

For a book that is minimalist in art and words, there’s a lot to it. There’s something peaceful and reassuring about it. No big social message here. It's a story about play and family and friends and home, about the way we live our days, about the way we go out into the world … and come home. There’s a perfect interplay of words and text, there’s humor, and there’s the fact that this is one great read-aloud book.

It's a great choice for close consideration by this year’s committee. Maybe committee members will share the dog’s enthusiasm: “YES, I would! I would very much like a gold or silver medal sticker!!!”

[Read the Horn Book Magazine review of Yes & No here.]

Dean Schneider
Dean Schneider teaches seventh and eighth grades at the Ensworth School in Nashville, Tennessee.
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