Calde-folklore: there's a hell of a lot of it

Today on Calling Caldecott, a conversation between Elisa Gall and Jonathan Hunt about folklore and the Caldecott Award. (This is an entry in their "why-the-hell" Calling Caldecott series. Previous posts include discussions about the Caldecott and holiday booksphotographyboard booksthe Newbery Award; and "didactic intent.")

ELISA GALL: While traditional literature is not eligible for awards like the Sibert, and not super duper common with awards like the Newbery (you even wrote about this years ago!), we do see a fair share of folklore and other traditional literature receive the Caldecott Medal and Honors. Do you have a favorite Calde-folklore title from years past?

JONATHAN HUNT: There have been so many! We probably need to acknowledge that Jerry Pinkney is the undisputed master here: The Talking Eggs, Noah’s Ark, and The Lion & The Mouse. 1993 was a banner year with The Stinky Cheese Man and Seven Blind Mice winning honor citations. And, finally, I'll say I've always liked Joseph Had a Little Overcoat, but even more since Barbara McClintock’s My Grandfather’s Coat came out the year I served on the committee, and I could informally compare the two. Would it be too cheeky to say that The Skull by Jon Klassen is my favorite Calde-folklore going forward?

ELISA: There's so much Calde-folklore out there! My personal favorites list also includes Pinkney (The Talking Eggs for life) as well as Lon Po Po by Ed Young, the Dillons (Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears) and so many of Paul Zelinsky's works. When exploring lists of past winners and honors it's amazing how the list to choose from is so substantial.

Folklore means different things to different people, but between us I think it's fair to say that we are zooming in on the oral tradition here...and folklore-adjacent stories too. I'm glad you brought up The Stinky Cheese Man and The Skull in the same breath because these are both creative folklore adaptations. In The Skull, Klassen offers a compelling retelling (with oh-so-important citation to the original tale) through words AND pictures. Mood, setting, and theme are top of mind here, and Klassen's limited color palette really shines. Those pinks do so much!

JONATHAN: It's interesting to me to see the difference in how the Newbery defines original work versus how the Caldecott defines it:

"5. In defining the term, 'original work,' the committee will consider books that are traditional in origin, if the book is the result of original research and the retelling and interpretation are the writer's own."

"5. 'Original Work' means that illustrations reprinted or compiled from other sources are not eligible." 

I think both awards embrace folklore, fairy tales, fables, myths, and legends — but the Caldecott goes even further, allowing for things like The Spider and the Fly, Casey at the Bat, and Saint George and the Dragon, which are retellings of specific works and not simply those from the oral tradition.

The source note in The Skull does a great job of humorously explaining the malleable and transient nature of folklore. I love the decision here to expand the length of this picture book rather than stuffing the text and illustrations into thirty-two or forty-eight pages; that would completely change everything from the pacing to the visual impact. 

But Klassen may have a second Calde-folklore title in consideration this year: How Does Santa Go Down the Chimney? (written by Mac Barnett). Red makes a triumphant return to the Klassen color palette in that one!

ELISA: I haven’t gotten hold of How Does Santa Go Down the Chimney? yet, but it’s on my list. I'm excited to see some more Klassen reds. Those sunsets and shadows from The Skull are still haunting me.

I agree with you about the length of The Skull, and the overall design is just stellar. The hand-held trim size, the oversized font...the use of negative space, cinematic perspectives, and thoughtfully placed page turns and spot art — everything about this book feels like it is firing on all cylinders. And what a weird (read: distinctive) story! 

Around the new millennium, it felt like there was a shift, and children’s publishing wouldn’t touch folktales with a ten-foot pole. So many authors had stories of publishers straight-up saying they were not interested in printing them, and editors saying don't even bother to submit them. Now, it feels like we're coming into a new era and that interest in folktales is slowly returning. At the same time, I've been disappointed (without naming names) to see how many creators don't cite their story sources anymore! I agree with you about the power of Klassen’s source note here. It responsibly cites the original and ties everything together brilliantly: “[Folktales] are supposed to be changed by who is telling them, and you never find them the same way twice. I hope that you liked my brain’s version.” Klassen ensures that this story is adapted both textually and visually, for there are so many plot points and tonal beats that are communicated through visuals alone. My personal favorite is the page turn when Otilla and the skull first wear the masks — I laughed out loud the first time I read/saw it.

Besides the definitions in the award manuals, do you think that there is something unique at play that makes works of folklore especially compelling to Caldecott committees?

JONATHAN: I'm not sure that there is something inherently attractive to the Caldecott committee that's unique to the genre; it's probably good storytelling and great artwork. But I might rephrase your question like this: What is it about the folklore genre that attracts some of our best illustrators? I think we like to see variations of the same story when it’s familiar to us — and when it’s not, we still appreciate the storytelling aspects of the genre.

Speaking of variations, have you had a chance to see Bea Wolf yet? It's a graphic novel retelling of the first part of — yep, you guessed it — Beowulf

ELISA: I have, and it is EPIC! While longer than The Skull, I can’t believe how much is visually crammed into this (beginning of "Beowulf") adaptation. The cute-leaning illustrative style and big-eyed character drawings definitely set the energetic, youthful tone (and puts it in contrast to the source text in a playful and distinctive way). And this is another case of an extremely limited color palette. Are you foreseeing a battle of epic proportions between this and The Skull in this year’s Caldecott deliberations?

JONATHAN: I think Bea Wolf is special, but it will take a special Caldecott committee to recognize it with built-in prejudices against graphic novels, black-and-white illustrations, and child appeal. I think some could argue that it has more appeal to English majors than to kids, so I'd definitely want to come armed with middle-grade child reader responses.

Speaking of graphic novels, I had hoped we would get an eighth Noodleheads book to discuss in this space, but the series appears to have wrapped up; the first book won a Geisel Honor and the series cleverly incorporated folk tales with wonderful source notes in the back.

Is there anything else from this year that you think is noteworthy?

ELISA: I'm wondering where Grace Lin's Chinese Menu might fit in the folklore conversation! How about you?

JONATHAN: I have to confess to being completely unaware of this book, but I've been able to peek inside — and I like what I see! This one will force the committee to consider this definition:

"1. A 'picture book for children' as distinguished from other books with illustrations, is one that essentially provides the child with a visual experience. A picture book has a collective unity of storyline, theme, or concept, developed through the series of pictures of which the book is comprised."

There are some precedents in the Caldecott canon for a generous interpretation, but they are few and far between. Having said that, there is certainly a unity of theme and concept here that the illustrations definitely contribute to — and even the pages without illustrations partake of the cohesive book design. I'd need to spend more time with this one, but I think it's one the Newbery committee might also be considering. Of course, Grace Lin is already the author of one of the last recognized Newbery folklore books, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, while her Caldecott Honor book A Big Mooncake for Little Star has the feel of an original folktale.

ELISA: What would we even call it if it won a Newbery AND a Caldecott? Calde-New-lore? Folk-le-New-cott? Regardless of whether these end up getting officially recognized, and what we’d call it, I love these interpretations, visually and textually, and I really hope the committees give them the time and consideration that they deserve. 

JONATHAN: What would we even call it if a book won a Newbery and a Caldecott? Simple. We would call it The Skull.

Elisa Gall and Jonathan Hunt

Elisa Gall is a teacher-librarian at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. Jonathan Hunt is the coordinator of library media services at the San Diego County Office of Education.

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