This is the book I’ve been giving away this year to everyone with young children. I was on the Caldecott committee that chose Matthew Cordell’s Wolf in the Snow as its medal winner, and I see Evergreen as a very different but equally masterful picture book. It seems as if it could be called an early chapter book since it is divided into six chapter-like parts, but most reviewers have taken pains to call it a picture book. In her Horn Book review, Maeve Visser Knoth called it a picture book with a “longer-than-usual text.” I like that it has beautifully written prose in this time of spare picture-book texts. So, I’m thinking picture book as I go through the various parts of the book, using, as always, Robin Smith’s “How to Read a Picture Book, the Caldecott Edition” as my guide. (Robin, my wife, was on the 2011 Caldecott committee, which selected A Sick Day for Amos McGee.)

First off, the generous trim size and portrait orientation suggest a big story about that squirrel on Evergreen's dust jacket. I see Evergreen’s story as a hero’s journey, and most picture-book tales of journeys would use a landscape orientation consistent with the narrative arc of a journey, but Evergreen is the hero of her own story, so here she is on the jacket full-portrait, with a look of trepidation. Look at how much emotion Cordell gets into that illustration with just little marks from his 005 Micron pen — a slight turn of the head, a bit of a hunch to those shoulders, the pupil in the lower-left quadrant of the eye, and the careful grasp on that acorn. These gestures anticipate Evergreen’s personality, laid out so adeptly in prose and illustrations on the first pages of the story.

Take off the jacket, and there’s a map of Buckthorn Forest on the cover, also anticipating the journey to come. It was a good choice to have endpapers that are a plain forest green with no art, offering a calm before the busyness of the text and illustrations to come. Robin was always concerned about title pages: “If it’s dull, I take note.” Not dull here; it’s similar to the cover illustration. And she was a stickler about paper choice; paper so thin you can see the next page’s illustration through it was a disaster to her. Evergreen employs heavy stock, so no problem. And she hated things floating in the gutters; gutters all clear here.

I’ve mentioned the text, but after examining the jacket, case cover, endpapers, title pages, Robin would read the book very slowly all the way through without reading the words to see how the book worked without the words, because a great Caldecott book is primarily a visual experience. And Cordell’s signature pen-and-watercolor illustrations are magnificent throughout the book. The palette is mostly a muted brown, appropriate to the forest setting. The squirrel might be Evergreen, but the forest isn’t. Evergreen’s russet-colored cape offers a bit of contrast, as well as a tip-of-the cape to Red Riding Hood. Cordell varies his page designs well, some with brambly borders and panels, some more spot art-ish, lots of onomatopoeia ("Sproing!" "Groak!"), and double-page spreads when major action ensues. I love the double-page spread showing  a red-tailed hawk swooping down on Evergreen and the rabbit thief Briar, followed by another spread showing Evergreen being hauled off by the hawk. There’s real danger on this journey! If there’s no danger, there’s no chance to prove yourself, after all. And, like a good picture book, there are times when the illustrations carry on when the text simply says, “Evergreen continued through Buckthorn Forest, encountering strange noises, meeting new friends, dodging a few enemies, and nearly losing the soup at every turn.” Eight illustrations portray the dangers and marvels and new friendships.

After the slow examination of illustrations, read the words. As in all great picture books (the non-wordless ones), there is a wonderful interplay of text and illustration throughout this volume. Just look at Evergreen’s expressions in Part One, adding so much visually to the written text. Fear, worry, and trepidation, all shown with just the slightest changes in pen marks on the page. And that’s just Part One. Our furry protagonist returns home on the back of Ember the red-tailed hawk, changed, excited to tell her mother of her adventures, only to be sent on a new mission, this time in a thunderstorm, which we know from Part One is Evergreen’s worst fear. “Crack! Boom!” Her smiles and can-do spirit dissolve into a look of I think I can...Maybe...I’m not so sure of this...

There are lots of nicely illustrated picture books this year, but I believe Evergreen takes picture-book making to another level here. Cordell has built a whole world for Evergreen, with a lush, elegant text that interplays with the beautifully rendered illustrations. It’s akin to the worlds of Frog and Toad, George and Martha, and Cordell’s own growing series about Cornbread and Poppy. It’s certainly worthy of a Caldecott Medal (though the Newbery committee ought to give it a chance, too). And maybe a Caldecott award will nudge along the sequel all readers and listeners will hope for.

[Read the Horn Book Magazine review of Evergreen]

Dean Schneider

Dean Schneider teaches eighth grade English at the Ensworth School in Nashville, Tennessee.

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