Hey, Al and the Quirky Choice

This is the sixth (and final) of a series of articles celebrating the history of the Caldecott Medal, which marks its seventy-fifth anniversary this year. Librarian and children’s literature historian Kathleen T. Horning looks at one seminal but unheralded Caldecott book of each decade — identifying trends, noting the changing nature of the picture book, wrestling with issues and definitions. Here she examines the 1987 winner, Hey, Al (Farrar), written by Arthur Yorinks and illustrated by Richard Egielski, as a come-out-of-nowhere winner.

hey, alAlthough there is always a lot of discussion about award contenders in the months leading up to the awards announcement, one can never really predict what the Caldecott committee is going to select in any given year. Of course, there are exceptions. We were all certain in 2010 that Jerry Pinkney would win the Medal for The Lion & the Mouse. In 2005, pretty much everyone correctly predicted that Kitten’s First Full Moon would be the first Caldecott Medal for Kevin Henkes. And no one was surprised in 1987 when Paul O. Zelinsky won the gold with his perfectly elegant illustrations for Rumpelstiltskin.

Except he didn’t.

And neither did Suse MacDonald for her playfully inventive Alphabatics. Or Ann Grifalconi for her boldly expressionistic Village of Round and Square Houses. They were all honor books that year.

What actually won the big award in 1987, the Caldecott Medal’s fiftieth anniversary year, was an idiosyncratic little book called Hey, Al written by Arthur Yorinks and illustrated by Richard Egielski. The selection left most people scratching their heads, wondering what made this book the “most distinguished” picture book of the year. It may have even caused some to wonder what the word distinguished meant to the 1987 Caldecott committee. According to ALSC’s official “Terms and Criteria,” distinguished is defined as:

  • Marked by eminence and distinction; noted for significant achievement.

  • Marked by excellence in quality.

  • Marked by conspicuous excellence or eminence.

  • Individually distinct.

In other words, distinguished.

Distinguished or not, the selection of Hey, Al seems to come out of left field, even twenty-five years after the fact. Although the illustrations are accomplished, the story of a middle-aged janitor escaping his humdrum life by taking a flight of fancy to an exotic tropical island reads more like an extended New Yorker cartoon than a children’s picture book. The birds that populate paradise are beautiful, and Eddie the loyal dog is appealing, but what kid wants to sit around in a waterfall-fed pool, doing nothing but eating tropical fruits and sipping drinks all day? This is clearly an adult’s fantasy.

It wasn’t as if the author/illustrator team was completely unknown when the award was announced. Both were disciples of Maurice Sendak and, as such, had gotten a fair amount of attention for their three previous collaborations. In fact, it was Sendak who had brought them together and who brought them both to the attention of his editor, Michael di Capua, at Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

According to Sendak biographer Selma Lanes, a teenaged Yorinks once rang Sendak’s doorbell and left him with picture book manuscripts he had written. The artist was impressed with the youngster’s talent, and encouraged his efforts. Not too long after that, as a senior at the Parsons School of Design, Richard Egielski took a class in illustration taught by Sendak. When he returned to visit his teacher a year after he graduated, he ran into Yorinks in the elevator. Egielski described this chance encounter in his Hey, Al Caldecott acceptance speech:
He said Maurice had been telling him about an illustrator who’d been his student the previous year, someone who would be perfect for Arthur’s stories. But unfortunately, Maurice couldn’t remember my last name. So he told Arthur what I looked like, and said my first name was Richard. Arthur didn’t think this information would be of much use in a city the size of New York.

Their first book together, Sid and Sol (1977), didn’t make much of a splash among librarians, but it received a full-page review in the New York Times from Maurice Sendak himself. It was filled with superlatives — about the book (“a wonder”), its text (“gorgeous”), its illustrations (“a triumph”), and about the two men who created it: “The magic rests in the seamless bond of Arthur Yorinks’s and Richard Egielski’s deft and exciting collaboration.” There was nothing in the review that mentioned that Sendak had mentored both men, or that he had any kind of personal investment in their success. It was as if he was not so much reviewing the book as offering a master class in what viewers should look for and appreciate in the work of these two men.

And the children’s book world took notice: the duo’s subsequent books got the star treatment. Their second book, Louis the Fish (1980), a droll riff on Kafka’s Metamorphosis, received excellent reviews and was a Reading Rainbow selection. Their third, It Happened in Pinsk (1983), is an absurd tale about an ungrateful man who loses his head — literally. (Said head bore an uncanny resemblance to Maurice Sendak, an observation that those in the know loved to point out.) It won an international prize from Biennial of Illustrations Bratislava, making Egielski the only American artist to be recognized in 1985. Yorinks and Egielski were on their way to becoming a celebrated creative team. “The sole complaint one could lay against Yorinks and Egielski,” wrote a Publishers Weekly reviewer in 1983, “is that time is too long between their bracing, mad collaborations.”

Even so, Hey, Al flew under the radar, mostly. Although it received starred reviews from  Kirkus and Booklist and was named a Booklist Editors’ Choice, reviews of the book did not appear in either the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books or School Library Journal until after it had won the Caldecott Medal. (The Horn Book ignored it.) And none of the reviews heaped the sort of praise on Hey, Al that critics had given previous books by the pair. Perhaps the bizarre had become expected from these two, and, without the element of surprise, the book did not have quite the impact of the earlier ones. A few reviewers raised the question that was probably in the minds of many readers all along about Yorinks and Egielski’s body of work: is this a book that adults will enjoy much more than children will? After all, they had yet to introduce a protagonist who wasn’t a middle-aged man facing some sort of life crisis.

Booklist editor Bill Ott considered this question in depth in “A Convention of Grousers,” an incisive essay that appeared in the New York Times Book Review a year after Hey, Al won the Caldecott Medal. He wrote about the pair’s first four books, comparing them to Huck Finn (as a “delightfully subversive, anti-authoritarian work”) and to Woody Allen’s brand of “black humor.” His focus was mainly on the adult appeal of the books, something he applauded:
It’s difficult to say whether Mr. Yorinks (the writer) and Mr. Egielski (the artist), who are both in their mid-30’s, intend to write straightforward children’s books but are powerless to keep their dark sides from usurping control…or whether they are camouflaging their decidedly pessimistic world view by cloaking it in the simplistic moral terms that so often are the stuff of picture books. Either way, the rare pleasure of finding a perverse subtext trapped in the straitjacket of “positive moral values” is a distinctly adult experience.

Ott doesn’t seem to be able to enjoy this “rare pleasure,” however, without taking a jab at the Caldecott committee that selected Hey, Al as “the most distinguished contribution to American children’s picture books” in 1987. He implies that the committee probably chose the book for its “syrupy moral” rather than basing its selection on the sort of sophisticated interpretation he was able to offer. While it’s possible that this was true, it seems unlikely that a committee of fifteen intelligent women didn’t see — and appreciate — the story’s humor.

They may, in fact, have regarded Hey, Al as part of a tradition of Caldecott Medal books (by artists such as Bemelmans, Sendak, Emberley, and Steig) that offer a subtext for adults. But what those predecessors have in common is that their Caldecott-winning books work brilliantly on two levels — one for children and one for adults. While I agree with Ott that Hey, Al succeeds as a “rare pleasure” for adults, I’m not sure it’s a completely satisfying story for children. Essentially, it’s a retelling of their mentor’s masterpiece, Where the Wild Things Are, told from the perspective of a middle-aged man. Al/Max, unhappy with his lot in life, listens to his inner canine voice (i.e., Eddie/the wolf suit) and is transported to a lush island paradise, populated by exotic birds/wild things who fulfill his childish fantasies about complete freedom by claiming him as one of their own. He is happy for a while but eventually begins to miss his old life, and returns home.

There is no way to know if the 1987 Caldecott committee considered Hey, Al as an homage to Where the Wild Things Are because of the confidentiality rule by which the committee is bound. In fact, except for a very brief statement made by the Caldecott chair at the awards banquet each year (a statement that, sadly, is not recorded anywhere), we get no official word from the committee about what makes a book stand out, especially when considered among its peers, the honor books. We can usually find a one-sentence explanation about the winner in the official ALA press release, but in 1987 that space was used to celebrate the Caldecott Medal’s fiftieth anniversary year. So unless someone steps forward to do for Hey, Al what Sendak did for Sid and Sol — and so far, no one has — we are left to view it as a quirky choice.

Notably absent at the time, as I mentioned, was a Horn Book review. The Horn Book, then as now, mainly reviews books that are recommended. The fact that Hey, Al was not reviewed suggests an implicit disagreement with the Caldecott committee’s choice. And it wouldn’t be the first time. In her editorial in the July/August 1986 issue, in fact, then-editor Anita Silvey was so dismayed with many of the recent choices that she asked the question: “Could Randolph Caldecott win the Caldecott Medal?” If the winners of the past decade or so were any indication, Silvey concluded, no, he probably could not. She described the most recent winners as “high art, high gloss, decoration, emotionless embellishment” — far from Randolph Caldecott’s original work. She quotes Sendak’s explanation from The Randolph Caldecott Treasury to describe what made Caldecott’s picture books so groundbreaking that an award would be named to honor his contribution to the form: “There is in Caldecott a juxtaposition of picture and word, a counterpoint that never happened before. Words are left out — but the pictures say it. Pictures are left out — but the words say it.”

Sendak’s description of Randolph Caldecott’s artistry sounds quite a bit like what he had to say about the work of his protégés in his review of Sid and Sol: “The deceptive dryness and droll, terse emphasis in the writing are cleverly calculated. And the pictures do the fleshing out — that’s what picture books are all about.” And like Silvey, he had found most contemporary picture books “heavy-handed” and “commercial.”

Was the 1987 Caldecott committee at all influenced by this ongoing discussion? In adherence with the award terms, it would not have been something they would have ever openly discussed as a committee. But who could really blame them if, in the fiftieth anniversary year of the Medal, they each endeavored individually to avoid “high gloss” and the “heavy-handed” to select a book they thought came closest to Randolph Caldecott’s — and Maurice Sendak’s — vision for what a picture book should be? In his award acceptance speech, Egielski echoed his teacher by describing what made Caldecott’s picture books work: “Like an enticing melody, each sequence of pictures ebbs and flows, his pictures are never static, they’re always moving, always enhancing and enlivening the text. In Hey, Al, I tried to use what I learned from Caldecott.”

After seventy-five years of awarding the Caldecott Medal, we are still discussing how we define the term picture book, who the audience is, whether the Caldecott winners will — or should — stand the test of time, whether the choices are driven by politics, and many other issues. These issues have led us to question the award terms, definitions, selection process, committee composition, and even the very meaning of distinguished. But any shortcomings we perceive in the Caldecott Medal itself are far outweighed by the award’s greatest strength — that the terms and definitions are open enough that they allow for interpretation as picture books themselves change. Even if that means we’ll get the occasional quirky choice.

From the November/December 2013 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. For supplemental material on Hey, Al, click here.

Kathleen T. Horning

Kathleen T. Horning

Kathleen T. Horning is the director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, a library of the School of Education, University of Wisconsin–Madison. The author of From Cover to Cover: Evaluating and Reviewing Children’s Books, she teaches online courses for ALSC on the history of the Newbery and Caldecott medals.

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