Horn Book reviews of Caldecott Medal winners, 1980-1989


Ox-Cart Man (Viking)
Illustrated by Barbara Cooney

Like a pastoral symphony translated into picture book format, the stunning combination of text and illustrations re-creates the mood of nineteenth-century rural New England. Economical and straightforward, the narrative achieves a poetic tone through the use of alliteration and  repetition, as in the description of the ox-cart man's preparations for his journey to Portsmouth. "He packed a bag of wool / he sheared from the sheep in April. / He packed a shawl his wife wove on a loom/ from yarn spun at the spinning wheel / from sheep sheared in April." As an appropriate contrast, the full-color illustrations, suggesting early American paintings on wood, depict the countryside through which he travels, the jostle of the marketplace, and the homely warmth of family life. The various phenomena of the New England landscape —  the vibrant foliage of autumn, the lurid sunsets of winter, the delicate abundance of an orchard in spring — evoke the pattern of a lifestyle geared to the rhythm of the seasonal cycle. Quiet but not static, the book celebrates the peacefulness of a time now past but one which is still, nevertheless, an irrefutable part of the American consciousness.

reviewed in the February 1980 issue of The Horn Book Magazine


ARNOLD LOBEL, Author-Illustrator

Without apologies to Aesop, La Fontaine, or Krylov — and without imitating them, either — the author-illustrator has invented twenty animal fables with an original flavor. Each one starts in a classical storytelling manner: "There was an old Dog who was very poor"; "The Crane invited the Pelican to tea"; or "On Sunday the  Ostrich saw a young lady walking in the park." But the simple introductions are followed by deceptively  ingenuous narrative developments frequently embellished with preposterous situations and completed with a moral smacking of deliberately gleeful cynicism. The bear, for example, is convinced by the crow to cover  himself with a sheet and wear paper bags on his feet and a frying pan on his head. Each miniature narrative occupies a page by itself and is balanced by a full-page picture which reflects the crucial event of the fable andportrays the joyfully conceived characters. Carefully composed, rich with modulated colors, the  illustrations make their mark as works of art and offer visual correlatives for the tongue-in-cheek stories.

reviewed in the October 1980 issue of The Horn Book Magazine


CHRIS VAN ALLSBURG, Author-Illustrator
Jumanji (Houghton)

Jumanji appears to be a perfectly ordinary game, except that it has been abandoned in the park with the cryptic message "fun for some but not for all." Peter and Judy unfold the playing board and with the first throw of the dice discover that each moved immediately introduces a corresponding jungle phenomenon into their surroundings — a ravenous lion, marauding monkeys, a bewildered guide, an erupting volcano. Tension mounts with each addition, for the play rules state that once Jumanji is begun, it will not be over until one player reaches the Golden City. At the climactic moment Judy completes the last move. The surreal background disappears; the game is hastily returned to its original site; and two exhausted but undaunted children sleepily welcome the homecoming adults, who naturally dismiss the afternoon's adventure as simply a dream. Meanwhile, Jumanji has been resurrected once more by a pair of curious, though less tenacious, youngsters. Substance or shadow, real or imagined, the bizarre and mythical world of Jumanji exists because of its own logic and the luminous precision of the full-page, black-and-white illustrations. Through the masterly use of light and shadow, the interplay of design elements, and audacious changes in perspective and composition, the artist conveys an impression of color without losing the dramatic contrast of black and white. As in The Garden of Abdul Gasazi (Houghton), he successfully explores the semimagical country of the the mind in which reality and illusion exist as conjoined yet distinct entities.

reviewed in the August 1981 issue of The Horn Book Magazine


Shadow (Scribner)
Translated from the French and illustrated by Marcia Brown

The French poet, novelist, and world traveler retold African folk tales for children, which were translated by  Margery Bianco and published in 1929 as Little Black Stories (Payson and Clarke). Not included in that volume, however, was one of the original tales, "La Feticheuse," now the text of a striking picture book by another world traveler — a much-honored illustrator of great integrity and artistry. Cendrars, says Marcia Brown in her brief foreward, evoked from storytellers around their fires in Africa "a dancing image — Shadow." Not actually a narrative, the text is really a poetic characterization of a fundamental, primitive concept. "Shadow lives in the  forest. It goes forth at night to prowl around the fires. It even likes to mingle with the dancers." Shadow is blind; it has no voice. But "it can cast a spell over you, for good or bad. It is a trickster. It laughs behind your back." The artist's work is never predictable or repetitive; her distinction lies partly in the way she suits her technique to the demands of her subject matter. Inspired by the exotic atmosphere and the dramatic  possibilities of the text, she has choreographed a sequence of almost theatrical illustrations, placing human and  animal figures — and their shadows — against brilliant, contrasting, always changing settings. Resplendent — yet controlled — in color, texture, and form, the work is an impressive, sophisticated example of the art of the picture book.

reviewed in the October 1982 issue of The Horn Book Magazine


ALICE and MARTIN PROVENSEN, Authors-Illustrators
The Glorious Flight: Across the Channel with Louis Bleriot July 25, 1909 (Viking)

Soft colors provide a subdued background for the story of Louis Bleriot's struggles to construct and fly an  operating airplane. Smitten by the idea of flight, as with a first love, the sad-eyed inventor progreses through a series of magnificent failures — fragile, papery affairs which hop, glide, and flap, usually to a splintery finale.  His loving, solemn-faced family, dressed in Victorian ruffles and little black boots, observes his efforts through six years of bruises, sprains, and broken ribs. Ultimately, of course, Papa Bleriot does manage to fly his own plane, the Bleriot XI, across the English Channel in just thirty-six minutes, and he is a hero at last. A pleasing  text recounts Bleriot's adventures with gentle humor and admiration for his earnest, if accident-prone, determination. Best of all, the pictures shine with the illustrator's delight in the wondrous flying machines themselves. Each strut, fin, and wing is lovingly depicted; but the book also tells the story of Bleriot's loyal family; careful readers will observe the five children growing up as they share the ups and downs of Papa's glorious career.

reviewed in the December 1983 issue of The Horn Book Magazine


Saint George and the Dragon: A Golden Legend Adapted from Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene (Little)
Illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman

Since the adapter has simplified Spenser's allegorical narrative to conform to the simple pattern of a traditional story, the Knight of the Red Cross is no longer a symbol of holiness, but — as Saint George — he remains the  stalwart champion of Una and the slayer of the dragon. The various adventures and trials of Una and the knight are omitted save for the battle with the monster. Full justice is done to the details of the struggle as they are  found in Canto 11 of Book 1 in Spenser's epic romance; and the adapter's narrative style, which incorporates many of the poet's images, is smooth and graceful. In contrast with the full-page, full-color illustrations, which are dramatic or festive, the pages of text are framed with borders filled with a variety of decorative motifs and vignettes. If anything, the artist is more faithful to the poet's concept than the adapter, for in the margins surrounding the texts are found angels, spirits, and witches embodying Spenser's eerie world of fantasy and spiritual conflict.

reviewed in the November/December 1984 issue of The Horn Book Magazine


 CHRIS VAN ALLSBURG, Author-Illustrator
The Polar Express (Houghton)

Just when it seemed that all possible variations on Christmas motifs had been explored, Chris Van Allsburg has  created a haunting, original fantasy, sparkling with the essence of childlike wonder yet overlaid with the  enigmatic intensity that has become his hallmark. Full-color illustrations accompany an economical narrative,  his best writing to date, in recounting the adventures of a boy who, one Christmas Eve, boards the mysterious Polar Express, which materializes after the townfolk have fallen asleep. Bearing a full complement of children,  the special train rushes through snow-shrouded landscapes to the North Pole, "a huge city standing alone at the top of the world, filled with factories where every Christmas toy was made." There, in the city's center, he is selected by Santa Claus to receive the first gift of Christmas. Although he could choose any of the myriad  delights surrounding him, he asks only for one silver bell from a reindeer's harness. The wish granted, Santa departs on his traditional journey, and the children board the train for their return home. At that crucial  moment the boy discovers that the bell has slipped through a hole in his bathrobe pocket, leaving him without the evidence to convince his more skeptical friends that Santa Claus does exist. But, on Christmas Day, the boy finds the bell under the tree and discovers its peculiar properties: only children — or adults who still believe — can hear its silver sounds. As in The Wreck of the Zephyr (Houghton), Van Allsburg uses reminiscence as a narrative form; it is a particularly effective device in this story, for it makes the implicit theme, found in the concluding sentences, logical and allows the necessary breadth for the sophistication of the art. The illustrations, like the text, show further development in his ability to work within the constraints of the picture book format. As always, the forms are sculptured, the perspectives as dazzling as they are audacious, the colors rich and elegant, the use of light and shadow masterful. The landscapes are dreams made real, larger than life, awe-inspiring but never frightening — like images conjured up by the warm firelight on a cold winter's night. What is most exciting, however, is the interpretation of the characters: Santa Claus is a magnificent figure rooted in myth, rather than in the cliches of Madison Avenue; the elves, too, are folkloric beings, not  diminutive, coy servants; and the children, each lovingly depicted as an individual, are charming because they convey universal emotions — not because they are falsely cherubic. Text and pictures are absolutely essential to  one another; together they convey an inner vision which is splendid yet accessible to child audiences. An outstanding example of the picture-story genre, this book is one which proves that excellence and popularity  are not mutually exclusive elements. It does not compromise artistic integrity, yet it reaches out to children — and to those who remain children at heart.

reviewed in the November/December 1985 issue of The Horn Book Magazine


Hey, Al
Illustrated by Richard Egielski

was not reviewed by The Horn Book — click here for more on Richard Egielski and Hey, Al





Owl Moon (Philomel)
Illustrated by John Schoenherr

The story of a child's nighttime walk with her father in search of a great horned owl unfolds against a backdrop of extraordinarily handsome illustrations. Well-wrapped against the cold, the two leave their farm, stepping high over the drifted snow, and wait, listening breathlessly in the shadowy woods for an answer to Pa's call, "'Whoo-whoo-who-who-who-whooooooo.'" The moonwashed, double-page-spread snowscapes capture the  brooding silence of the night and the child expectancy of father and child. Rough barked and gnarled trees lean under their burden of snow and are a striking setting for the hushed moment when the great owl lifts itself from a nearby tree and is caught, yellow-eyed, in the glare of Pa's flashlight. The delineation of the owl's barred feathers, white bib, and curved talons will satisfy the sharp-eyed birder, but, more than that, the huge bird is imbued with a looming presence and mystery which transcends the description of his appearance in the text. lt  is splendid to find Schoenherr, known for his pictures in Rascal, Gentle Ben (both Dutton), and Julie of the Wolves (Harper), turning his hand to illustrations in a book which blends a quiet and reflective text with  powerful and boldly conceived watercolor paintings.

reviewed in the March/April 1988 issue of The Horn Book Magazine


Song and Dance Man (Knopf)
Illustrated by Stephen Gammell

It is not hard to coax Grandpa up to the attic and persuade him to perform his old vaudeville routines. A former song and dance man, Grandpa can still set his feet to tapping, recall the favorite old songs, and chortle over ancient jokes before his three delighted grandchildren. They love his magic tricks and applaud his grand finale, complete with top hat and gold-headed cane. After refolding his striped vest and wrapping his tap shoes in what he calls a shammy cloth, Grandpa clambers downstairs with the children for the most glorious of hugs. Finally, with a beautifully depicted look of pride, mixed with sadness and longing, Grandpa pauses at the foot of the attic stairs as the children "wonder how much he really misses that time on the vaudeville stage, when he was a song and dance man." The quiet, almost understated text, related from the children's point of view, is brought to warm and affectionate life by the superb artistry of the illustrator. As Grandpa taps and twirls across the pages, we, too, are drawn to the genial old gentleman who can still "strut his stuff." The drawings of the mop-haired, somewhat scruffy children and a baggy-trousered Grandpa convey their loving relationship and  allow readers to share a special and even transcendent family moment.

These reviews of 1970s Caldecott Medal–winning titles are part of our Caldecott at 75 celebration. Click here for more archival Horn Book material on Richard Egielski and Hey, Al.
Horn Book
Horn Book

Be the first reader to comment.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.



We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing.