John's Turn

[Calling Caldecott posts this season will begin with the Horn Book Magazine review of the featured book, followed by the post's author's critique.]


John’s Turn
by Mac Barnett; illus. by Kate Berube
Primary    Candlewick    32 pp.    g
3/22    978-1-5362-0395-0    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-1-5362-2676-8    $17.99

Barnett and Berube offer a sensitive story about a boy grappling with stage fright and insecurity. The main character, John, walks into the narrative on the front endpaper carrying a duffle bag, his shoulders slumped and his eyes downcast. A page-turn welcomes readers into a busy school auditorium where breakfast is ending and children are beginning to sit in front of a stage. An unnamed narrator explains the school’s weekly Sharing Gifts assembly and notes John’s anxiety: “He was quiet at breakfast. We knew why.” Barnett’s use of “we” builds a sense of intimacy, reinforced by Berube’s warm ink and paint illustrations depicting students with many different skin tones, hair types and textures, and affects. The pace slows and suspense builds over a number of pages that show John suiting up in his ballet leotard and contemplating what he is about to face. A double-page spread puts readers onstage with the boy looking out at students who are distracted and whispering. Then Berube’s illustrations burst into motion in a series of wordless spreads as John begins dancing. He’s absorbed in his joy, and his classmates—and readers—become as enraptured as he is. Barnett and Berube bring mastery of craft as well as an understanding of human nature to offer a fresh take on a familiar theme. ADRIENNE PETTINELLI

From the March/April 2022 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.


I’ve reread John’s Turn many times since I wrote the above review, and each reading delights me — a sign of a book worthy of Caldecott consideration. The award criteria ask committee members to consider the appropriateness of the style of illustration to the story, theme, or concept. I can’t think of anything more appropriate than Berube’s soft cartoon illustrations glowing in warm shades of gold to make the vulnerability of this story approachable and accessible for young readers. The images exude a feeling of safety that encourages openness and empathy.

In terms of excellence of technique, I invite you to admire the way Berube draws children. John’s classmates all look like individuals who would have their own interesting stories to tell. On page after page, the children’s emotions are clear on their faces, which are drawn with nothing more than two dots for eyes and three to four other lines to build out the nose and mouth. Berube allows herself only a few eyebrows to assist in conveying emotion, and those are deployed carefully to show John’s anxiety when he begins to dance, and then they slowly melt away while he’s dancing to show his increasing comfort. A limited, muted color palette unifies the book, but notice how Berube surrounds John with washes of color to signal his mood at various points. He’s circled in a cloud of beige and slate while he waits backstage, and then as he loses himself in his dance, the dull colors turn into sky blue, then green, then gold. The way the art in this book functions is subtle and so perfect.

If I were making my case for the Caldecott committee, I’d focus on the forceful and effective composition. The loose lines and the way the colors don’t always stay in them give an appealing sense of informality, but the page-turns and layouts are carefully designed, and the reader’s eye goes where Berube wants it to go. My favorite example of this is the spread in which one of the children, Andre, talks out of turn (“What’s John gonna do?”). Out of the few dozen kids on that page, it is immediately apparent who is talking, and one doesn’t need toread the accompanying text to know that child is being sassy. Much of this story is conveyed in the art.

If I were looking for weaknesses, I might point out that I don’t love the way the gutter cuts some kids’ faces in half in a few spreads. It’s a minor detail, but when a committee has piles of extraordinary books to consider and discuss, as the committee does this year, details are what keep books on the table or take them off the table. Also, though, life is imperfection, and this book does what it sets out to do with power and skill. I’m curious — what details stand out for you in this thoughtful, tender book?

Adrienne L. Pettinelli

Adrienne L. Pettinelli is the director of the Henrietta (NY) Public Library. She has served on several book award committees, including the 2015 Caldecott Committee, and is the author of Helping Homeschoolers in the Library (2008).

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Adrienne Pettinelli

I love that tiny smile. Every time we see John in this book, it's 100% clear what he's feeling, which is so impressive, particularly because these are more subtle emotions--not happy or sad, but anxious and worried and then satisfied and proud.

Posted : Oct 18, 2022 01:43

Martha Parravano

For me it's all about the body language. It's just so expressive all through the book -- which is appropriate, I guess, for a book in which the main character is a dancer :). Our first glimpse of John is on the page before the title page, and Berube shows him with his head down, seemingly thinking hard about something, and burdened by both backpack and duffel bag. Contrast that image with the final image in the book, of John standing straight up, looking out at us, beaming. And then there's that double-page spread showing John leaping in an arc across the pages. The first vignette shows him looking worried and anxious. And then as his leap unfolds, his expression begins to soften until at last he has a VERY small smile on his face. And then from that point on it's joy all the way.

Posted : Oct 04, 2022 04:11

Lori Kilkelly

Since I had a behind the scenes look at this book from the beginning my perspective may be different than others, but I was fascinated by Kate's experiments with motion and how to best imbue John's dancing with movement on a still page. As I recall some options captured movement but felt too distracting, others felt too flat. The end result? I'm biased, but I think it's perfection. (Also, did you know she took ballet classes to help inform her artwork?)

Posted : Sep 28, 2022 04:26

Free Access

Lori, Wow, taking ballet classes is dedication. Ballet is HARD. The movement is beautiful in the images of John dancing. When I look at them, I wonder why I don't spend more time dancing. As Martha says above, it's so joyful.

Posted : Sep 28, 2022 04:26

Julie Danielson

So much to love here, which you capture so well. I love this book's pacing and that much of the book is devoted to John's performance -- five elegantly composed spreads that take their time depicting his graceful performance. -- Jules

Posted : Sep 28, 2022 12:59



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