Mardi Gras Almost Didn't Come This Year

[Many 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.]

Mardi Gras Almost Didn’t Come This Year
by Kathy Z. Price; illus. by Carl Joe Williams
Primary    Atheneum    48 pp.    g
2/22    978-1-5344-4425-6    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-1-5344-4426-3    $10.99

This moving picture book transports readers to New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina lands in August 2005. “Days before the storm / there was a burning-up sun.” Then wind and water quickly replace the sun. The narrator and her family find shelter in an aunt’s house. Before long, it is February and time for Mardi Gras. The narrator and her brother, Babyboy, excitedly wait for the festivities to begin, but it looks as though Mardi Gras may not come this year. Price’s poetic free-verse text, with its strong, distinctive narrative voice, is full of New Orleans culture, from the “alligator tail in a po’boy bun” to the blast of Babyboy’s trumpet. The text captures the fear and hope that children in New Orleans experienced before and after the storm. Williams’s mixed-media collages are well detailed and eye-catching. For readers unfamiliar with New Orleans and Mardi Gras, the art — with its sense of community, motion, and ­celebration — provides an immediate, photo-like depiction of both. In an author’s note, readers learn that Mardi Gras almost didn’t come again during COVID-19 — instead of the traditional parade, people created porch floats to celebrate. NICHOLL DENICE MONTGOMERY

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

We are seeing a wealth of gorgeous picture books illustrated by established Black artists this year — by Daniel Minter, Elizabeth Zunon, Loveis Wise, Frank Morrison, Bryan Collier, April Harrison, and James E. Ransome, to name a few. (Calling Caldecott will be covering many of their books as the season unfolds.) But happily, we are also seeing a trend of Black artists making significant picture-book debuts. One of these artists is Carl Joe Williams, illustrator of Mardi Gras Almost Didn't Come This Year.

A quick introduction, from his website:

"Carl Joseph Williams was born in uptown New Orleans...Aesthetics of the work involve many complex color combinations and rhythmic patterns inspired by geometric patterns found in nature. Rhythms and harmonies converge into a symphony of colors that work together to create a powerful visual experience. It is my vision to create pieces that bring a sense of intrigue, color, and excitement while addressing the physiological and historical concerns of everyday people."

Williams is an accomplished artist new only to picture books, not to the art world at large. (This is also true of Janelle Washington, another debut picture-book artist; we will be discussing her art in Choosing Brave: How Mamie Till-Mobley and Emmett Till Sparked the Civil Rights Movement in November.)

Mardi Gras Almost Didn't Come This Year (see review above for a discussion of the book's plot) is a showcase for Williams's trademark geometric patterns and complex color combinations and is infused with an authentic sense of place — stunningly achieved by this native–New Orleans artist. At first, the patterns stay very much in the background: concentric circles around the sun before Hurricane Katrina hits; bands of wavy lines in the floodwaters during the storm; staid squares on the walls of the shotgun house the family borrows after their own house is destroyed. But when Mardi Gras–time approaches and the children are ready to return to life (before their grieving mother is), the shapes and patterns and colors come more to the foreground — and become more emotive and meaningful. Concentric circles radiate from the sister's generous heart as she determines to have Mardi Gras, even if it's just for her family; from a bouquet of flowers Pop-Pop brings for Mamma; from the horns of a trumpet and a tuba as a second-line band passes during an actual Mardi Gras parade. Finally we see an image of the family, restored by the joy of Mardi Gras and now optimistic that they will be able to rebuild their home, standing close in a group hug, centered on the page inside a harmonious circle.

The Caldecott criteria cite "appropriateness of style of illustration to the story, theme or concept" and "delineation of plot, theme, characters, setting, mood or information through the pictures." Williams's art in Mardi Gras Almost Didn't Come This Year exemplifies both these criteria. 

I hope the Real Committee is looking carefully at this book — and there's much more to delve into than I've managed here. I'm sure Calling Caldecott readers have thoughts as well! Drop your observations about this stunning debut into the comments.

Martha V. Parravano

Martha V. Parravano is a contributing editor to The Horn Book, Inc., and co-author of the Calling Caldecott blog.

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