The Rock from the Sky

I’ve always harbored a pet Caldecott theory. You know how some artists will win Caldecott Awards and Honors over and over again, while others never seem to get a foot in the door? I have often wondered if there was a window of opportunity there. Get in while you’re new — and reap the rewards! Miss that window, and woe betide you.

Of course, Jon Klassen is no stranger to the Caldecott. In 2013, he received a Caldecott Honor for Extra Yarn, written by Mac Barnett, and in that same year managed to also receive the Caldecott Medal for This Is Not My Hat. And in 2015 he won a Caldecott Honor for Sam and Dave Dig a Hole, also written by Barnett. Considering all the artists out there that do not get honored, why should we devote time and energy to a fellow already so familiar with the whole concept of winning?

In many ways, it comes down to the Caldecott criteria themselves. I know that reading and rereading award criteria is right up there with the amusement you might derive from reading IKEA instructions, so let’s make this fun for a change. Let us take the latest Jon Klassen book, The Rock from the Sky, divorce it from the pack of other behatted animalia picture books he’s created, and imagine that — like its titular rock — this book just fell out of the sky.

Scene: you’re walking down the street, minding your own business, when something hits you on the head. You look up. You see nothing. You look down and you see a picture book. It appears to feature a wide expanse of sky, two semi-transparent clouds, and two animals on either side of a pink flower. One is a turtle in a bowler hat, and the other appears to be some kind of an armadillo (also in a bowler hat).

You have the choice to read the book — and you do. And as you peruse it, unbidden to your mind come the Caldecott criteria, in no particular order. The key phrases are conjured up:

“Individually Distinct.” Well, you’ve certainly never seen anything quite like this book before. Broken up into five chapters, the book is spare and contains all the beauty one might find in a desert setting. This is not to say that it is only beautiful in its cinematography (so to speak). There is something to be said for sly glances, side-eye, and the almost imperceptible widening of the eyes to indicate heightened emotions. Klassen keeps a firm grip on what his books are and are not allowed to convey. And it is evident that he has perfected that art with this particular title.

“Marked by Eminence and Distinction: Noted for Significant Achievement.” It is here that you, the person who was recently hit on the head by this book, has a significant advantage over this year’s Caldecott committee. Recall, if you will, that the best possible way to take this book into serious consideration would be to separate it mentally from Klassen’s other stories. If you were the first person to ever read it, would you find its art “eminent”? “Distinct,” even? This is when you might wish to find a child that has never seen a Jon Klassen book before. (Rumor has it that they exist.) Read them this book. As you do, you might find that its true “significant achievement” lies in its successful integration of verbal and visual humor. In fact, in some ways the visual humor exceeds or heightens the verbal. It’s not that funny books haven’t won Caldecotts before; it’s just that funny picture books operate on a different level than their more serious brethren. To convey something that is funny to both adults and kids in one picture book is a delicate dance. When we say “eminence and distinction,” we do not think of guffaws. Maybe that’s our problem.

“Marked by Excellence in Quality.” And here is where we’re all allowed to get a little bit subjective. Quality? What a strange term. What is a “quality” picture book these days? It doesn’t mean a message book. Not that I can tell anyway. Perhaps it means that the book is set apart from the pack in some way. If you could read a picture book once and then return to it a year later, what would you remember about it? Maybe you really value plots that build suspense and revel in heightened tensions. Maybe “quality” to you is a book that plays with a metaphor on some level, however oblique. Or maybe it just means a book you’d like to read to both children and adults. What I find “quality” and what you find “quality” could be as different as night and day, yet I think that’s why the term carries as much power as it does. We can always redefine, for ourselves and for our children, what “quality” means.

Every year the Caldecott committee wrangles with these definitions. They debate the terms, redefine them for themselves, and then the whole process is scrapped and reworked for a new committee the year after that. So take your copy of The Rock from the Sky. Hold it close. Remember that it is only one book published this year and that the competition is stiff. Still and all, there is no denying that, as picture books go, it is a rousing, riotous, remarkable success. Beautiful from tip to toe — and the strangest thing you’ll read all week. A winner, I hope, in more than one sense of the word.

[Read the Horn Book Magazine review of The Rock from the Sky here.]


Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is collection development manager of the Evanston (IL) Public Library and former youth materials specialist of the New York Public Library. She reviews for Kirkus and blogs for SLJ at A Fuse #8 Production. She is the author of Giant Dance Party (Greenwillow) and co-authored (with Julie Danielson and Peter D. Sieruta), Wild Things!: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature.
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Adrienne Pettinelli

I just finally got to see this today, and parts of the book made me laugh so hard that one of my coworkers came to find out what was going on. Then I force-read it to everyone I could find. I call this quality.Also I got so tense reading part one that I had to stop turning pages for a minute. I just felt like anything at all could happen. Such fantastic pacing there.

Posted : Oct 13, 2021 09:58



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