Recently one of the readers of my blog was monumentally peeved at me, and not without just cause. I had written the third of my Newbery/Caldecott prediction posts for 2024 on my School Library Journal blog, and the reader pointed out that I was, shall we say, a little loosey-goosey with my criteria. For example, when discussing the marvelous, miraculous, and downright enticing Tomfoolery!: Randolph Caldecott and the Rambunctious Coming-of-Age of Children’s Books by Michelle Markel, I had said that its illustrator, Barbara McClintock, was due for a Caldecott. The reader was quick to point out to me that Caldecott committees do not take into account whether or not one person or another is due. Even the most cursory glance of the Caldecott criteria will show that much. And while I backpedaled and gave the excuse that my prediction posts (prior to January) are based more on personal preference than strict interpretations of Caldecott rules, I admit that I still keep that little list in my head. Maybe you do too. It’s that list of illustrators that for one reason or another, bad luck or bad timing, have never (for all their skill) won a Caldecott Award or Honor. And amongst them, circling near the top, is the outstanding Barbara McClintock.

All this being said, I truly do believe that above and beyond my own personal hopes, Tomfoolery! is a book worthy of Caldecott consideration regardless of its creators’ award statuses (or lack thereof). And while I’ve proven to be a fairweather friend to the Caldecott criteria on my own blog, allow me to adhere to it now with an uncomfortable closeness.

Ask any committee member: what book deserves a Caldecott? Answer: one that is “distinguished.” Many is the committee that has fought tooth and nail behind their closed doors over what that sly little word might or might not mean. The Caldecott criteria do attempt to help them out a little, doling out phrases like “marked by eminence and distinction: noted for significant achievement” and “conspicuous excellence or eminence,” finishing with “individually distinct.” Look at those definitions for a minute or two. Now turn your eyes to this book.

One of the great difficulties of featuring any artist in a picture-book biography comes when the illustrator must decide whether or not to imitate or merely emulate their subject’s style. With interest, I ran through past Caldecott Award winners and Honor recipients to see how often biographies of artists won awards. 2017 Medal winner Radiant Child by Javaka Steptoe is a marvelous example of an illustrator drawing inspiration from an artist like Basquiat without trying to replicate him splotch for splotch. 2015 Honor book Viva Frida by Yuyi Morales got around the issue entirely by telling a story with different artistic mediums like modelwork; and similarly, Dave the Potter, the 2011 Caldecott Honor book with art by Bryan Collier, featured art in one medium and an artist working in another entirely. Of course, what books like these have in common is that none of them features children’s book illustrators. And for that matter, how many picture-book biographies about picture-book illustrators have won Caldecotts at all? If there are any out there, it’s been a minute or two since they’ve won.

Markel’s text begins by informing young readers of a time when picture books were far more inclined to go the moralistic “In Adam’s Fall, We Sinned All”/Little Goody Two-Shoes route rather than provide a rousing good time. Caldecott’s life, then, is placed in this context, while also making him out to be a rather enjoyable person to know in and of himself. But even as Markel is deftly bringing the fabric of his experiences together with the books he would later go on to create, take a moment to watch what McClintock is doing with her art. Look at where the character of Caldecott himself plays with his own biography’s margins, as with the title page, which he himself reveals. Look at how McClintock invokes the fun and action that would typify Caldecott’s art, without ever imitating it. And when she shows, as in a beautiful double-page spread, a real piece of Caldecott art (the one gracing the very Caldecott Medal, in fact), it is stunning while also remaining in conversation with the McClintock art that both precedes and follows it. She has found a way to allow her art to dance alongside her subject’s. You might see his nursery rhyme characters prance about the pages alongside her own original art ultimately creating this beautiful conversation between two artists across a century or more of time.

Mind you, these very choices that make the book remarkable may also prove its downfall. After all, the Caldecott Award manual states that the award can only go to an “original work.” What is that precisely? Says the manual, an original work “means that the illustrations were created by this artist and no one else. Further, ‘original work’ means that the illustrations are presented here for the first time and have not been previously published elsewhere in this or any other form. Illustrations reprinted or compiled from other sources are not eligible.” And here we are, with a book in which the art of McClintock and Caldecott inform each other in numerous ways on the page. The irony that a book might be ineligible for a Caldecott because of Mr. Caldecott himself is not lost on me. But is that really the case here?

If this debate sounds familiar to you, you may be remembering a Calling Caldecott post from January 13, 2023, that discussed a similar case. "To Be or Not to Be (Eligible): The Real Dada Mother Goose" by Cathie Mercier, Vicky Smith, and Shelley Isaacson examined the Jon Scieszka/Julia Rothman dada-inspired deconstruction of Blanche Fisher Wright’s classic The Real Mother Goose. In that case, as in this one, art from an artist long since passed appeared alongside contemporary illustrations. The discussion in the blog post is particularly interesting because, as Vicky Smith mentions, so much of eligibility comes down to a chair’s interpretation. She says,

“On the face of it, Wright’s original illustrations are all over The Real Dada Mother Goose, and they have certainly been previously published. However, she is not the illustrator of record of The Real Dada Mother Goose. From a legal standpoint, Wright’s 1916 illustrations are in the public domain (as are the rhymes that form the foundation of the text), and from a procedural one, she’s not in the Caldecott running.”

The post goes on to point out that in the Caldecott Honor–book Me…Jane by Patrick McDonnell, the book ends not with McDonnell’s art but with a famous photograph. And David Wiesner makes direct references to L. Leslie Brooke in Caldecott Award winner The Three Pigs. In the end, Mercier, Smith, and Isaacson reach the conclusion that The Real Dada Mother Goose, in spite of the fact that it was filled with another artist’s work, was still eligible for the award. With that in mind, I am confident that anyone looking at Tomfoolery! will reach a similar conclusion.

Taken on its own merits, Tomfoolery! stands out in the field. As nonfiction it is beholden to the truth, but with the aid of its deft illustrator it is capable of evoking just as much action and enjoyment as any Randolph Caldecott illustrated title. After all, thanks to Randolph Caldecott, we got a glimpse of the humor and fun of children’s books. Thanks to Barbara McClintock, we get a glimpse of the humor and fun of children’s picture-book biographies as well. A distinguished title in the field. Even if the artist weren’t due, the title certainly is.

[Read The Horn Book Magazine review of Tomfoolery!]

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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