Review: Reading the Art in Caldecott Award Books

reading the art of caldecott books

There is a huge need for a book like Heidi K. Hammond and Gail D. Nordstrom’s Reading the Art in Caldecott Award Books: A Guide to the Illustrations. Those of us who obsessively read and share picture books understand that the art is a powerfully important part of reading and experiencing these stories. We feel ourselves responding–often strongly–to the art in the picture books that we love, but most teachers and librarians have little-to-no training in how to talk about the art of picture book illustration. Reading the Art in Caldecott Award Books is an attempt to fill that gap.

The book consists of an introduction, short chapters describing and analyzing 56 Caldecott Medal and Honor books (including the 2014 titles), a very helpful glossary, and four appendices: a short bibliography of resources to learn more about illustration; a copy of the Caldecott terms and criteria; a bibliography for the 56 titles discussed in this book; and a list of all Caldecott medal winners and honor books.

The Introduction describes Hammond’s and Nordstrom’s experiences on the 2011 committee. Committee members can’t talk about the details of their discussions about the picture books, of course, but they can describe the process, and the authors go on at some length. The description of the process is interesting in a gossipy kind of way, but there are so many irrelevant details included. Do we really need to know that the speakerphone wasn’t working when they made their calls to the Caldecott winners? There simply isn’t much content to this introduction. We find out plenty about how Hammond and Nordstrom were each selected for the committee and how they felt upon being selected (stunned! flattered! thrilled! excited!), but we find out nothing about how to talk about picture book illustration. We learn nothing substantial about the training in art appreciation and analysis that Caldecott committee members receive. Readers are pointed to Appendix A, which is a bibliography of resources about picture book illustration that committee members are requested to read, for information of the sort I expected to find in this Introduction–namely, some general principles about illustration and guidelines for how to talk about picture book art. There is a list of the Caldecott criteria, but no analysis or discussion of what the 5 key bulleted points about “excellence” and “appropriateness” really mean.

Once you turn to the write-ups of individual titles, the book does improve. The book is heavy on titles from the 2000s and features relatively few older titles (Madeline and Make Way for Ducklings from the 1940s; none from the 1950s; The Snowy Day and Where the Wild Things Are from the 1960s; Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, Frog and Toad Are Friends, Freight Train, and Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears from the 1970s).

Each entry follows the same format: there is a 1-2 page description of the book that attempts to analyze the illustrations in some detail, concluding with a paragraph asserting that the book does indeed show excellence and appropriateness and deserved the award; a bulleted list of short observations “for further consideration”; an “Illustrator Note” with some kind of quotation or interesting fact about the illustrator; and a list of sources.

I found the entires of variable quality. The entry on Creepy Carrots!, a 2013 Honor Book, shows Hammond and Nordstrom at their best. Their discussion points my attention to elements I hadn’t considered carefully (the typeface and title page, for instance) and their in-depth analysis of the illustrations themselves made me appreciate Peter Brown’s art in a whole new way and gave me many new approaches to talk about the book with students:

Brown says he wanted to create as much melodrama as possible (Brown 2013). Examination of the eighth opening reveals how he uses perspective and lighting to increase tension. In the upper illustration on the verso, the perspective is from above. The shed’s light casts an eerily carrot-shaped shadow of Jasper as he flees to his mother. In the bottom illustration, the lighting and perspective are from below. The house with Jasper’s mother framed in the doorway appears at a slant. This diagonal line is unsettling and heightens the suspense. On the recto, even though Jasper and his mother discover that what he thought were carrots were really just tools and orange paint, the tension remains high. Shadows cast by a lone light bulb in the recto are still foreboding.

This rich analysis, which goes on for several paragraphs, helps me understand not just what I’m seeing on the page but how what I see is working to build emotions, to create effects, to further the story. This is true art appreciation and art analysis. (The glossary defines the unfamiliar terms.)

But consider this paragraph about one spread in David Ezra Stein’s Interrupting Chickens, a 2011 Honor Book:

In this spread, warm and cool colors are used effectively. Orange stripes and red flowers complement aqua wallpaper. The orange and red chickens are dressed in blue and sport dark green tails. A small lamp provides an important light source for the bedtime setting. Its glow throws yellow tones on the wallpaper and dark floor and brightens the white pillowcase. Light shines upon a small yellow book under the bed, foreshadowing an important turn in the story. The storybook, Chicken, and the bed cast shadows in the nighttime scene.

This is not writing that helps me appreciate or understand what Stein is doing as an artist. And this paragraph is unfortunately all too typical of the entries in this book: fairly obvious observations about what we’re seeing, a value judgement (“used effectively”) without any kind of explanation or analysis (what does it mean to use warm and cool colors effectively for this particular story?), and no real sense of how or why a technique or choice is excellent or appropriate.

I do think this book has uses for classroom teachers and librarians. I can imagine picking it up to skim an entry before sharing a particular title in my Children’s Literature class. In every entry, there are at least one or two small moments of insight and interest. But I wish every entry had been as thoughtful as the entry on Creepy Carrots!


2 responses to “Review: Reading the Art in Caldecott Award Books”

  1. Marj Avatar

    This is going on this month’s book order, too! Looks like something I would really enjoy.

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