March 22, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Celebrating Picture Books: Not Just For Kids

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This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Caldecott Medal, the prestigious award bestowed annually by the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), a division of the American Library Association (ALA), to the “artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children.” First presented in 1938, the medal is named in honor of the 19th-century English illustrator Randolph J. Caldecott and features a scene that encapsulates the humor, vitality, and charm of his ground-breaking artwork (based on 1878’s The Diverting History of John Gilpin, the image shows the title character clinging to a runaway horse as flapping geese, yapping dogs, and gaping bystanders look on).

Encompassing an eye-tempting array of artistic styles and beautifully wrought images, the books adorned with the familiar gold Caldecott seal (or silver for honor books) present a treasure trove of tales ready to be discovered and enjoyed by enthusiastic young readers. For older students, the decades-spanning assemblage offers a rich opportunity for examination and discussion, providing a glimpse at the evolution of the picture book and children’s literature in the United States, an avenue for exploring the influence of historical events and cultural trends on bookmaking, and means for tracing changes and innovations in illustrative techniques and tools.

The award’s diamond anniversary is also the perfect occasion for launching a mock Caldecott election in the classroom, an endeavor that will engage youngsters in a wide range of grade levels. In addition to providing the impetus for lively debate, such a project can improve listening skills, help students to develop the vocabulary and thought processes needed to evaluate and discuss literature and art, encourage active participation, and engender a of love of reading. Visit the ALA website for a list of medal winners and honor books. A dedicated 75th Anniversary page includes a free-to-download bookmark featuring a special commerative logo created by 2008 Caldecott medalist Brian Selznick starring characters from past winners along with clues to their identities.

Why Should Kids Have All the Fun?

Indulge your own love of picture books by perusing some lovely coffee-table compendiums that treat renowned illustrators and their work. In addition to being a pleasure to read and browse, these books can inform classroom author and literature studies and provide insight into the amazing process of creating art.

Meet the Founding Father

In Randolph Caldecott: The Man Who Could Not Stop Drawing (FSG, 2013), Leonard S. Marcus provides a vividly written portrait of the father of the modern picture book. Born in Chester, England, in 1846, the “tall, lanky, and good-looking” young man with “light brown hair that occasionally stood on end” left behind a boyhood spent sketching and wandering the countryside for a position as a bank clerk, eventually striking out for Manchester to take a similar post as “quill-driver” while testing the waters of a possible career in art.

Identifying mentors while always honing his craft, Caldecott sold numerous drawings to newspapers and magazines—now a burgeoning nationwide industry due to the invention of steam-engine-powered presses—before settling in London and making a name for himself as a book illustrator (critical acclaim and fame came with his work in 1875 on Washington Irving’s Old Christmas). When he finally turned his drawing pen to making books for children, his vivacious filled-with-motion style, irrepressible sense of humor, and innovative ideas about layout and design would forever change the genre.

Marcus’s articulate narrative incorporates keystone details and events to evoke the backdrop of Caldecott’s life—cherished pastimes, his penchant for poking fun at himself, and the invigorating spirit of change ignited by the Industrial Revolution—while pinpointing the enduring essence of his artwork. Handsome reproductions of Caldecott’s illustrations, unpublished drawings from his sketchbooks, and other works appear throughout, along with other 19th-century images that set time and place and make for easy comparison.

A Sendak Gallery

Elegant, oversized, and packed to the brim with gorgeous images, Maurice Sendak: A Celebration of the Artist and His Work (Abrams, 2013) is a delight to both browse and delve into.  Published in conjunction with an exhibition at the Society of Illustrators in New York City, the book coincides with the 50th anniversary of Sendak’s game-changing Caldecott-winner, Where the Wild Things Are (Harper, 1963), as well as what would have been his 85th birthday (Sendak passed away in May of 2012). More than 200 reproductions are presented, many from private collections and never before published, representing the amazing scope and breathtaking spectrum of Sendak’s career.

In addition to studies, preliminary sketches, and variant illustrations made for well-known picture books, the volume also includes his advertising and commercial art (e.g., Bell Atlantic’s 1997 “Wild Things Are Happening” campaign), posters, storyboards for animation sequences, designs for stage productions (of his own work as well as operas and ballets), illustrations for magazines (a 1976 Rolling Stone cover showing the “Moishe” Wild Thing decked out as a Christmas tree), and more, each given context with thoughtfully written captions. Twelve essays penned by individuals with whom Sendak’s life intersected range from Leonard Marcus’s piece on Sendak’s seminal picture book trilogy to author/illustrator Paul O. Zelinsky’s reminiscence of taking Sendak’s picture book course at Yale. This stunning visual compendium is part critical exploration, part personal remembrance, and all-out tribute to a remarkable artist and his outstanding body of work.

The Power of the Doodle

Young fans of Knuffle Bunny, that beloved and beleaguered pigeon, and the “Elephant and Piggie” series (all Hyperion) know that Mo Willems is a funny guy, and in Don’t Pigeonhole Me!  (Disney, 2013), he proves that he can illicit just as many laughs from adults. For 20 years, this three-time Caldecott Honor recipient has been compiling an annual sketchbook intended to be distributed as “a calling card for clients and/or holiday card for friends.” Though the format has evolved since the stapled-together mini zine of his “starving artist” days, these booklets still serve as a “continuing experiment,” a place where Willems holds complete creative carte blanche and freedom “from any restrictions.” This cartooning crock pot has helped him cook up ideas for at least three of his picture books, including Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus (2003).

‘Don’t Pigeonhole Me! ‘(Disney)  © Mo Willems

Twenty sketchbooks are reproduced, each set in the context of Willems’s career and life with a funny introduction. Earlier editions showcase adult-pitched New Yorker-style vignettes and sequences that treat relationship woes, offer wry glimpses of city life, and present droll perceptions of art and artists. Later volumes reveal Willems’s experimentation with a longer narrative form, design elements, and storytelling rhythms, including a tale about an “unaccomplished baddie” wolf would later inspire 2005’s Leonardo, the Terrible Monster; an early—and definitely not-for-kids—version of 2012’s Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs; and a “hard reader” starring an inebriated bunny who spouts a “drunken diatribe of words that merely sound like what they mean.”The final installment collects together doodles originally drawn on the butcher block paper that adorns the Willems family dinner table (characters that may, or may not, someday appear in a picture book). Great fun to browse and unabashedly hilarious, this book also reminds readers of the importance of experimentation and taking chances, of allowing one’s self the space to daydream, and of the awesome power of the doodle.

Why Picture Books?

Compiled and edited by Marcus, Show Me a Story!: Why Picture Books Matter (Candlewick, 2012) presents conversations with 21 renowned illustrators. Whether interviewing longtime picture book mavens such as Robert McCloskey, Eric Carle, Maurice Sendak, Ashley Bryan, and Tana Hoban, or relative newcomers including Yumi Heo and Chris Raschka, philosophical thinkers like Mitsumasa Anno or humorous tale-tellers like James Marshall, Marcus focuses on teasing out the “vital thread that links an artist’s life story to the stories and images for which he or she is known.”

Why does a child grow up to become an artist? Who encouraged or mentored these individuals? What experiences inspired them? Why did they choose to make picture books? The lively interviews, each introduced with an insightful recounting of the artist’s career and important innovations, convey much about each individual’s personality as well as revealing truths about the creative process and the role picture books play in the lives of children.

The illustrators reflect on wide-ranging themes, touching upon the impact of historical and political events on one’s life, the realities of racial discrimination, milestones such as becoming a parent, the origins of their beloved characters, or the evolution of the art form. An inset of full-color reproductions showcases a selection of sketches, studies, dummies, and other pre-production work that sheds light on each artist’s illustrative process. An interesting read for anyone who loves picture books, this volume can be used to expand author studies and is s gem worth sharing with older students considering a career in the arts.

Curriculum Connections

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Joy Fleishhacker About Joy Fleishhacker

Joy Fleishhacker is a librarian, former SLJ staffer, and freelance editor and writer who works at the Pikes Peak Library District in southern Colorado.