Archive for Awards

Mock Caldecott 2010: Manhattan, Kansas Edition

With thanks to the Children’s and Adolescent Literature Community (ChALC) for organizing the event, we held a Mock Caldecott at the Manhattan Public Library this afternoon.  And, yes, of course, we weren’t able to get all of the books we wanted to look at — so, there are quite likely candidates we didn’t get to evaluate.  Here are the ones chosen by our group (composed of undergraduates, graduate students, children’s lit faculty, and members of the community).

Bill Thompson, Chalk: cover1. Bill Thompson’s Chalk

This wordless tale of chalk drawings coming to life owes a debt to Crockett Johnson‘s Harold and the Purple Crayon in its concept, but Chris Van Allsburg in its rendering and its mood.  Thompson‘s odd angles of vision on events, unusual sources of light, and expressive faces put one strongly in mind of Van Allsburg.

And, for our honor books, we chose:

Wiesner's Art & Max: cover2. David Wiesner’s Art and Max

Wiesner keeps finding new ways to write metafiction.  This one cleverly riffs on pontilism, pop art, and wire sculpture… all while two lizards experiment with paint.  Like his The Three Pigs or Tuesday (two earlier Caldecott-winners), the book must be experienced to be understood.

3. Mac Barnett’s Oh No! (or How My Science Project Destroyed the World), illustrated by Dan Santat

Dynamic, clever, and strongly influenced by both anime and comics, this humorous tale derives much pleasure from extending its protagonist’s imagination into her world — the permeable boundary between the fantasy of a runaway science project and ordinary city life makes us at first think her dream is true, but later wonder… and all the while enjoy.

Lane Smith, It's a BookHere are a few that didn’t make the cut but that I really liked.

Lane Smith’s It’s a Book, on which I’ve elaborated in an earlier post, should have been a finalist, but got disqualified for having too “adult” humor.  While I concede that there are some “adult” jokes, its silent-comedy storytelling is certainly for all ages — and thus unlike the funny The Boss Baby, a tale by Marla Frazee, which (to my mind) depends more heavily on some knowledge of the working world to get the jokes.  Frazee’s book would be great for new parents, but Smith’s works better both for adults and for children who love to read.

Pinkney and Pinkney, Sit-In: coverAndrea Davis Pinkney and Brian Pinkney’s Sit-In: How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down is a well-designed, dynamic rendering of the lunch-counter sit-ins of the early 1960s.  The poetic text and the verve of the illustrations makes this tale very exciting.  It’s hard to compress a complex historical event into a picture-book, but this succeeds very well.

Oliver Jeffers’ The Heart and the Bottle is a brilliantly rendered allegory of loss and then, ultimately, rediscovering the sense of curiosity that makes living fun.  It made our top 5, but I’d like to see it ranked even higher.  Brilliant use of space, well-paced story, evocative images.  Readers should also check out Jeffers‘ earlier books Lost and Found and The Incredible Book Eating Boy.

Suzy Lee, Shadow: coverSuzy Lee’s Shadow is another favorite for me this year.  You open it with the spine at the top, so that the fold is in the middle of your reading experience, dividing the upper half (a basement) from the lower half (a shadow).  The shadow transforms ordinary objects into an adventure.  Rewards re-reading.

What are your favorite picture books from 2010?  And which do you think will win the Caldecott Medal this year?

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Kadir Nelson Is the Best; or, When the Caldecott Committee Strikes Out

What makes an award-winner?  One of the best picture books of 2008, Kadir Nelson’s We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball (2008) won neither the Caldecott Medal nor a Caldecott Honor.  The following year, Jerry Pinkney became the first African American to win the Caldecott Medal — “given to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children” — for his The Lion & the Mouse (2009).1 That said, We Are the Ship did not come up completely empty-handed.  It did win the Coretta Scott King Author and Illustrator Awards, “given to an African American author and illustrator for outstanding inspirational and educational contributions.”2 And it received plenty of great reviews.   But it should have won the Caldecott.

Kadir Nelson, opening to 3rd chapter of We Are the Ship

A lavishly illustrated non-fiction work, Nelson’s We Are the Ship may have missed the Caldecott due to a perception that it is more illustrated book than picture book.  However, art gives the book its narrative power, and an interdependent relationship between words and pictures conveys the histories of athletes who, denied participation in the all-white major leagues, displayed their talents in the low-paying but high-performing Negro Leagues.  A compelling sports history, We Are the Ship not only was the best picture book of 2008, but is one of the best picture books of the last decade.

Kadir Nelson, We Are the Ship (cover)Critics would be correct to point out that, at about 500 words per page, We Are the Ship has far more text than an ordinary picture book; at 88 pages (including index), Nelson’s chronicle is much longer than a typical picture book, which runs 64 or fewer pages.  However, the 2008 Caldecott winner The Invention of Hugo Cabret (2007) is over 500 pages, and Nelson’s We Are the Ship succeeds because of “the interdependence of pictures and words,” to quote Barbara Bader’s definition of the picture book.3 In its first page of text, “5th Inning” (each chapter is named for an inning) speaks of five of the “Greatest Baseball Players in the World: The Negro League All-Stars,” including Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and George “Mule” Suttles.  On the page to its left, the chapter’s first image shows Gibson, his uniform’s sleeves rolled up, the muscles on his strong arms visible, hands gripping the bat resting on his shoulder.  Beyond making his story stand out, the portrait amplifies the comment that “Josh Gibson was a powerful hitter, but we had other fellows who could hit just as far” (41): this single picture of a strong player stands in for so many others.  Nelson’s painting — which also appears on the book’s cover — has Gibson looking directly at the reader, unsmiling, ready to play ball.  The look on his face highlights this sentence: “Many of our guys could have rewritten the record books if they had been given the chance to play in the majors” (41).  The juxtaposition of those words with his determined expression conveys the sense that those are his thoughts right now, while he stares at us.

Nelson’s borderless single-page and double-page illustrations immerse the reader in the world of the league.  Just after the narrator tells us that the Negro League’s success inspired white owners of independent Negro teams to form a “rival league of their own” (9), we turn the page to find two pages filled with a single magnified ticket for the first Colored World Series, between the Kansas City Monarchs and the Hilldale Club in 1924.  Both pages of this spread unfold out, revealing a panoramic view — four pages wide — of both teams and their managers, standing in Kansas City’s Muehlebach Field.  The effect is like stepping into a color photograph, even though it’s actually a painting based on a black-and-white photo.  Enhancing the vividness of the athletes, Nelson renders them in detail and in color, but leaves the crowds behind them blurrier and in shades of grey.  The contrast between the fuzzy background and the crisp, bright foreground makes the teams pop out at the viewer.  Though a period photograph would likely have had handwritten names beneath each person, Nelson’s typewritten captions convey an air of historical authenticity.  The result makes us feel as if we are both looking at and standing inside a photo from 1924.

Writing in a conversational tone, Nelson makes history come alive by creating the feeling of an oral interview, as if an old-time Negro league player were talking to us.  When discussing the fact that many ballplayers came from Latin America, Nelson’s narrator says of Cristóbal Torriente: “If he had been a couple shades lighter, he could have played in the majors. Major league owners would take a Cuban before they would a Negro. Guess they didn’t know slave ships stopped down in those islands, too” (53).  The omission of “of” between “couple” and “shades,” the absence of “I” before “Guess,” and the contraction “didn’t” creates an informal, colloquial feel to the language.  In his Author’s Note, Nelson reveals that this was precisely his intent: he read interviews and listened to ex-players tell their stories, and decided that “hearing the story of Negro League baseball directly from those who experienced it firsthand made it more real, more accessible” (80).

Kadir Nelson, Chapter 6 of We Are the Ship

The result of eight years’ work, We Are the Ship will appeal to anyone interested in baseball, portraiture, history, the struggle for civil rights, or beautiful picture books.  Taking its title from Negro National League founder Rube Foster’s comment that “We are the ship; all else the sea,” Nelson’s book chronicles the rise and demise of the league that began to fade when the Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson in 1947.  In so doing, Nelson brings to life the unsung heroes of the sport.  As he writes, “We had many Josh Gibsons in the Negro Leagues.  We had many Satchel Paiges.  But you never heard about them.  It’s a shame the world didn’t get to see them play” (51).  Thanks to We Are the Ship, the world will now at least get a glimpse.

However, more people would get that glimpse if We Are the Ship had won the Caldecott — because that would ensure its presence in every single public and school library in America.  I realize, of course, that award-winners are the result of a consensus; the prize goes to whichever book more committee members agree on.  And the work that beat Nelson’s, Beth Krommes‘ pictures for Susan Marie Swanson‘s The House in the Night (2008), is definitely good.  The elegant simplicity of the text (inspired by a nursery rhyme) works well with the scratchboard-and-watercolor artwork, itself reminiscent of classic illustrations by, say, Wanda Gág.  I see why the committee chose The House in the Night. I like the book, and enjoy re-reading my copy. But We Are the Ship is more innovative, distinctive, and virtuosic.  In sum, “the most distinguished American picture book for children” of 2008 was and is We Are the Ship.


1. “Welcome to the Caldecott Medal Home Page.”  American Library Association. <>.

2. “The Coretta Scott King Book Awards for Authors and Illustrators.”  American Library Association. <>.

3. Barbara Bader, American Picturebooks from Noah’s Ark to the Beast Within (New York: Macmillan, 1976), p. 1.

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