Mock Caldecott 2013: Manhattan, Kansas Edition

Time again for the Mock Caldecott Awards, at which we convene not to mock Caldecott-winners, but to predict what the winners will be.  This year, we’re of course predicting the 2014 awards, which will be announced next month. A big thanks to Kansas State University’s Children’s and Adolescent Literature Community (especially Allison Kuehne and Melissa Hammond) for organizing this event, and to the Manhattan Public Library for hosting it.

The Winner:

Aaron Becker, Journey (2013)Aaron Becker, Journey

An homage to Crockett Johnson‘s Harold and the Purple Crayon and (as some of my colleagues pointed out today) to David Wiesner‘s work, Aaron Becker‘s Journey invites us to travel along the line of our imaginations, transporting us into a world of Miyazaki-esque wonder.  According to our votes, it was the winner by a good margin.  My own opinion is that I’d be surprised if the Caldecott committee failed to grant this at the very least an Honor.

The Honor Books:

Drew Daywalt and Oliver Jeffers, The Day the Crayons QuitOliver Jeffers, The Day the Crayons Quit (text by Drew Daywalt).

As one of our group observed today, the Caldecott is about telling a story through pictures, and in this book the tools of art are our narrators.  They write letters of protest to their owner, citing misuse (often overuse), and seek redress.  Spoiler alert: By the end of the tale, the child artist hears their grievances, and finds a new way of using color in his work.  Like the above book, Jeffers and Daywalt’s The Day the Crayons Quit is also a meditation on the artist’s process.  Only this one is funnier.

Molly Idle, Flora and the FlamingoMolly Idle, Flora and the Flamingo

With beautifully expressive drawings, a line as smooth as Al Hirschfeld’s, and a magnificent use of white space, Molly Idle‘s Flora and the Flamingo offers much to admire.  Flora, a little girl whose physique does not suggest “ballet,” aspires to that sort of physical grace. With the help of the flamingo, the two dance a sublime, gently comic, duet.  Lifting the flaps (on the pages on which they appear) allows the reader to better “see” the movements of both girl and bird.  I’d read nearly all of our finalists prior to the Mock Caldecott conversations, but today was my introduction to Idle’s work. I look forward to reading more of it.

Should’ve Been Contenders!

Peter Brown, Mr. Tiger Goes WildAs is always the case, there were many great books that don’t get the votes.  Peter Brown‘s Mr. Tiger Goes Wild came in fourth in our voting.  It’s an hilarious, well-designed story of the need to, well, go a little wild every now and then.  (I read it is a kind of a riff on Where the Wild Things Are.)  Our other finalists were Melissa Sweet‘s Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909 (text by Michelle Markel), Jon Klassen‘s The Dark (text by Lemony Snicket), and Eliza Wheeler‘s Miss Maple’s Seeds.

I really wanted to see Bob Staake‘s Bluebird, Frank Viva‘s A Long Way Away, and David Wiesner‘s Mr. Wuffles among the contenders, but none of these garnered a majority’s worth of votes.  Nor, sadly, did Lizi Boyd‘s Inside Outside, and, ah, I could go on.  But I won’t.

There were many beautiful picture books published in the U.S. in 2013.  As my colleague Joe Sutliff Sanders observed, this has been a great year for book design.  I’m paraphrasing him — but that was the gist of his comment.  And he’s right.

People reading picture books, at the Mock Caldecott, Manhattan, KS, 7 Dec. 2013

What are your favorite picture books from 2013? Which one do you think deserves the Caldecott Medal?

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Comic-Con, San Diego, Friday, July 19

And now, a few notes from day 3 of Comic-Con 2013.

A Simple Repast, Coming This Fall

Jerry Griswold invited me for breakfast at the Broken Yolk, which (we discovered) had been leased by the TruTV television show (Impractical) Jokers. As we sat at the table, we noticed that a laminated advertisement fully covered the table’s surface. Then, a smiling young woman employed by the network stopped by to hand out an advertisement disguised as comic book. She also invited us to flick a spinner on a plastic wheel, to win a prize. I did and won a sturdy keychain bearing the name of the network. So did Jerry. For those who are interested, the television program seems to involve four white men getting into mischief. Alleged hilarity ensues.

Brought to You By

advertisement on side of building, San Diego

Advertising covers every available surface at the Con itself. The sides of buildings, the sides of buses, the sides and backs of bicycle taxis, the sides of people. To be at the Con is to be immersed in glossy appeals from the entertainment industrial complex. Not that anyone expected otherwise.

advertisement on side of bus, San Diego

Juxtaposed Images vs. Juxtaposed Text and Images: Smackdown!

Philip Nel, Scott McCloud, R.C. Harvey

While loitering at the Fantagraphics booth, I met R.C. (Bob) Harvey, whose work I’ve read and admired for years.  Then, Scott McCloud strolled up to chat.  Haven’t seen him in, oh, 5 years at least. Great to see him again. As if on cue, these two theorists of comics — with opposing views on how comics work — began a friendly debate. As my students (and, really, all people who are serious about comics) know, Scott McCloud, following Will Eisner, defines comics as “Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence.” For Harvey, however, the key juxtaposition is between text and images.

Here is a slightly sketchy, inaccurate recreation of our conversation:

Harvey: Have I convinced you yet that text are part of comics?

McCloud: Isn’t text a kind of image?

Harvey: When a definition gets too broad, it loses meaning.

McCloud [not taking the bait]: That can happen, true.

Me: There should be a panel — at a future SPX? at a future Comic-Con? — with both of you, Mark Newgarden and Paul Karasik — debating how comics work.

McCloud: And Dylan Horrocks. Have you read his “Inventing Comics”?

Me: No. Where would I find it?

McCloud: It appeared in The Comics Journal. I think he also has it on his website. It’s a very eloquent, smart take-down of me and Understanding Comics.

Me: Thanks.  I’ll check it out.

Gauld = Wry, Topical Gorey

Scott, Karin and I walked over to the Drawn & Quarterly booth, to say hello to Tom Gauld.  I wanted to tell him how much I enjoyed his presentation, and buy a few books — his, the new Spiegelman anthology, more Moomin comics….  But back to Gauld. Later in the afternoon, I read You’re All Just Jealous of My Jetpack, and I think many of my fellow English professors (or, simply, anyone who is a great reader) would enjoy these cartoons.  Rendered with Gorey-esque style and humor, they’re more topical and wry than Gorey. Though some have dark undercurrents, Gauld’s comedy creates a brighter mood. I laugh out loud at these more often than I do at Gorey’s work. The comic below is actually one of the less topical collected in the book, but it’s definitely a keeper.

Tom Gauld

Here Comes Snoopy

I also got to meet Snoopy. (That’s him, on the right.)

Snoopy and fan

My first choice would have been a photo with Charlie Brown, but I understand that he is currently in traction, following an unfortunate, annual kicked-and-missed-football accident.

Drawing Stories: What’s New in YA Graphic Novels

Panel featuring: Vera Brosgol (Anya’s Ghost), Gris Grimly (Frankenstein), Faith Erin Hicks (Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong), Hope Larson (Who Is AC?, Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time), Paul Pope (Battling Boy)

Moderator Scott Robins asked: What did you read as a teen-ager?

Rumiko Takahashi’s Ranma 1/2Vera Brosgol read Sailor Moon and Pokemon. She got really into manga.  Sheoved Rumiko Takahashi’s Ranma 1/2 and Hiroaki Samura’s Blade of the Immortal.

Gris Grimly responded, “I wasn’t allowed to read comics, but as a kid I would read New Mutants and hide it.  I’d stick it in my backpack between schoolbooks and stuff.  I was really into horror even though I wasn’t allowed to read horror.”  He also admitted that his books are really more children’s books than comics, but that he had always really wanted to draw comics.  As a result, he said, “My books stand out in the children’s book sections because they look like comics.”

Faith Erin Hicks answered, “I am Canadian, and as all good Canadian children do, I grew up reading Tintin and Asterix…. But when I hit my teenage years, I didn’t really have access to comics.  There was one comic book store, but it was terrifying…. I had no access to comic books that were appropriate for a 15-year-old to read.”  She added, “I started making comics because I wanted to make the sort of comics that I wanted to read.”  Getting back to the question, she admitted, “As a teen-ager, I mostly read prose.” She mostly read science fiction.

Paul Pope said, “I read what ever I could find, but the stuff that I lvoed was Dune. I read Heavy Metal magazine.  I loved Carl Barks.  I read Moby-Dick.” These comments made me see immediately why he and Jeff Smith — who recommended Pope’s work yesterday — would be friends.

Hope Larson told us, “I was kind of an anime and manga nerd in high school.  So, Ranma 1/2. And then I got into indie comics — Dan Clowes, that sort of thing.”

Scott Robins asked: How many of you on the panel are readers of YA fiction?  If so, does that play a role in your work?

Rainbow Rowell's Eleanor & ParkFaith Erin Hicks responded immediately: “I’m a big reader of YA. I read one on the plane.” That book was Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park. She wants to see more YA comics. She would like to see books like Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian in comics.

Others admitted that they don’t read much YA. Hope Larson responded, “Lately, I don’t have as much time to read. I read YA, but I read my friends’ books.”  Paul Pope said that “Once you start working, you go … down into a trench. All I look at right now is Moebius and Kirby.  I feel like you can do two things. You can either read everything or nothing.  I’m reading nothing.”  Gris Grimly admitted that most of his influences come from children’s literature of over 100 years ago — Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

In a discussion of why teens read, Paul Pope said that when you’re a teenager, “You read to enhance your experience.” Teen-agers, he said, are trying to understand their experience, see possible futures. I thought that an insightful comment.

In a discussion of the future of the YA graphic novel, Paul Pope had an explanation for why there are currently so few: “You have to have two disciplines down, a writer and an artist, to do YA graphic novels. And that’s 20 years to become each.”  Though (as she admitted) the author of an adaptation herself, Hope Larson said, “What I would hope about YA comics is that I’d like to see more original fiction and less adaptations.”

In response to an audience member’s question on making comics more female-friendly, Faith Erin Hicks said, “Not all girls need to have large bosoms” — which inspired much applause from the audience. Paul Pope agreed: “Comics have been dominated by the male gaze.”

One interesting question that no one really had an answer for is what makes a YA comic book a YA comic book. Gris Grimly wasn’t sure. Faith Erin Hicks said “Because they’re about teenagers.” But, as Ben Towle pointed out in a question, teen-agers often read books about adults. So, not an easy question to answer.

In response to why adolescents read what they do, Paul Pope said: “They trust stories to tell them the truth.  You cannot lie to children in books.”

Humor in Graphic Novels

Left to right: Andrew Farago, Jeffrey Brown, Tom Gauld, Lisa Hanawalt, Ellen Forney

On this panel, Andrew Farago, Jeffrey Brown, Tom Gauld, Lisa Hanawalt, Ellen Forney discussed — you guessed it — humor in graphic novels.

They began by discussing how they got into writing humorous comics.

Jeffrey Brown noted that humor “lets you deal with sometimes serious subjects, but there’s this distance that the humor gives you that grants you a different perspective”

Tom Gauld: “I wanted to be a deep dark soul who was tormented, but I just wasn’t. … And I’ve found that through that humor, you can still have a depth….”

Lisa Hanawalt: “It was a way of interacting with other people if I was shy”

Ellen Forney, MarblesEllen Forney: “I think having a sense of humor is a great way of coping with life.”

Lisa Hanawalt: “Sometimes the funniest things are the saddest things.”

Tom Gauld: “A lot of humor comes from things failing…. For something to be funny, you need that balance — funny and sadness, and awkwardness.”

Next, Andrew Farago (our moderator) switched to background in cartooning, asking “What led you here today?”

Jeffrey Brown: “About 15 years ago, I started writing autobiographical comics. And I focused on the most awkward things. I was trying to show how stupid I was.”

Tom Gauld: “The thing I do — the weekly thing for the Guardian — and so every week, I think that the joke is like a little machine that I’d like to make work. And it’s not really about anything else other than itself.  Whereas in a longer work, the joke is in service to the story. The joke comes out of the situation. It can’t be funny all the time.”

Tom Gauld, The Poetry Gene

Lisa Hanawalt: “Comics are the most efficient way for me to take whatever I’ve been experiencing in my life”

Ellen Forney: “Telling — especially retelling — something that was intense or awkward is a way of owning it, controlling it.”

Andrew Farago observed, “Every time I’ve done a panel with humor as a topic, it’s always become about misery”

Tom Gauld added that there’s the idea that “‘Happiness writes white’ because when it’s happy there’s nothing to say”

Tom Gauld noted that people think that writing cartoons must be fun. He acknowledged that, when you get the idea, it’s great. “On either side of that moment, I get a kind of brain smile. But the rest of the time, it’s just a man sitting alone in a room.”

Asked where they draw inspiration from, the cartoonists answered….

Tom Gauld: “My work’s abstracted from the world. It’s not really autobiographical.”

Lisa Hanawalt: “I take a lot of notes”

Ellen Forney: “just observations from the day”

Next question: Are long-form versus short-form radically different processes for you?

“A really short comic can be a bit like writing a haiku, because everything really matters” replies Tom Gauld, who admits he “likes the constraints.” Gauld also explained how he helps people get the joke. He’s always thinking, he says, “Someone who hasn’t been on this thinking journey that I’ve been on, how can I leave little markers for them that will lead them to this hilarious conclusion?”

A Tribute to Kim Thompson of Fanagraphics Books

Eric Reynolds, Gary Groth, Diana Schutz, Gilbert Hernandez, and Jaime Hernandez Fantagraphics publishers (and partners of the late Kim Thompson) Eric Reynolds and Gary Groth joined Diana Schutz (of Dark Horse), and Gilbert Hernandez and Jaime Hernandez (whose Love & Rockets is published by Fantagraphics) to remember Kim Thompson.

As Gary Groth noted at the start of the panel, to learn more about Kim, everyone should take a look at the triubutes to Kim on the Fantagraphics website (I think he means The Comics Journal website, because that’s where I found them).

Recalling being hired (at Fantagraphics) by Kim, Diana Schutz noted that there were a lot of other women who Kim had reached out to. “Back in the ’80s, there were not a lot of other women who were interested in comics. In a lot of ways, we were ignored. So, it was a great honor to be asked to contribute.”

Kim Thompson & EisnersJaime Hernandez saw Kim as something of an enigma. Imagining saying hello to Kim, he said, “Sometimes it was just “Hey, Kim,” and then Kim’s reply would be “Hey.” And that would be the end of the reaction. Then, Jaime said, “In the Comics Journal, there’d be this review attacking Frank Miller, and I’d wonder: is that the same Kim?”  Recalling that article, (Kim Thompson’s review of Frank Miller’s Ronan), Gary Groth said that when he and Kim Thompson were out with Harlan Ellison, Ellison took exception to Kim’s review.  Gary argued back, vigorously defending Kim’s review.  Kim, however, said nothing.  He preferred to argue on the page.

“He was part French bohemian, part comic book nerd, part American punk”

—Eric Reynolds

When he wanted something, Kim would be more outgoing. Affecting Yogi Bear’s voice, Gilbert Hernandez demonstrated: “Heyy, Diana! I’m coming to California!” He explained that Kim “had a way of trying to talk like Yogi Bear when he was trying to get something.”

I found especially interesting the list of novelists Kim Thompson liked (according to Gary and Eric):

  • Cormac McCarthy
  • Douglas Adams
  • P.G. Wodehouse
  • Terry Pratchett

“Fantagraphics publishes the best comics that are currently available, but Kim’s tastes were wider.”

— Diana Schutz

Eisners: It’s an Honor Just to Be Nominated

Susan Kirtley, Lynda Barry: Childhood Through the Looking-GlassCongratulations to Susan Kirtley on winning the Eisner for best Educational/Academic Work, for her Lynda Barry: Girlhood Through the Looking Glass — and for being the sole Eisner winner seated at our table.  She was so very happy.  Very cool.

For the record, since half of my book was devoted to a non-cartoonist (Ruth Krauss), I thought it an odd fit with the rest of the nominees — and the least likely to win. That said, I am an optimist and so was nervous… just in case. The moment Susan won, I relaxed. Whew! I didn’t have to get on stage and speechify. But, just in case, I had mentally prepared a few words. Here’s what I would have said:

When I began this project, back in the waning days of President Clinton’s second term, I never thought it would be nominated for such an award — much less be in the august company of my fellow nominees. There are many people to thank, but I’ll restrict myself to four. Thanks to Chris Ware for creating the best cover any of my books has ever had or will have. Thanks to Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss, who — though I never met them — became two of my closest friends. Finally, thanks to Karin Westman, who for a dozen years shared her spouse with this book.

Since I couldn’t say that there, I’m saying it here.

The big winner of the night was (no surprise!) Chris Ware, who — if my count is correct — won 5 of the 6 Awards for which he was nominated. Chip Kidd (Ware’s friend and editor) accepted them on his behalf, and performed his role with élan (and a bit of camp).

Oh, and there were a fair few celebrity award presenters: Edward James Olmos, Sergio Aragones, Neil Gaiman, James Marsters. (It is possible that Sergio Aragones is not a celebrity beyond the comics world, but any reader of MAD magazine would know who he is!)

Sergio Aragones at the Eisners, 2013

And as part of a bit Neil Gaiman and Jonathan Ross were doing, Chip Kidd kissed Neil Gaiman. On the mouth.

Kidd and Gaiman, snogging

And… that about wrapped things up for this year’s Eisner Awards.

I’ve never been nominated for such an award before, and am unlikely to be nominated again. I think I have a better understanding of those televised awards ceremonies now. The anticipation (and nerves) until your category’s done. And then, following the deflation, an ability to focus more broadly on what’s going on in the room, even as — lacking the former anxiety — fatigue begins to set in. The Eisners ran for oh, over 3 hours. I don’t remember exactly how long. But this is why other awards shows play the “please get off the stage” music (the Eisners do not). Important to keep the show moving.

We didn’t linger afterward. Ben Towle and I congratulated each other on losing an Eisner Award, and then ’twas time for a pleasant walk back to the hotel to write this up.

Coming Saturday morning at 9 am, another signing at Fantagraphics (booth 1718). Barnaby Volume One! The Johnson-Krauss bio.! The Chris Ware poster for the bio!  If you’re at Comic-Con, stop by!

Chris Ware's cover for Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children's Literature

 

The rest of my 2013 Comic-Con coverage:

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Mock Caldecott 2012: Manhattan, Kansas Edition

With thanks to the Children’s and Adolescent Literature Community (ChALC) for organizing the event and the Manhattan Public Library (especially Melendra Sanders) for hosting it, we held a Mock Caldecott at this afternoon. We weren’t able to get all of the books we wanted to look at, and we likely overlooked other Caldecott contenders.  But, based on what we did get to review, here are the top choices of our group (composed of undergraduates, graduate students, children’s lit faculty, and members of the community).

The Winner:

I.C. Springman, More (illus. Brian Lies, 2012)Brian Lies, More (text by I.C. Springman).

The people voting for this one felt that Lies‘ artwork makes this book work.  The brief text offers only indicators of quantity (“a few,” “lots,” “too much”); the illustrations of all the items the magpie gathers result in an increasingly full nest.  While there’s clearly some didactic intent (the magpie hoards too much), the pictures convey the accretion of stuff in a way that’s playful and fun.  The book strives to teach us to want less, but never does it feel like it’s preaching at us.

The Honor Books:

Jon Klassen, This Is Not My HatJon Klassen, This Is Not My Hat.

This book won praise for the dynamic relationship between the pictures and words.  The small fish thinks that the large fish (from whom he stole the hat) will never catch him,  but the illustrations contradict him.  If the premise (hat thievery!) recalls last year’s excellent I Want My Hat Back, Klassen‘s new chapeau-centric book holds its own and, in some senses, may be even better than his 2011 effort.  It’s no sequel to the other book, but a completely new work, complete with hat-based humor.

Julie Fogliano, And Then It's Spring (illus. by Erin Stead)Erin Stead, And Then It’s Spring (text by Julie Fogliano).

People enjoyed the very detailed illustrations, which offered the eye many places to look.  Each of the animals in the pictures (none of which were named in the text) had its own distinct personality, and were fun to follow from page to page.  As is true of the other two books, the text here is very brief; Stead‘s pictures carry the day, telling us of those days just before spring, when everything looks brown.  Great balance between artwork and words.

There were many others that didn’t quite make the cut.  For example, Laura Vaccaro Seeger’s Green, Karina Wolf’s The Insomniacs (a particular favorite of mine), Maurie J. Manning’s Eisner-esque Laundry Day, Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen’s Extra Yarn all made the finals.  And we were sorry to discover that the artist behind Up Above and Down Below, Paloma Valdivia, lives and works in Chile.  (The Caldecott goes to American illustrators.)  Many of us loved that book, but… it was ineligible due to the nationality of its artist.

So. What are your favorite picture books from 2012? And which do you think will win the Caldecott Medal?

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Congratulations, Caldecott Losers!

Dr. Seuss, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (cover)In terms of number of Caldecott Medals won, you are now tied with Dr. Seuss.  And Crockett Johnson.  And Wanda Gág, Eric Carle, Esphyr Slobodkina, James Marshall, Donald Crews, Jon Agee, Tim Egan, Peter Sís, Lane Smith, Barbara Lehman, Mo Willems, Lois Ehlert, Leo Lionni, and H.A. Rey.  None of them won the Caldecott Medal, though several won one or more Caldecott Honors: 3 (Seuss, Sís, Willems), 2 (Crews, Gág, Smith), 1 (Ehlert, Lehman, Marshall).

Awards tend to honor consensus, not genius.  Which is not to say, of course, that the Caldecott Medal has bypassed all geniuses. It hasn’t. Virginia Lee Burton, David Macaulay, Robert McCloskey, Jerry Pinkney, Peggy Rathmann, Maurice Sendak, William Steig, Chris Van Allsburg, and David Wiesner have all won.

Crockett Johnson, Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955): coverBut, in 1938, Dr. Seuss’s And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street didn’t even merit a Caldecott Honor. Dorothy P. Lathrop’s pictures for Helen Dean Fish’s Animals of the Bible, A Picture Book won that year. Caldecott completely ignored Crockett Johnson’s books. The year that Harold and the Purple Crayon was eligible (1956), the award went to Feodor Rojankovsky’s illustrations for John Langstaff’s retelling of Frog Went A-Courtin‘.

Yet Mulberry Street and Harold and the Purple Crayon remain both beloved and in print, as do Slobodkina’s Caps for Sale, H.A. Rey’s Curious George, and Donald Crews’ Freight Train (an Honor Book in 1979).  Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar is one of the bestselling children’s books of all time.

So, to all who did not win the Caldecott Medal this year, you’re in excellent company.

(I suspect those who didn’t win today’s other awards are also in great company, but I know picture books best — and so have chosen to focus just on the Caldecott.  Also, just to be clear, this is not intended to criticize this year’s winner. Love Chris Raschka’s work! Rather, the point of this post is to place the award-giving into some context.  That’s all.)

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Mock Caldecott 2011: Manhattan, Kansas Edition

With thanks to the Children’s and Adolescent Literature Community (ChALC) for organizing the event and the Manhattan Public Library for hosting it, we held aMock Caldecott at this afternoon.  Of course, we weren’t able to get all of the books we wanted to look at — so, there are certainly Caldecott candidates we didn’t get to review.  Here are the top choices of our group (composed of undergraduates, graduate students, children’s lit faculty, and members of the community)

The Winner:

Lane Smith, Grandpa Green (2011): coverLane Smith, Grandpa Green

A gentle, moving book about memory and age — and something of a departure for Smith.  Though it has humor and Smith’s beautiful, detailed artwork, it’s a more lyrical than his previous work, focused as it is on love and loss.  Though it’s reflective, it’s never melancholic: the boy’s journey through a topiary garden of his grandfather’s life is fun, with plenty of unexpected turns.  People liked the richness of the illustrations, the surprises in the story, and the fact that the book moved them.  For those who’d like to learn more, I gave the book a favorable review on this blog back in August.

John Rocco, Blackout (2011)

The Honor Books:

John Rocco, Blackout.

People spoke of how the book captured a child’s perspective on something scary (the dark) and made that fun.  We also liked its In the Night Kitchen-style layout — the book’s early pages even use a similar color palette to Sendak’s book, which won a Caldecott Honor in 1971.  Set in Brooklyn, Rocco‘s book is about the 2003 blackout, and how the absence of power brought people together.  This won the second-highest number of votes.

Deborah Freedman, Blue Chicken (2011)Deborah Freedman, Blue Chicken.

This tied with the following book for third place in its number of votes.  It’s a story of a chicken who is an artist — or, possibly, an artist who happens to be a chicken.  But not “chicken” in, you know, the “afraid” sense.  This chicken is quite happy to experiment with paint, and color, and — oh, don’t worry, I’m sure the paint will come out of that.  As Freedman‘s Scribble (2007) was, this is a playful book about what art can do.  Only with chickens.

Melissa Sweet, Balloons Over Broadway (2011)Melissa Sweet, Balloons Over Broadway.

This book is about Tony Sarg, who created the balloons for the original Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade — and, indeed, started the tradition of having helium characters floating over New York during this November holiday.  Sweet‘s mixed media, experiments with typeface, and shifts in perspective were appealing to some in the group, but others were more critical.  I enjoyed the book, but, given the discussion that preceded its 3rd-place finish, I was surprised to see it land in our Honor category.  Oh, and speaking of surprises, here are some ….

Jon Klassen, I Want My Hat Back (2011)Books That I Thought Were Cool But That Didn’t Make the Cut:

Jon Klassen, I Want My Hat Back.

I was surprised that this one didn’t even land in an “Honor” category for us.  There was some conversation about it as a contender for the Geisel Award, which may be an accurate predictor, but shouldn’t preclude it being a contender for the Caldecott.  My guess is that its minimalist aesthetic may have cost it a few points, when in fact that should have won it points. The book is a masterpiece of economy and wit.  Each detail works exactly right.  And it’s really funny.  I hope Klassen gets something for this one.

Fans of the book might enjoy Not Just For Kids‘ interview with Klassen, in wich he describes the book as follows: “I wanted to try and make it seem as though it was a badly rehearsed play with animals who were sort of brought in for the day to read these lines.”

Stephen Savage, Where's Walrus? (2011)Stephen Savage, Where’s Walrus?

I’ve an affinity for funny books, so naturally I’m drawn to this one — a comic tale of a walrus on the run, that mixes the find-the-character game of Where’s Waldo? with a playful narrative and plenty of joie de vivre.  Its design recalls posters from the 1930s: bold colors, sharp contrasts, and large bright shapes that look like they were printed.  Savage has created a wordless tale that bears repeated readings.  Good stuff.

And, ah, it has — as Julie Walker Danielson recently observed — been a great year for picture books.  Chris Van Allsburg’s Queen of the Falls, Chris Raschka’s A Ball for Daisy, Mat de la Pena and Kadir Nelson’s A Nation’s Hope: The Story of Boxing Legend Joe Louis, Maurice Sendak’s Bumble-Ardy.  And that list is far from complete.

So, what do you think?  What are your favorite picture books from 2011?  And which do you think will win the Caldecott Medal?

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How to Find Good Children’s Books

Children's Book Week Poster, 2009.  By Ian Falconer.I’m thinking, in particular, about how to find the good new ones, from among the many thousands of children’s books that appear each year.  This is a question I’m often asked, but it’s a question of particular interest to my Literature for Children classes right now, since their third paper requires them to find a “new” book (published in the last ten years) that’s different than the childhood favorite they’ve already written about.  So, here are some tips for them — and for all of you.

Awards.  Some good books win awards.

But plenty of good books do not win awards.  So, you need to look elsewhere, too — and not only at the runners-up for these awards.

Mock Caldecott.  All around the U.S. each fall, local libraries hold Mock Caldecott Awards, in which they bring in that year’s crop of U.S. picture books, invite anyone who’s interested to peruse them and vote on their favorites.  Here are the results for the one we did at the Manhattan (Kansas) public library this past fall (2010).

Your local public library.  See what’s new in the Children’s Section, Young Adult section, Graphic Novels section.  Often, the new works are on display.  If you have more specific questions, you might consult the children’s librarian or librarians.  Children’s librarians keep abreast of what’s new and nifty.

Children’s Literature blogs.  It will not surprise you to learn that many of these are run by librarians.

And, yes, there are many other excellent blogs.  Do feel free to recommend your favorites below.

Bookstores.  Preferably, independent children’s bookstores.  But, really, any bookstore.  Just go to the children’s section and look at the books.  You don’t have to buy anything.  Make notes on the books you like, and seek them at your local library, or perhaps return and buy them at a later date.

CHILD_LIT listserv, maintained by Michael Joseph (Rare Books Librarian, Rutgers).  Members of the listserv include librarians, teachers (from grade school to university), graduate students (and a few undergraduates), authors, illustrators, and anyone with an interest in children’s literature.

Stay curious.  Wherever you go, keep your eyes and ears open for good books.  Read publications devoted to children’s literature, like The Horn Book, and Kirkus Reviews of children’s books.  Talk with children’s book fans of all ages.

If you have other tips to add, please post in the comments below.  Thank you!

Image credit: poster for Children’s Book Week 2009 created by Ian Falconer.
For helping me expand this resource, my thanks to: Julie Walker DanielsonMaria Nikolajeva, Monica EdingerJudith RidgeDebbie Reese, and Ali B.

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The Book of Everything

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
“Happy,” said Thomas. “When I grow up, I am going to be happy.”

Kuijer, The Book of Everything Nine-year-old Thomas sees things that others don’t, like “tropical fish swimming in the canals,” thousands of frogs massing outside his house, and the loveliness of sixteen-year-old Eliza, who has “an artificial leg made of leather” and seems to understand him. Guus Kuijer’s The Book of Everything (2004, translated by John Nieuwenhuizen, 2006) is a brief, beautiful tale of Thomas losing faith, making friends with his sister and Mrs. van Amersfoort, gaining confidence in himself, and learning to resist his father’s bullying.  The prose is lyrical, the images are magical realist, and the story is full of wisdom and humor.  Here is a passage when Thomas, visiting Mrs. van Amersfoort, listens to Beethoven for the first time (the second sentence refers to her cat, who has been napping on a globe):

His ears started ringing again. The globe started spinning, cat and all. When he was about to draw Mrs. van Amersfoort’s attention to this, he saw that her heavy chair was floating above the floor like a low cloud. He barely had time to take this in when he felt the chair he was sitting in rising slowly, as if strong hands were lifting it. He wanted to shout with joy, but when he saw Mrs. van Amersfoort’s intent face, he realized that, with this music, it was normal for chairs to float. (19)

I love how this translates Thomas’s sense of wonder into a literal, physical experience. Kuijer does not tell us that Beethoven’s music makes them feel as if they were floating. Instead, they just float, borne upward in their chairs, drifting like low clouds. Beautiful.

The Book of Everything won the Flemish Golden Owl Award, but is not widely known in this country. It’s really, really good. I highly recommend it. I suspect that, once you read it, you’ll recommend it, too.

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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.

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1. “Welcome to the Caldecott Medal Home Page.”  American Library Association. <http://www.pla.org/ala/mgrps/divs/alsc/awardsgrants/bookmedia/caldecottmedal/caldecottmedal.cfm>.

2. “The Coretta Scott King Book Awards for Authors and Illustrators.”  American Library Association. <http://www.ala.org/ala/mgrps/rts/emiert/cskbookawards/slction.cfm>.

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

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