Caldecott 2014

It may be early to begin handicapping the 2014 Caldecott Medal (the committee won’t meet for its first round of deliberations until the end of next month), but this is already proving to be a strong year in picture books. I have  encountered some extraordinary titles that are, each in its own way, individually distinct. Let’s take a look, shall we? I’ll start with three today, and add some more in the coming days.

In alphabetical order by author (I am a librarian, remember):

dream friendsDream Friends

written and illustrated by You Byun

Nancy Paulsen Books, 2013

A shy little girl develops a deep friendship with a ginormous white cat, though their relationship exists only in her dreams. Those dreams become the foundation for a real life friendship, though, which soon blossoms into playgrounds-full of playpals and one flesh-and-blood BFF. The story is a sweet one, sometimes a little too sweet, but the digitally manipulated pen and ink illustrations are magnificent. Byun has a glorious sense of color, which she manages carefully to distinguish between the lands of life and dreaming. She engages her unfettered imagination in the depiction of the dream world, peppering the fantastical landscapes with flying origami cranes, pendulant upside-down clock towers,  bedroom forests festooned with bonnets, and confectionary firework displays. The artist spent her childhood in Japan and Korea, and the recognizable element of kawaii to her drawings only adds to the charm. But beyond the beauty of the images, it is Byun’s ability to establish mood, communicate emotion, and define relationships with shape and color that really distinguish this elegant outing.

flora and the flamingoFlora and the Flamingo

illustrated by Molly Idle

Chronicle Books, 2013

This interactive wordless book introduces Flora, dressed in a pink bathing costume and yellow swim cap, to a similarly pink flamingo, and the two engage in a sort of mirrored dance. The flamingo engages in a gorgeous display, extending legs and draping wings in elegant expression. Flora tries to follow along but her clumsy positions are not entirely successful. Seeing her despair, the flamingo offers assistance, and soon the two have achieved a perfect compromise. Idle is artful with the “toy-and-movable” component. Individual flaps expose individual poses, as Flora struggles to match the flamingo’s grace. When the two really join forces, a single flap perfectly expresses their combination, and their dance takes flight. A final, irresistible double-gatefold completes the lesson, as Flora takes over the instruction and the flamingo follows in her exuberant footsteps. I don’t know if the Caldecott Committee has ever recognized a book with an interactive element, but given its ingenious application here, it’s hard to imagine that they won’t be looking carefully.

nino wrestles the worldNiño Wrestles the World

written and illustrated by Yuyi Morales

Roaring Brook Press, 2013

Niño is a pint-sized luchador who takes on all manner of pretend opponents in his living-room lucha libre ring. Each of his foes is imagined from pieces of Mexican culture, from Olmec Head to the Weeping Woman. Ultimately it is LAS HERMANITAS who prove to be the worthiest adversaries. But he clearly loves those little sisters, and the three become LOS TRES HERMANOS, establishing themselves as the team to beat. Morales works in digital collage, rearranging her handcrafted watercolors and woodblock images, inserting pieces of photography here and there. The typography is suitable exclamatory, and feels like part of Niño’s vivid imagination. As irresistible as the images are, to me the book’s standout element is the fact that it explores a quintessential childhood experience–imaginative play–in a way that is simultaneously culturally specific and universal. The Caldecott terms and criteria being what they are, the Committee will need to process that value in terms of its distinguished illustrations. I’d be happy to make the case.