PicWits!

picwits instructionsThis week we wrapped up our consideration of picture books in the Children’s Literature course I’m teaching, and we began class with a rousing game of PicWits! Do you know PicWits!? It’s a party game, much like Apples to Apples, that has players matching cards in their hand to a single phrase, with individuals taking turns choosing which card best represents the phrase in question. What’s unique about PicWits! is that the phrase is a “caption” and the cards in people’s hands are all photographs. You earn points when the chooser chooses the picture you matched to the caption. So, the game’s central point is the visual interpretation of the text. See where I’m going with this?

To begin with, the game is lots of fun. The images themselves represent a huge variety of theme and execution, and are often bizarre, leading to plentiful opportunities for provocative, sometimes outrageous pairings. But beyond the hilarity, our experience gave rise to some really interesting and illuminating thoughts about how picture books function, and what we can and should make of the symbiotic relationships between words and text. Here are some of our ideas:

Possibilities are endless. No matter how clearly you see and understand a phrase, others will see and understand it differently. Even given the limitations of having only a few cards to match from at any given time, there’s still remarkable variety in the relationships established between the single caption and the many visual interpretations offered. Indeed, no matter what picture you match with a phrase, there will be some relationship, even if it is one of tension or discord. Picture book illustrations can take advantage of that same infinite possibility, affecting just as many different responses.

Know your audience. We learned pretty rapidly that different people respond differently to different images. Martina* likes pictures of cute kids. Lynne* hates squirrels (HATES). before too long one learns to play to the chooser, making the match accordingly. We saw a direct parallel between that sort of play, and an illustrator’s attention to audience/age range.

Some pictures are just cute. Some pictures are just cute, and will be chosen, regardless of their interpretation of the caption in question. It’s the way of the world. Similarly, some picture books will find a broad audience due to their visual appeal, irrespective of how well they do (or do not) interpret the text in question or deliver any other literary element. That’s OK. It doesn’t make those bad books. But it is something to remember as we examine large numbers of picture books and parse their success.

The pairing that works is the pairing that works. It can be difficult to predict which pairing is going to capture someone’s attention. Literal is not necessarily best, but neither is ironic. So much depends upon the context, and the players. In terms of connections to picture book evaluation, this reminded us that the only thing we have to judge is the picture book in front of us, and that gives us plenty to talk about!

picwitsHere are a few students going to PicWits! town.

*names have been changed to protect the innocent.

The Caldecott measuring stick

measuring stickThe Caldecott terms and criteria constitute a particular, prescriptive lens through which to look at picture book illustration. The Caldecott Medal is arguably the most prestigious prize a picture book can win, and as such the specific elements and attributes it recognizes have a particular role to play as we examine and evaluate books in the canon. To be sure, the Caldecott terms and criteria are not the only measure we can apply. Indeed, in our day to day work with children, other things–iconic characterization, accessibility, suitability for a group read aloud–can be much more significant. Still, measuring picture books with the Caldecott measuring stick allows us to delve deeply into the quality of the illustration, and gives us meaningful information about the application and legacy of the Medal itself.

And so, for our final project in my intensive picture book course this semester, we are putting the books we’ve looked at through the Caldecott paces. From the 80 titles we’ve looked at the students have nominated 12 for our Mock Caldecott (stipulating that all are eligible, regardless of date or place of publication, or nationality of creator). It is fascinating too see which titles stand out in a Caldecotty sort of way, and which have announced to us their qualities in that respect. Here they are:

  • Michael Rosen’s Sad Book, illustrated by Quentin Blake, written by Michael Rosen
  • Mr. Tiger Goes Wild, by Peter Brown
  • Knock Knock: My Dad’s Dream for Me, illustrated by Bryan Collier, written by Daniel Beaty
  • Locomotive, by Brian Floca
  • The Great Bear, illustrated by Armin Greder, written by Libby Gleeson
  • Wild, by Emily Hughes
  • Flora and the Flamingo, by Molly Idle
  • This Moose Belongs to Me, by Oliver Jeffers
  • Waiting for the Biblioburro, illustrated by John Parra, written by Monica Brown
  • Here Comes the Garbage Barge, by Red Nose Studio
  • John, Paul, George and Ben, by Lane Smith
  • And Then it’s Spring, illustrated by Erin Stead, written by Julie Fogliano

michael rosen's sad bookmr tiger goes wildknock knocklocomotivegreat bearwildflora and the flamingothis moose belongs to mewaiting for the biblioburrohere comes the garbage bargejohn paul george and benand then it's spring

Mock CaldeNott Results!

This time of year we enjoy handicapping the big children’s and young adult book awards as much as the next literature center. But rather than trying to anticipate the 2014 committees, we decided to go a different way in our own engagement with the process. We used the Caldecott lens to examine some outstanding examples of picture book making from around the world. Yesterday evening a hale and inquisitive group of 22 gathered in the Butler Center to consider extraordinary picture books ineligible for the actual Caldecott Medal due to their international provenance. We pulled out the official Caldecott terms and criteria (leaving behind the bits about the illustrator being American and the book being first published in America) and focused them on a butler’s dozen (that’s 13) of terrific ineligible picture books. It was stimulating and edifying, and, as is always the case with Butler Center book discussions, a real blast. In the end we chose one winner and one honor book. Look at us!

jane the fox and meFor our winner we selected Jane, the Fox & Me by Fanny Britt, illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault (Groundwood Books). A young girl, bullied and friendless, finds strength and comfort in the pages of a favorite novel, buoyed by its familiar message and strengthened enough, eventually, to trust someone and take a chance. We were especially taken with Arsenault’s sophisticated use of color to paint an emotional landscape; the distinct styles she used to differentiate the adolescent world of the protagonist and the imaginary world of Jane Eyre into which she retreats; and the illustrations’ almost childlike essence that really enhanced the raw vulnerability of the first-person voice.

my father's arms are a boatOur honor book is My Father’s Arms Are a Boat by Stein Erik Lunde, illustrated by Øyvind Torseter (Enchanted Lion Books). A boy who recently lost his mother steps into the night with his father to process grief, look for comfort, and reconnect with the world that still holds possibility. Here we appreciated the untethered compositions, expressing the amorphous, rudderless nature of grief; the gradual relief that comes with the return of regular boundaries; and the expression of life’s fragility in the delicate three-dimensional paper-work dioramas.

But this was no easy choice. The debate was spirited, intense, and full of insight. And just look at the other distinguished titles we had on the table!:

The Line by Paula Bossio (Kids Can Press)

The Bear’s Song by Benjamin Chaud (Chronicle Books)

A Little Book of Sloth by Lucy Cooke (Margaret K. McElderry Books)

Herman and Rosie by Gus Gordon (Roaring Brook Press)

Opposites by Xavier Deneux (Chronicle Books)

Here I Am by Patti Kim, illustrated by Sonya Sanchez (Capstone)

The Big Wet Balloon by Liniers (Toon Books)

The Tiny King by Taro Miura (Candlewick Press)

Maps by Aleksandra Mizielinska and Daniel Mizielinski (Big Picture Press)

The Voyage by Veronica Salinas, illustrated by Camilla Engman (Groundwood Books)

Nasreddine by Odile Weulersse, illustrated by Rbecca Dautremer (Eerdmans Books for Young Readers)

It was a lot of fun. You should try it.

Fifty Shades of Ambiguity

As we enter the second week of the federal government shutdown and consider the particularly polarized nature of the DC discourse itself, and the coverage of same, it is hard not to conclude that we have arrived, as a country, at some sort of cultural impasse. Our two-party system seems to have devolved into a he-said-she-said standoff full of bull-headed bravado and empty of reason. And as if the certainty of the politicians wasn’t enough, all of us in the peanut gallery, regardless of which side of the divide we’re spectating from, are equally certain about who’s right and who’s guilty. 100%.

Uh oh.

It seems that the very idea of challenging our own assumptions, wondering about our choices, even changing our minds, is an endangered species.

Part of the reason I do the work I do, in fact, a big part of the reason, has to do with raising up a generation (or 12) of critical thinkers. Kids enter the world with an incredible openness and curiosity, and it is through their cultural “education” that they let go of these possibilities in exchange for a sense of certainty. But those of us who endeavor to connect kids with stories understand the role those connections can play in keeping the wonder gates open. Meeting up with other people (and bears and vampires and cupcakes) in books allows kids to experience things they can’t or don’t experience on their own. Yet. And reading books that expose them to different sides of the same story lets them know that, usually, there is more than one side.

There are, happily, many books for young people that acknowledge, and even celebrate ambiguity. Let’s take a look at a few books about some of our founding fathers. The current debate is fraught with invocations of their fundamental perfection. And yet, there are some books out there, books for children no less, that see them as the people they really were, humanity and all.

thomas jeffersonIn her upcoming picturebook biography Thomas Jefferson: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Everything, Maira Kalman makes the most of her brilliant, quasi-surrealist stlye, painting a portrait of the nation’s third president that expresses the dynamic breadth of his interests and the depth of the passion he brought to them in her wondrous tableaux of electric colors. We learn of diverse pursuits, the art and architecture, science, botany, etc. We learn of the care and generosity with which he ran his house and his infamous Monticello estate. We learn of his public pronouncements about the evils of slavery. And we learn about the slaves he kept himself, including one Sally Hemings, who, it is believed, bore him a number of children. In the mainstream media much has been made of Jefferson’s alleged relationship (so much, in fact, that some would say the allegations are proven) but we do not always see such admissions of guilt in books aimed at young children. But in her direct and unapologetic treatment of the whole man, Kalman ultimately paints a portrait that is more compelling for its inclusion of flaws.

big georgeIn Big George: How a Shy Boy Became President Washington, author Anne Rockwell and illustrator Matt Phelan paint a similarly human portrait of the first of the founding fathers. Right from the start, before we even open the book, we see a different George Washington than the one we’re accustomed to, younger, sadder, and maybe, even, angry. And then we have a subtitle suggesting that he’s shy, a characterization markedly different from the man pictured. The portrait that follows is just as complex and nuanced as the cover promises. Instead of the iconic truth teller of cherry trees and wooden teeth, we meet a man of soft speech and quiet ways. We meet a man reluctant to assume the responsibilities thrust upon him but resigned to his duties. We meet a man. Throughout the book there are tensions between the text and the illustrations, which positively vibrate with the conflicts Washington experienced throughout his life. This is another portrait of an American “hero” that transcends the ordinary hero worship to offer a bigger picture actually worthy of its subject.

The thing to remember is that kids start out smart. They start out ready to think and learn and grow. They wonder. They change their minds. And the best authors and illustrators making books for them see in them the potential to stretch and grow, and challenge them accordingly. There is an inherent and profound respect in asking a lot of a child audience, setting our standards high and believing in their capacity to meet them. In my experience, kids give you what you expect of them. If you expect little, that’s what you get. If you expect everything, look out. I expect them to think and to change their minds.

Of course, I expect this of my politicians, too, and of late I have been sorely disappointed. But if we stick to our commitment to raising up the next generation with open curiosity, I have every faith that we may yet live up to our sizable ideals as a nation of thinkers.

Thomas Jefferson: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Everything, by Maira Kalman, Nancy Paulsen Books, 2014.

Big George: How a Shy Boy Became President Washington, by Anne Rockwell, illustrated by Matt Phelan, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009.

Such Soft, Snuggly, Sleepy, Sloths

Lucy Cooke celebrates the otherwise underappreciated sloth in her book a little book of SLOTH. Few children’s books begin with an author’s note confessing “I love sloths. I always have.” Of course, to my knowledge, there are just not many books entirely dedicated to the beloved sloth and shame on publishing for that. Books about soft, fuzzy kittens and playful puppies enjoy rampant popularity. To be sure, if mice were paid for their abundance of stories they would have started their own colony on the moon (after all it is made of cheese, right?) far from those mean kittens. Who knows why authors love them so. No offense against rodents but even I jump when one scampers across the living room floor. The world’s largest rodent, the capybara, happens to be my favorite but how many books were published about the capybara last year (seriously, if there were any, let me know)?

slothMy apologies…this is neither about my empathy for the under-sloth as it were nor my anxiety from excessive dog/cat/mouse lit.

Slothville shelters well over a hundred sloths that have been hurt or found parentless in the wild. Founded by Judy Arroyo in Costa Rica, the sanctuary cares for the curious, grinning creatures which are lanky in appearance and leisurely in motion. In reference to a sloth named Mateo who is particularly protective of his stuffed cow Moo, Cooke jests, “If any of the other baby sloths tries to sneak a Moo hug, a fight breaks out – a very, very slow fight, in which the winner is the last sloth to stay awake.” Each page of the colorful photo album contains a single image or multiple images of the animals in cute poses a la Anne Geddes, hanging from tree limbs, or snuggling with stuffed toys, blankets, and fellow sloths. Alongside images the author relays interesting tidbits with clever quips on the animal’s behavior. The sloth’s unique behavior and bizarre characteristics will fascinate parents and children alike while the round eyed, stumpy nosed babies in their hand-crafted onesies are absolutely adorable. Besides, with a little imagination they sort of look like mice, too. Envision a rainy evening, scoop up your little one, and snuggle up to a little book of SLOTH.

A Little Book of Sloth

by Lucy Cooke

Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2013

Green Malt-O-Meal and Specialness, Among Other Things

During this time of year when I was a kid, my family was usually going nuts with activities. Dad was just getting back from choir tour, Mom was busy teaching music to her crazy kindergarteners, and us kids were somewhere doing speech, theatre, taekwondo, ballet, piano lessons, homework—or sometimes combinations of these things. It was hard to catch time for a dinner together or even a hello after play rehearsal. But Mom and Dad were a pretty great mom and dad, and they always managed to make all three of us kids feel special. They dyed malt-o-meal green on St. Patrick’s day, they slipped little notes in our lunchboxes, and on Easter, each of us got a basket with our favorite candy—Snickers for Josh, Reeses Peanut Butter Cups for Rachel, and Jelly Belly jelly beans for me. Sometimes there would be a little trail of jellybeans from the door to my bed, as if the Easter Bunny had accidentally dropped them on his way (even when I was sixteen).

Now, I’m not home anymore. I’m still their kid, but now I have a job and a school twelve hours away from them, and they aren’t by my side to make me feel special anymore. They still do, of course, it it just over the phone or in cardboard package, but it doesn’t have the same immediacy. So I find ways of discovering what’s special now on my own—through friends, through art, through music, and also, of course, through books.

The following three picturebooks are all published in 2012, and they all have something to say about being special. Sometimes specialness is far away and you have to find it. Sometimes, it’s right next to you and you don’t see it. Sometimes, it’s in an animal or in a friend or in a mysterious something that might surprise you or take a while to understand. Sometimes, it is lost or forgotten.

13414866In Lovabye Dragon, by Barbara Joosse and illustrated by Randy Cecil, a little girl longs for a dragon friend, and a dragon longs for a little girl friend. They dream about finding each other, but the poor girl becomes so sad that she cries silver tears all the way to the dragon’s cave. When the dragon follows the tears, he finds the girl in her castle, and the double-page spread is filled with light and celebration of their union. Cecil’s lovely oil paintings use diverse shades of blue to express the rich, atmospheric tone of the book, and Joosse’s sensitive text celebrates the friendship of two creatures that in every way are different, but together build something special. Though this story could be taken as fantasy, fairy tale, or some version of destiny, I take from it a sense of hope and beauty. You can be alone. You can be sad. You can be alone and sad for a long time. But sometime, somewhere, someone might find you and call you special, or you might be led down a path to find someone special. In the meantime, there’s no harm in calling yourself special. Because it’s true.

ImageEach Kindness, written by Jacqueline Woodson and illustrated by E.B. Lewis, has a more deliberate message about treating others with respect. Written in the first-person, it tells the story of a new girl coming to school. The narrator character and her friends ignore the new girl—they whisper secrets, laugh, make fun of the girl’s clothing, and refuse to play with her. Lewis’s realistic watercolor illustrations captivate the eye and change perspectives drastically on every page, as if they are begging the narrator to change her own perspective. She doesn’t, though—not until it is too late and the girl has moved away. The book ends with the young protagonist watching the water ripples come and fade, wishing she would have made the new girl feel special.

Don’t we all wish we could go back and change something we did, or make someone feel special when we didn’t? I remember being the bystander in a few instances in elementary school—not teasing, but not standing up for anyone either. My feelings of guilt were strong and palpable—I can still feel them now. So palpable, in fact, that I became a “Peer Mediator” in upper elementary school and was determined to calm fights and extinguish any bullying I saw. Now, it’s easy to see someone’s uniqueness—we are adults. It’s easy to forget the “rules” of being cool in school, and seeing people’s “special qualities” certainly wasn’t part of the being cool plan. I wish we could change that.

ImageFinally, a lovely interplay of humor and heart-warming charm harmonize in Boy + Bot, written by Ame Dyckman and illustrated by Dan Yaccarino. A young boy and a red robot meet each other in the forest one day, and instantly become friends. Trouble ensues when the two friends roll down a hill and Bot’s power switch turns off. The boy tries everything he knows to help—feeds him applesauce, reads him a story, and tucks him in to sleep. But then, when the bedroom door opens, Bot’s power switch turns on and he is frightened to see that Boy cannot be awakened! He tries everything he knows to help—bring him to his home (a mysterious tower), gives him oil, and brings in a spare battery. Bot’s inventor discovers him, the boy awakens, and the two friends are reunited. Bright colors and artistic vignettes bring out both the boldness and softness in this book, and it’s pretty fabulous to see two characters with an honest connection in just thirty-two pages. But it happens with little kids, right? Kids (I’m talking before school starts) can meet each other and instantly hold hands, then go off and play Legos. They make each other feel special all the time.

Okay, maybe by now you’re screaming at your computer—enough with the cheesiness, the sugary clichés, the specialness!

But I still dream about the green Malt-o-Meal, and I’m 28. I still love the Easter Basket with the trail of Jelly Bellys. And I still want hugs and phone calls and everything else that makes me feel special.

Because I am. And so are you. So spread it, what else is there to do?

Oliver

Oliver by Birgitta Sif

Oliver

by Birgitta Sif

Candlewick, 2012

From Ferdinand to Frederick, children have wonderful (often animal) picture book role models who express the value in accepting yourself. And of course that message is all well and good. Yet in reality, the self satisfaction found in cherishing your uniqueness sometimes fails to eclipse the loneliness that so often accompanies it. Take Oliver. Here’s a young person who doesn’t seem particularly plagued by the burden of his differentness. He’s not cursing a defect or suffering from taunts; he’s not asking a parent why he is the way he is. He rather enjoys his quiet, imaginative life. His playmates are his toys, plush animals whom he carts around the library and yard. Even surrounded by his boisterous family, Oliver prefers to retreat into his own world with these soft-hearted friends.

And with these playful illustrations, the reader may retreat with him. Notice the subtle glances of otherwise button eyes, the teasing suggestion of life from what reason would inform are inanimate objects: a tiny glimpse for us into the everyday magic Oliver experiences.

Until one day, it’s not enough for Oliver. His animal friends, heaped in a pile, don’t respond like they used to. Yes, Oliver likes the way he is, and isn’t purposefully ostracized for it. There’s no doubting of self here. What Oliver lacks is someone who sees the world like he sees it; someone who can appreciate him and share his fantastical world and adventures. By the book’s end and through a fateful moment, Oliver finds his someone: a someone who’s more than plush stuffing and button eyes. And as the reader turns back to pore over the warmly detailed illustrations, she discovers that Oliver’s new friend has been with him all along, present but unseen. More magic lives on these pages, and in Oliver’s world, than first meets the eye. And as Oliver discovers, magic begs to be shared.