by Sam Juliano
Friday afternoon’s post will focus on the most recent works of three picture book veterans who are rightly considered among the greatest artists of all-time. Each have won endless accolades and adoration for their work, and in fact have been multiple winners of Caldecott recognition dating back to 1969. Though the plan in this series originally was to examine one book for each post, I have decided to combine three books to allow for wider overall coverage. I will be doing that one time tomorrow during the afternoon post. In any case all three books certainly rate as among the best of 2013, each has a fervent fan base, and every one extends the legendary output of their venerated masters with yet another work of art. The fact that they are being considered together is not meant to slight any of them, but rather to extend the celebration of a remarkable year in picture books and illustration.
Still managing remarkable work at nearly 79, Warsaw born author-illustrator Uri Schulevitz, now a New Yorker, has won the Caldecott Medal for the stylistically distinct illustrations he created for Arthur Ransome’s The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship and three Caldecott Honors for The Treasure, How I Learned Geography and Snow. The latter book released in 2008, making the time span of Schulevitz’s Caldecott acknowledgement of 39 years the second longest ever after Marc Simont. In any event with the four Caldecott citations, he is among the most honored artists ever from the committee. Seen by most critics and book aficionados as a kind of sequel to the dazzling Snow, Dusk features a grandfather, his grandson and their hound dog stroll through a city, while the sun is setting, coming up on oddball characters and enjoying the brightly lit streets, buildings and storefront windows during the holiday season, when Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa are celebrated respectively by the population. This is the time of the winter solstice, when the orange yellow light from the sun, fleeting as ever during the short days is eyed as it set in all it’s resplendent glory in one of the book’s most spectacular tapestries. The book’s delightful rhyming text (“Today’s no time for chitchat! Tomatoes, potatoes, and food for my cat, my kitty, my sweetie, my kitty cat,” said women with hat) helps to frame the main course: Stylistically arresting watercolor Art Deco vistas of buildings, cars and street lamps with the endearing Shulevitz trademarks of “little people” who traverse the cityscape with obvious aplomb. Shulevitz, a Holocaust survivor, whose story is told in the afterward of the beautiful How I Learned Geography possesses a style completely unlike any illustrator, and as he has aged his work has become bolder and more vibrant, as can be seen in the gorgeous pages that depict holiday displays on Fifth Avenue and Times Square, and of the tapestries of people engaged in merriment. Dusk is a festive vision and, to quote the title of one of Shulevitz’s past masterpieces, it’s a Treasure.
New Jersey-born author-illustrator is a picture book legend. His three Caldecott medals for Tuesday, The Three Pigs and Flotsam make him one of only two artists in the 67 year history of the awards to accomplish this rare feat. Marcia Brown, who is now 96 years old is the other to have been so honored, with the recognition of Cinderella, Once A Mouse and Shadow. Weisner has also won two Caldecott Honors, one for Free Fall and the other for Sector 7, and at least one of his other books, Art and Max was Caldecott worthy. Wiesner is a true original whose work showcases dynamic visual storytelling and a satiric underpinning. He is in prime form with a delicious new title Mr. Wuffles, about a cat whose actions are in sharp contrast to that frivolous name tag. Mr. Wuffles has a predacious nature that leads him on an adventure with space aliens and the ants who assist them. Wuffles exudes a snooty temperament and has no interest in the toys that he has been given by his owners, instead fixating on a spaceship with the tiny green men. Wiesner presents his book -much like most of his others- with a variety of full page panels and comic book style panels. The art was created in watercolor and India ink (another Wiesner trademark) and it is precisely and vividly colored. Combining the real with the surreal Wiesner blurs his point of view in fashioning a picture book that will appeal to the older kids and will give the younger ones quite a bit to think about. The alien “language” seen in voice bubbles is a hoot. Mr. Wuffles may not ultimately be in a league with the artist’s all-time masterpiece Flotsam, but any Wiesner is always among the best books of the year.
Jerry Pinkney is one of the greatest children’s book creators of all-time. His Caldecott Medal a few years ago for The Lion and the Mouse made him the first African-American to take the gold (the inter-racial couple, Leo and Diane Dillon did win two Caldecott Medal back-to-back in the 70′s though) and it folloed an incredible string over two decades where he won five (5) Caldecott Honors for Mirandy and Brother Wind, The Talking Eggs, The Ugly Duckling, John Henry and Noah’s Ark. To be sure, Pinkney deserved to win golds for a few of those (In 1989 I thought him more deserving for The Talking Eggs than Ed Young, who won for Lon Po Po. Heck, the only book that year that equaled The Talking Eggs was Herschel and the Hannukah Goblins, illustrated by Patricia Shart Hyman.) and I wrote more a few letters to the ALA complaining of the continuous snubbing of this great artist. Yet the constant string of the silvers kept him in competition for the gold, and his day finally came in 2011. The Tortoise and the Hare is an irresistible follow-up to his gold medal winner, and like that earlier book it is wordless. It’s a creative interpretation of the old fable of a persevering tortoise and a speedy but arrogant hare who are engaged in a challenging race course that features a water crossing and rocky elevations. The hare is tempted by cabbages, and he takes a beeline to indulge and nap as the tortoise against all odds crosses the finish line. The vivid painterly tableau’s have Pinkney’s name all over them, as do the golden landscapes. The art was engineered in graphite, watercolor, colored pencils, gouache and pastel on Arches hot-pressed watercolor paper to create the images. The tale is a long time favorite with children and adults alike, and poses that those who work the hardest and most diligently will win out in the end. Pinkney’s art? Stunning.
Note: This is the fifteenth review in an ongoing series focusing on Caldecott Medal and Honor book hopefuls in advance of the late-month announcement by the American Library Association.