by Sam Juliano
Wordless picture books are all the rage with the American Library Association over the past decade, with three such works claiming the top prize and others making their presence known in classrooms and libraries across the country. Pre-eminent artist David Wiesner won the last of his record-tying three Caldecotts for his moving tale of photographs and memory in an enchanting seascape, Flotsam – his absolute masterpiece to date – and the renowned veteran author and illustrator Jerry Pinkney finally took the top prize after five Caldecott Honors for his irresistible take on The Lion and the Mouse. The most recent win for an all-picture book occurred just two years ago when the wildly popular artist Chris Raschka landed in the winner’s circle for his minimally impressionistic A Ball For Daisy. For the record, Raschka, whose work is “child’s eye” focused is the most wildly overrated illustrator out there, though he is obviously much adored by the American Library Association. The first of his two medals went to The Hello Goodbye Window, a book that has continued to divide readers and art enthusiasts, but either way his win was a major injustice to Jon J. Muth, whose magnificent and original Zen Shorts was not only the finest picture book of that year, but one of the most accomplished in a long time. An even bigger travesty was perpetrated in 2012 when the committee relegated Lane Smith’s spectacularly beautiful Grandpa Green (one of the greatest picture books of all-time) to Caldecott Honor status to again coddle up to Raschka for a book (A Ball for Daisy) that has frankly left my own younger primary students mostly bored. In any event some credit is due for both Barbara Lehman and Molly Bang, for their wonderful wordless picture books, The Red Book and The Grey Lady and the Strawberry Snatcher, respectively, for planting the seeds for Wiesner and others to ply their craft. Lehman’s 2005 work in fact was a thematic forerunner to Flotsam, pre-dating it by two years. I’ve always found it odd that no book critic has yet established this parallel. Lastly, 2013 saw the release of another highly distinguished wordless picture book – Bob Staake’s deeply-affecting Bluebird, which makes no attempt, however, to conceal the fact that it cannibalized (not in a bad sense, though) the entire story and spirit of Albert Lamorisee’s beloved French short film The Red Balloon. (I am planning to focus in on this book in a later post.)
Aaron Becker’s Journey is a true original, a book of astounding visual design, and use of color that cries out the word “epic” while still speaking intimately to the fantasies of young people with vivid imaginations. With a little over two weeks before the awards are given out, it is now seen by most writers as the odds-on favorite to land the coveted gold Caldecott Medal, even with exceptional work by Peter Brown, Uli Schulevitz, Brian Collier, Bagram Ibatoulline, Brian Floca and veterans Wiesner and Pinkney in the fray. The predictions have been shocking for many (this is after all Becker’s very first picture book, though his work in CGI-animated films like A Polar Express and A Christmas Carol are very well regarded) and it usually takes a silver medal or two for an artist before the committee will award the gold. But with unqualified raves from The New York Times, Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal and Kirkus Reviews, Becker’s book has cornered vital enthusiasm in the field, and has dazzled librarians and primary school teachers who can and have prepared lessons around the book. Art lovers have had a field day with the magnificent illustrations and the astounding detail (Becker seems to combine the scope and mystery of David Macaulay with the deceit of the young girl and the marker harking back to the classic Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crokett Johnson.)
In Journey a young girl discovers a magical realm after she comes upon a red marker in her drab city bedroom. She draws a door and walks out into a forest adorned with blue lanterns and connected lights. She then draws a small boat, which transports her via a winding river to a magnificent castle city with a moat, draw-bridge and domes – the kind of place that suggests adventure and some danger. Her expectations are realized, but she always rescues herself with her red marker, which carries hot through sometimes exotic landscapes. Becker’s aeronautic illustrations recall Wiesner’s Sector 7 but he greatly expands the ideas, imbuing his work with discoveries experienced in his vast travels around the world and the subtle stylistic influence of Japanese film director Hayao Miyazaki, whose work Becker reveres. One of the books greatest set pieces is the flight of a red carpet over an Arabian architectural landscape that contains all the wonder and longing of an Van Allsburg vision, yet the story is interconnected by the use of red and purple, and through the flight of the dove who story-wise is the young girl’s guardian angel.
Rarely does watercolor and pen-and-ink illustrations yield a tapestry this breathtaking and awe-inspiring. But there are no less than five vivid double-pagers that boats painterly elegance and stand-alone appeal. In an on-line interview Becker was humble is asserting “The computer tends to be the beginning of the process, when I’m figuring out compositions, laying out scenes and stuff—it sounds a lot more complicated than it actually is.” In the same interview Becker attributes the canals of Venice, visited on a recent trip as visual starting points for the arresting illustrations of the girl first visit the castle.
With sequels to Journey in the works, and other picture book ideas on the drawing boards, it appears that the talented Becker has really found his niche. It is possible -and indeed likely- that by the end of the month he will have eclipsed all of his contemporaries with a gleaming Caldecott Medal hanging around his neck on his very first try. Journey is a timeless adventure for young and old alike.
Note: This is the fourth in an ongoing series focusing on Caldecott Medal hopefuls for January 2014.