by Sam Juliano
Surely a prime reason why odds makers never set betting lines for the Caldecotts and the Newberys is that they are noted for being notoriously unpredictable, not to mention there being something rather unsavory about plopping down money on childrens’ book awards. But heck, there is active wagering on who will become the next Pope, and that contest is pretty much just as difficult to call. Sure there have been instances where front runners have emerged (The Lion and the Mouse, The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, Flotsam were all seen as ‘favorites’ in their release years for generally held logic that went beyond speculation). While all three are extraordinary picture books, the deal was sealed when one author-illustrator was deemed overdue for decades, another book visited the hallowed grounds of our worst national tragedy, and the other was the absolute masterpiece by one of the profession’s most venerated and awarded artists. Yet, recent gold medal wins by Brian Floca, Jon Klassen, Chris Raschka, Brian Selznick and Simms Taback were not a sure thing according to the book pundits, in fact a few -Selznick’s and Raschka’s (A Ball For Daisy) seemed to come out of left field, though I’d be hard-pressed to name a more worthy winner than the former’s towering The Invention of Hugo Cabret. In any case, if such a system were in place, I’d venture to predict that Marla Frazee’s spare, loving and creative The Farmer and the Clown would be established as the favorite for several most significant aspects.
First and foremost is that American Library Association voters absolutely adore Marla Frazee. From her dazzling debut in 2003 with the popular Roller Coaster, to her quietly exquisite Stars and on to her two magnificent Caldecott Honor books A Couple of Boys Have the Best Week Ever and All the World this graphite, gauche and watercolor wizard has treated children to some of the more unbridled effervescence to be seen in contemporary children’s literature. Her ideas are endlessly imaginative in what is surely ‘celebration of life’ mode, reveling as she does in blissful activities, communal camaraderie and familial love, all negotiated with infectious aplomb. Even the normally and understandably reserved Roger Sutton, the erstwhile Editor-in-Chief of The Horn Book recently named The Farmer and the Clown in a thread at his site that asked readers to identify their favorites of the year, as his own choice with a telling exclamation point after the capitalized declaration. The book has ended up on several important ten-best and honorable mention lists including those published at School Library Journal, The New York Times, The Huffington Post and the aforementioned The Horn Book, and is constantly in the general online discussions assessing the year’s prime children’s book crop. The bottom line is that Frazee has already won two honors (the second won for All the World could have won the gold had not Jerry Pinkney showed up to nab a long overdue Medal, with a ravishing work by Joyce Sidman and Pamela Zagarenski notwithstanding) and past history – aside from Pinkney who has to wait through five honors to win the big one – has shown that the main prize usually follows one or two silver citations. This strategy, engineered consciously or not is a reasonably sound one, and seems to indicate Ms. Frazee is in the driver’s seat. But there’s more…
The Caldecott committee loves wordless books. Since Eric Rohmann’s My Friend Rabbit won the medal back in 2003, there have been a total of five that could basically be framed as wordless (The Lion and the Mouse, A Ball For Daisy, Flotsam and This is Not My Hat are the others) and a number of others have been in serious contention. Other winners have offered up very few words in their presentations to boot. To make matters even more rosy looking for Ms. Frazee is that The Farmer and the Clown is as accomplished a book as the others with Pinkney and Weisner’s being my favorites of that group. There is something about wordless picture books that seduces voting members of groups and individual book critics. Maybe it has something to do with the ability of the best illustrations to a tell story without the “crutch” of words, or that the absence of prose puts a stronger responsibility on the artist to convey the arc of the plot, an emotion, and demonstrate the unadulterated power of the image, much like silent cinema relies on expressions to convey the full gamut of emotions in place of the spoken word. When you factor in the remarkable depth of emotion and alluring color scheme present in The Farmer and the Clown one would be naive not to deduce there is some serious attention being lavished on this book. To be sure the decision making is far from concluded (with the awards being announced very late in early February, voters probably won’t reach a verdict until mid-January at the earliest) and several other author-artists are being touted by many in the industry as prohibitive favorites. I do know that one of those is Melissa Sweet, who illustrated two masterpieces this year, and has previously won an Honor. As to the others, well that is after all the purpose of my ongoing series.
The clown is one of the most fascinating and enigmatic personas in our culture. We’ve seen the character reach the heights of existential essence in Ingmar Bergman’s harrowing 1955 film Sawdust and Tinsel, to a mysteriously adorned Jimmy Stewart’s “Buttons” in Cevil B. DeMille’s Oscar winning circus epic The Greatest Show on Earth, to a more murderous demeanor in the cult comedy-horror film Killer Klowns From Outer Space. An especially provocative look at the life and work of clowns appears in such film classics as Charles Chaplin’s The Circus, Federico Fellini’s I Clowns and Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Santa Sangre. Stephen King brought forth the most horrific incarnation of all in his novel It.
Yet the clown, seen through the eyes of a child, is a wholly benevolent entity, incapable of doing anything other than to charm, to perpetuate joyous mayhem, and promulgate the same kind of magnanimous spirit as Santa Claus and the Easter bunny. It is from this vantage point that Ms. Frazee brings in a baby clown and the fun-loving fraternity who come to claim him after an accident that they did not immediately discover. For some kids old and alert enough to remember, the same thing basically happened in the Home Alone movies, where a family discovers an unconscionable blunder after it is too late to right in short order. With crows encircling overhead a pointy white bearded older farmer takes pitchfork to hay, stopping to eye a short circus train pass on the horizon. He then to his visible shock notices something fly off the train. Closer inspection reveals the “something” is actually a baby clown adored in red and yellow. While the glum-looking farmer stands motionless and seemingly exasperated, the clown engages in a series of acrobatics to express unbridled glee with his new friend and protector. The farmer takes the young boy’s hand and leads him to his tiny farmhouse, where he briefly chats with him, feeds him, and by example has him wash his face in a basin. Initially the boy in overcome by the realization he is now lost, and the farmer in a series of charming vignettes labors to raise his spirits. In what was meant to document a period of a few days, the farmer serves the baby clown his meals, shows him how to milk a cow, collects eggs from the hens (the baby clown gets a bit of humorous comeuppance when he demonstrates how to juggle eggs, which the farmer predictably fumbles in an attempt to ape him) and rakes up hay, an act that shows the baby clown out of the loop. Now fully bonded the two head out for a picnic, armed with a tablecloth and basket.
Then the inevitable happens. This is where Frazee’s art achieves its highest level of exuberance, though tinged with melancholy. As the returning train sounds ‘Toot Toot Toot!” the farmer and excited clown await the full contingent of clowns, hanging from the car windows, all overcome with relief and joy. The clown mother embraces her baby as farmer looks on, while all the other gather around. Knowing he must leave the baby runs to the farmer who lifts him up, embraces him and kisses him on the head. A single outstretched hand waves goodbye to the train, with baby looking out from the back car, while the farmer walks back unaware of yet another unexpected guest. And the Life Cycle is sure to repeat itself.
Frazee’s art is negotiated in black prismacolor pencil and gouache. While black and white and earth tones are present throughout, and other colors do appear in the later tapestries, what is most striking is the use of red and yellow. The combination is certainly of a circus variety, but it enriches the spirit of the book, centered as it is around friendship that develops through shared experience. Kids connect with the bonding between one of the most ordinary of characters with one that evokes being different in a world that is too often pat. The Farmer of the Clown is a beautiful book in every way, shape and form, and it is a certainty to be one of the last crossed off of voter’s shortlists, if indeed it ever gets deleted.
Note: This is the sixth entry in the 2014 Caldecott Medal Contender series. The series does not purport to predict what the committee will choose, rather it attempts to gauge what the writer feels should be in the running. In most instances the books that are featured in the series have been touted as contenders in various online round-ups, but for the ones that are not, the inclusions are a humble plea to the committee for consideration. It is anticipated the series will include between 20 and 25 titles; the order which they are being presented in is arbitrary, as every book in this series is a contender. Some of my top favorites of the lot will be done near the end.