by Sam Juliano
Note: This is the fifth review in the 2015 Caldecott Contender series that will be published at this site over the coming months, up until the January 11th scheduled awards date. The books that will be examined are not necessarily ones that are bonafide contenders in the eyes of the voting committee, but rather the ones this writer feels should be. The order they will be presented is arbitrary as some of my absolute favorites will be presented near the end.
It happens all the time. When book, film, theater and music awards are handed out there is head-scratching, disappointment and second-guessing among those who take these matters seriously. Most award historians agree it is largely a matter of the right timing, the depth of the competition and factors connected with the potential recipient’s standing in their respective industry and their years of service. For children’s books the gold standard are the American Library Association’s Newbery and Caldecott Awards, which are given out early in the calendar year to the most distinguished works published during the previous twelve months. A small committee of sixteen or so librarians, who were elected by the association’s membership spend a year painstakingly evaluating the full crop, and at the end of an arduous process settle up on the gold medal and honor book winners. Though mainly reliable, like all other groups there is sometimes an inability to speculate whether their choices will hold up well into the future. Though there are ample examples that raise eyebrows, none is as startling as the 1953 Newbery Medal awarded to Anne Nolan Clark for her book Secret of the Andes. Some libraries don’t even possess a copy of it anymore, while the “second place” honor book Charlotte’s Web is now seen by many as the greatest children’s work ever written by an American. Still, at least we can conclude that Charlotte’s Web did win an Honor that year. A number of exceptional artists and illustrators over the years have not been so lucky. Some are veterans who have enjoyed prolific careers, yet for one reason or another have failed to gain the attention of the award givers. One of these is Brooklyn poet/illustrator Douglas Florian, whose resume includes at least a half dozen books that fall under the category of would have, should have, could have. His work has repeatedly been lauded by critics and his peers, and has been given numerous citations from other year-end groups. But so far the prestigious Caldecott Medal has eluded this distinguished craftsman and classroom favorite.
Florian is the rare multi-talented artist who seems to be equally adept at both his crafts. His spirited poetry often flows off the page, almost oblivious to illustrative ostentation delighting students and their teachers with wit, humor and an authoritative grasp of his subjects. Florian’s pirate lingo in Shiver Me Timbers, a book he wrote in collaboration with Robert Neubecker, provides readers with a comprehensive and oft-hilarious world of the pirate, complete with unusual mastery of couplets and alliteration. To be sure Timbers was one of the very few books Florian didn’t both write and illustrate himself, and his seamless coordination of those elements produced some of the finest picture books, including Dinothesaurus; Insectlopedia; Comets, Stars, the Moon and Mars; Poetrees, UnbEElievables and Poem Runs. It seems inconceivable that the artist has not yet ended up in the winner’s circle, but there you have it.
The newest nominee for top honors is How to Draw a Dragon, which not only showcases one of a young child’s favorite things to draw (probably equal to dinosaurs) but delightfully pays homage to the creative process. Florian has always possessed the unique ability to emulate a child’s style of drawing, but still making it strikingly appreciable on any measure of adult canvas. In How to Draw a Dragon the artist creates a fantasy within a fantasy, replicating a child’s scene-specific experience with creation within the realm of fantastical encounters. The book has a wonderful work-in-progress aspect to it and is finally rooted in the reality of the art gallery where a group of children exhibit their remarkable work as part of a school exhibit. Florian waste no time in establishing the daunting challenge: Drawing dragons isn’t hard/Drag a Dragon to your yard and Dragons may be large in size/You’ll need lots of art supplies. A dragon is hauled into a yard for close examination by one of our fearless protagonists, who works feverishly on a series of drawings, while another observes that Dragons, when they wake are grumpy/And their heads are rather bumpy. Most children will delight in the drawing of a girl drawing the long teeth of a dragon while parked inside his gaping mouth, or the subsequent illustration that urges kids to be careful when they draw a dragon’s claw, as they too are prone to drawing. Another young Picasso takes advantage of a dragon’s preoccupation with laying eggs to draw his subject’s legs. Green fluorescent chalkiness is employed to striking effect in the page where a girl artist must fend off a dragon’s sneeze with an umbrella – Dragons have large, knobby knees/And it rains when dragons sneeze!
The most charming illustration of them all is one that Florian recognized would make a great cover. A dark blue colored dragon with umbrella wings and spaded tail rides a bike with the pleased young artist riding atop its head, enjoying a bird’s eye view of the activity. Things aren’t so snug for a boy who holds on for dear life while documenting a green dragon in flight – Draw your dragon’s wings in flight/but don’t look down – and hold on tight! Florian ups the ante with the outlandish premise of a “bearded” dragon who plays a violin – Draw your dragon’s bearded chin/while he plays the violin. A swath of turquoise envisions a dragon watching fireflies, while a particularly vivid double page spread features a boy toasting marshmallows courtesy of his subject’s fire-breathing propensity. Then all the dragons from the previous pages hug their subjects before flying away in a nocturnal scenario before all the wonderful drawings are encored in a fabulous gate fold of the P.S. 117’s “Dragon Art Show.” Though it could be argued that Florian’s drawings are more than sufficient to tell this story without rhetorical ostentation, it is much closer to the truth the spirited poetry draws attention to the humor and temperament of said drawings. As always the poet-illustrator weaves both elements together to create a wholly immersive reader experience, complete with the read aloud option. The mixed media art is plenty of fun and aesthetically exquisite, and it provides yet another example of why Florian continues to be so popular in the classrooms. A shiny medal of sorts has been a very long time coming, and this endlessly fascinating creature may be just the subject to bring an overdue accolade.