by Sam Juliano
The last time a picture book ventured into the territory of planting seeds of selfishness, the book’s author and illustrator Janet Stevens employed the theme as part of a story about chronic laziness warranting the worst kind of greedy deception. The book, Tops and Bottoms won a Caldecott Honor in 1996, and showcased plants and vegetables with abandon, which is also a pictorial ingredient in Kadir Nelson’s sumptuous If You Plant a Seed, a fable set in glorious oils about sharing to earn benefits, a concept never even broached in the Stevens book. Nelson visualizes the dire results of hording, before our major protagonists, a rabbit and a mouse opt for a far more congenial and rewarding strategy. The artist is a unique talent in children’s literature in that he is a major artist on several other fronts, and his picture book oil illustrations are relatively rare in a field dominated by watercolor, gauche, collage and mixed media. Indeed, noted children’s literature scholar Kathleen T. Horning once quipped on a Horn Book comment thread in lamentation of an unrewarded book by the artist that “he will just have to content himself with painting the Sistine Chapel.” To be sure, Nelson’s work defies the most extravagant superlatives, and I have frankly run out of such phrases myself. He has won two Caldecott Honors (for Moses and Henry’s Freedom Box), but his output includes many other beautiful works of distinction. He has done the art for New Yorker covers and classic novels, as well as for galleries and exhibitions.
The larger format of If You Plant a Seed follows up on the same dimensions for last year’s acclaimed Baby Bear, and Nelson has upped the ante on the bold and dynamic art with the richer and brighter colors the story calls for. The front cover is wholly arresting. A rabbit with fluffy ears looks ahead over a tiny plant, while a mouse from the looks on from the side. The book’s title is etched in garden green across the top. The first extended observation of the rules of nature involves the planting of seeds (tomato, carrot and cabbage) which “in time, with love and care will result in the completed crop. Rabbit and mouse are pictured in celebratory mode on and around their windfall of produce n another fabulous spread but the subsequent one where they gorge on carrots and tomatoes practically leaps off the page with the color intensity. There isn’t a fruit and vegetable stand from here to Timbuktu selling tomatoes this red, and those adverse to carrots and cabbage will be altering their diets to include them after looking at this painting. A turn of the page pictures a rather stoical standoff between rabbit and a mouse, with the former hiding a carrot behind his back and the latter trying to obscure a tomato from view. Staring at them intently, albeit with a pleading, hopeful look are a brown pigeon, a crow, a bluebird, a cardinal and a golden finch, all wishing to share the bounty. Nelson finds this feathered fraternity worthy of a pictorial encore and he unwittingly pays a degree of homage to British animator Nick Park by showing the airborne quintet full frontal, all with such yearning expressions, starkly applied on sky blue. It is the most affecting panel in the entire book. Heck who would want to turn such a congenial and hungry flock down?
But such is the extent of Nelson’s message in If You Plant a Seed. The greed as shown here in the manner of defiance on the following spread is so unyielding that it sways the allegiance of the young readers to the side of the rejected birds. All mayhem erupts when the miserly rabbit and house refuse to share, expressing themselves in boisterous repudiation. The birds become aggressively engaged too as the story’s prose portends a painful price for rabbit and mouse: If you plant a seed of selfishness, in a very long time, which is followed by a vegetable war that leaves both sides deprived, and rabbit and mouse in a heap of trouble. Then Nelson shows what is to be gained by generosity -mouse gives tomato to pigeon- and the wait is not very long. The airy spread showing rabbit gazing up at the sky is followed by some showery returns from the sky, as the airborne five work their magic with seed sacks. The cascade of color in this magnificent tapestry is quite the treat. In a pair of horizontally divided panels we see the seeds begin to grow, eventually into an expansive cluster. The ensuing phantasmagorical smorgasbord with invited guests raccoon, duck and her children, rooster, cardinal crow and of course rabbit and others demonstrates one good turn will brings the same and more. The vibrant color of the that last spread pushes the envelope in picture book splendor.
If You Plant a Seed might well be described as a state-of-the-art picture book. In this sense Nelson has enhanced the capabilities of the medium in bringing pre-schoolers and elementary students a larger than life, full bodied, thrilling presentation. As for the older people, well, I think it’s that Sistine Chapel thing again. The book is hugely popular and is no doubt on the shortlist of finalists. After two honors, Nelson may go gold, or even extend his total on honors. Either way this has award contender written all over it.
Note: This is the thirty-second 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.