by Sam Juliano
Lauren Castillo can now properly be framed as a major picture book humanist of our day. Her art may not project the humorous exuberance of Stephen Gamell, nor the socioeconomic impoverishment of Vera Williams but her work really aims for neither. Castillo’s specialty is familial tenderness and endearment and by extension the human condition in its finest incarnation. To be sure there are several other great author-illustrator humanists working today, but Castillo is among them. Her captivating vignettes don’t attempt to mask the limitations of lower middle class struggles, but rather accentuate that no matter what life brings to its unsuspecting denizens, their siblings are what matter the most, and what ultimately brings resonance to all the madness. The acclaimed author-illustrator won a well-deserved Caldecott Honor two years ago for Nana and the City, a tale of bonding in the big city fueled by child’s eye impressionism and followed that up with a stirring collaboration with renowned children’s literature veteran Eve Bunting in a wrenching examination of geographical upheaval that pushed the envelope for bittersweet resolve. That tear-inducing effort, Yard Sale evinces the same melancholic tone and mood as its predecessor, and in the new book Twenty Yawns, which was penned by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jane Smiley, once again Castillo treads affectionately on the familial camaraderie that means so much more than the various frolics and activities that define your typical vacation day.
Castillo has carried over the same timeless theme through three books -and retroactively even further back- even though the last two were written by two others, both rather iconic at that. This constitutes a remarkable unity when you consider that in two of the three works her illustrations were the sole mode of expression. Smiley’s first foray into the picture book literature is an economic distillation of the how some physically demanding summer activities will invariably wear down its exuberant protagonists, and how even in the horizontal position the specter of loved ones will lovingly intrude on the attempts to garner some needed respite. After the first yawn crops up after a particularly vigorous tumble in the dunes, preceded by a burial in the sand, castle construction with the aid of plastic shovels, and circular swinging courtesy of human hands, the family is spent and mom calls for an early night. Indeed Smiley reveals that this beach session was the longest the family had ever endured, thus validating their enervated state. After the intoxicating series of seafront camaraderie vignettes that includes two stunning double page panoramas, the transition to darkness and what transpires in the house is marked by an exquisite dusk panel, one signaled by the sun sinking below the horizon when “Strips of clouds were pink and red.” Castillo’s watercolor wash of red, violet and yellow denotes the end of an especially arid day, one not easily set aside for the more nondescript nocturnal hues that eventually take over via a more all-encompassing makeover.
When the narrative moves to the young girl’s bedroom, an air of unease sets in as she is unable to sleep after her mother konks out reading a book about a “wonderful little boy named Fred.” One may recollect the exasperated rooster in David Ezra Stein’s Caldecott Honor-winning Interrupting Chicken, who eventually succumbs to slumber after a real workout. But in Twenty Yawns there are no disruptions and the dozing off is almost immediate. Smiley offers up a splendid metaphor of the window as “a silver veil that fell across the floor” and Castillo’s minimalist shapes and muted colors accentuate the fear a young one might feel when she is the only one in the house still awake. She comes to believe that everyone in the pictures she drew that are now hanging on the wall are watching her – her parents, grandparents and her aunt, and even the illustration of Fred from the book laying open on the floor after mom surrendered to unconsciousness. Lucy’s trepidation, forged by the eeriness of complete quiet is assuaged when she embarks upon a mission to find Molasses her bear in a fond recall of the central deceit in Mo Willems’ Knuffle Bunny books. In another rebuke to anything impersonal in this household of exceeding chemistry all the animals around Molasses have names – Hornet the giraffe, Juno the horse, Mathilda the alligator, Frank the kangaroo and his baby Leonard.
One of Castillo’s most irresistible spreads -and one to a child that is achingly poignant- is the full tapestry close-up of Lucy carrying away Molasses while all the other animals look on sadly, wishing they too could be embraced. But soon enough Lucy brings them all piecemeal to the bed, where she props them in a position that affectionately evokes Peggy Rathman’s classic Goodnight Gorilla. All it takes for bedtime bliss to kick in is a kiss from their host and her subsequent snuggling in between them. But not before a yawn from all in the book’s adorable lineup of this mini zoo exhausted to their cores. Castillo reminds readers in upper case that all are opening their mouths wide in that titular reflex action that regularly occurs just before sleep sets in or right after one awakens. And then in a quick and colorful flashback series Lucy realizes that she saw all her family yawning in drawings that captured the contortion -heck I found it hard not to yawn myself looking at these illustrations and it was mid-day- and after a brief surrealist touch when she thinks she sees the moon yawning she finally succumbs to the sandman.
Castillo’s trademark bold black line illustrations are again employed to superlative effect in the service of her humanist canvasses. She opens the book with a mighty copyright page splash, both literally and figuratively with a busy and marvelously detailed beach scene depicting people setting up umbrellas, getting their feet wet, flying kites, playing ball, sprawling out on beach towels, while bike riders behind the sand head in opposite directions passing dog walkers and others on foot. Buildings are colorful and palm trees line the road. Birds are seen overhead and on the sand and we first get to see all three members of the family featured in the book. We find out they are interracial, which is most welcome, and the textured brighter colors signal that everyone is having plenty of fun. Even the yellow swim suit with the red dots is in keeping with the merriment. Eventually they walk to the end of the beach in a second waterfront tapestry enlivened by a number of swimmers in an even more spirited wave configuration, but the book then tells its story with the more intimate oval illustrations that best capture the family’s mutual activities. The arresting textured floral designs on the bed spread are vintage Castillo in their eye-catching saturation and they make a striking contrast with the one-tone furniture, denoted by dark outline. The art is uniformly warm, vivid and home-spun, perfectly complementing her vision and the perceptions of her audience, but like the best picture book illustrations these appeal as much to adults as they do to the younger set. of course a special bonus for the kids in following the twenty yawns in delightful numerical mode.
Twenty Yawns brings together a brilliant writer who has on first attempt mastered the picture book format with precise and heartfelt prose with an artist who always manages to widen the emotional sphere with images that speak without verbal ostentation. Together the match is a revelation, and Twenty Yawns is one of the most deeply felt picture books of 2016.
Note: This is the first entry in the 2016 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 at least 30 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. The awards will be announced on January 22nd, hence the reviews will continue till two days before that date.