by Sam Juliano
For sheer breathtaking scenic beauty Barbara McClintock’s painstaking Lost and Found: Adele & Simon in China is as ravishing a picture book as any released in 2016, but as is invariably always the case with her meticulously detailed and annotated works there is so much more on display. Though the renowned veteran author-illustrator has won a brace of awards and critical praise through her prolific career the American Library Association’s Caldecott committee has yet to honor one of her books with their signature gold or silver medal, though many times she was no doubt exceedingly close. A few years back her exquisite collaboration with Jim Aylesworth, My Grandfather’s Coat garnered considerable buzz in on-line Caldecott discussions, that same year’s charming Where’s Mommy?, a follow up to the classic Mary and the Mouse, the Mouse and Mary landed on on numerous year-end best lists, and her sublime Dahlia several years back was recipient to a plethora of citations. Possessing a discerning sensibility the artist has completed many fairy tale interpretations, a number of which are the most magnificent covers of some of those works to date. The elusive Caldecott may well be attributed to intense competition at the wrong time or just some plain old bad luck, but either way this is truly unfortunate situation.
This year McClintock has produced two masterful books. The first, released during the first quarter, is Emma and Julia Love Ballet, which was the subject of the third entry in this series. Though both this earlier work and Lost and Found sit comfortably among the best picture books of the year, they are distinctly dissimilar – one is more of a chamber piece dominated by intimate vignettes, set in the big city and surrounding suburbs. while the other entails a turn-of-the-century historical journey, is epic in scope, has been exhaustively researched, and showcases a pictorial intricacy that rivals anything done by Peter Spier or the Japanese nonagenarian Mitsumasa Anno, the 1984 winner of the prestigious international “Children’s Literature Nobel Prize” Hans Christian Anderson Award which was given for his wildly popular and magnificent “Journey” books, in which a character travels through a nation’s landscape, densely populated with pictures referencing that country’s art, literature, culture, and history. McClintock has accomplished this very thing in Lost and Found with the full-scale assistance of her son, Larson DiFiori, a doctoral candidate in Asian religious traditions at Brown University. Indeed McClintock in an afterward acknowledges his vital role:
Larson was my guide through the history of China, helping with research, fact-checking, and calligraphic signage appropriate to early twentieth-century China. His passion for Chinese history, language, and philosophy has inspired in me a love of China old and new.
Lost and Found is the third book in the “Adele & Simon” series after the original with the same title and “Adele & Simon in America.” Like its predecessors it features an endearingly dysfunctional narrative hook, lovely illustrated historical summaries of the settings and the incomparable ink and watercolor paintings that are as aesthetically beautiful as they are exceedingly fascinating. McClintock’s art is finely modulated, and strikingly ornamented. In Lost and Found there is a marked authenticity of her subdued but still evocative palette. One can only imagine the time required for this kind of herculean effort, so understandably McClintock has said that this third book in the series will be the final one. The story in Lost and Found is told by a continuing series of diary entries. This narrative device worked superbly in Sarah Stewart and David Small’s Caldecott Honor-winning The Gardener, and its use in Lost in Found is no less effective, with the added treat of offering up readers the motivation to examine these detailed tapestries while trying to solve a continuing inquiry into the whereabouts of some missing items which we soon enough learn are due to Simon’s carelessness. Adele and Simon arrive in Hong Kong, where their Uncle takes them shopping. The purchased hat, a knapsack, a jacket, a flute, an abacus, a fan, a scroll of paper, a drinking bowl, a brush, an ink box and a scarf all together represent one of a single traveler’s most astounding demonstration of carelessness on record, but its application is both gleefully appealing to readers, and it is a major catalyst in advancing this ultimate tour of the country with one of the world’s oldest civilizations. McClintock provides a clever device at the end of the book that offers up the answers, but only one exceedingly impatient need apply.
The silk farm canvas launches the detailed journey with busy depiction of women sorting through silkworm cocoons which are stored vertically in a set-up that bears similarities to modern-day pizza parlors. McClintock embellishes her indelible interior portrait with an outdoor bamboo grove and a slightly curved roof design consistent with the architecture of this time and place. One of the most endearing of her lost item evidence is the dog standing in the entrance with scarf in moth, but it isn’t quickly discernible, what with some false alarms by way of items strewn about in the workplace. It is wonderful to have Adele meet some Asian children around her own age, while Simon views the scene from a screen window. The idyllic town built around the bridge crossing over the canal is a marketplace paradise, and our resilient explorers get to enjoy tiny candied apples on long sticks. The missing item in this bazaar is standing upright on a vendor’s table, an easy enough place to plop something down on.
The Peking tapestry represents wholly astounding craftsmanship and the opportunity for a literary spectator to gaze upon acrobats, gymnasts, water carriers, rickshaws, geisha carrying fans, food and cloth vendors, diners sitting on the terrace of a restaurant, an outdoor stage performances by the Peking Opera, and oh yes, a child showing a “lost flute” to a parent. McClintock negotiates awnings, canopies, and the ornate style of the period in a panorama of wall to wall people, all tending to their activity of choice, and all having a ball. One of the book’s most spectacular spreads is that featuring the Great Wall, one of the wonders of the world, a protective sprawling stone, brick, tamped earth, and wooden fortress that extends over 4,000 miles and is by far the longest in the world. The illustrative command of perspective as this winding and looping creation stretches out in the distance is masterful. One man standing on a top level of a tower is holding up a lost hat, while Uncle Sidney is demonstrating how to use the camera.
A farm animal outside a tent known as a “ger”, -in use for centuries by Mongolian nomads- has locked onto a missing bowl, but inside readers are treated to traditional clothes, ornate rugs and cloth murals, all crafted with magnificent intricate designs. A ride across a section of the Gobi Desert leads to a cliff overlooking ancient caves and a Buddhist Temple, and though Adele doesn’t look none too thrilled with this demanding trek through arid terrain without the relief of a suddenly missing fan, Simon and the others are over the moon with the latest discoveries. At an open courtyard of a monastery a coterie of monks help the kids to learn to paint, though of course Simon has lost his brush, necessitating a loan from Adele. The location of the missing brush alongside columns is discernible. What would be a book set in China without a panda bear, and one member this endangered species is found by Simon is a bamboo forest clearing, as Adele and Uncle Sidney look on. The missing ink box isn’t far from the nose to nose encounter. McClintock’s incorporation of rocks, a water fall and dense foliage bring another arresting picture into sublime focus. A myriad of passageways and tilting roofs at the top of a mountain are the setting for martial arts lessons for Adele and Simon, though true to form our marginally dysfunctional marauder loses his scroll. A man is blue finds it. The children are treated to a more laid back activity when they watch fisherman emply birds to catch fish in a lake. Simon’s lost knapsack sites on one of the rafts, while Adele and Sydney are taking pictures.
There can be no better description of a stunning canvas featuring yellow-brown rice fields dividing in rows than the one sent to Mama by Adele in her letter:
We saw fields wrapped around mountains like giant ribbons.
The depiction of workers gathering the crop is magnificently complemented by the detail-in-miniature used for the costume of the three Chinese woman pictured in the latter. The final correspondence to Mama shows just how thorough their picture-taking turned out to be! The fascinating historical and geographical essence of each canvas brings even further enrichment to a book that offers up a treasure trove with each turn of the page. End paper maps of the far East inspires supplementary research. Lost and Found: Adele & Simon in China is a true labor of love for its veteran artist, who really seems to have upped the ante this time around. The Caldecott committee is urged to infer upon it some serious scrutiny.
Note: This is the twenty-first entry in the ongoing 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.