by Sam Juliano
One page turn from the conclusion of Anne Rockwell’s Library Day a beaming fair-haired boy with a red shirt named Don D’Angelo (Italian-Irish perhaps?) is shown holding a newly-processed library card to the Byram Public Library. For those baby boomers growing up in the 60’s a library card was the key to the world. In households where books were not a priority item in the family budget, the library was the place to secure copies of the latest picture books, biographies and young adult novels. The issuance of a card to enable borrowing was one of the earliest opportunities for young people to demonstrate responsibility. While some had a penchant for losing books and incurring late fines (two cents a day) most students took full advantage of the privileges a card with bring them. All it took was a rubber date stamp on the back end papers and the removal of a white card -similarly stamped- for the library to keep track of who held what. Usually you were allowed two weeks with the option to renew Books and magazines were the basic loan items, and that longtime archive of library holdings, the card catalog with its narrow roll out drawers led you to them. The library to be sure was a meeting place for students looking to hang and find ways to avoid doing their work, but those were served up with eviction notices by vigilant personnel. Possession of a card was just the impetus a child needed to take up reading in a hands on manner. Though the public libraries have experienced a meteoric overhaul in the years since there was a line spanning months to get hold of a copy of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are or for older kids Rifles for Watie by Harold Keith, the love for reading hard copy thrives, and age old practices continue to hold sway to the present. A young boy’s unbridled excitement at securing the power to take advantage all that a public library offers within his age specifications lies at the heart of a picture book that celebrates a unique institution that remains one of the proudest cornerstones of any community.
Library Day was written by beloved children’s book veteran Anne Rockwell, who for many years collaborated with her late husband Harlow on books such as The First Snowfall and At the Beach. The Connecticut-based writer is now partnered with her daughter Lizzy, and together they’ve produced a nice run of quality books of which this irresistible title is arguably the finest. The implication of the book’s title page where Don is reading one of the books we later know he has checked out, is that loaning materials is still the prime benefit of card holders. Yet, the Rockwells take their readers on a tour of a modern day suburban library, revealing it as both a facility for immersion in a number of art forms, and also as an opportunity to meet people. Lizzy Rockwell’s brightly colored and warm watercolor paintings confirm Byram as well-ordered, up to date and run by people always willing to go the extra nine yards in assisting their young patrons. The attractive front cover features Don happily pulling a book about lions off the shelf. Upon arrival, Don, who is here with his father for the first time, is awarded the honor of dropping his father’s loans in the book drop. As any kid in a similar situation will tell you all the fun is in hearing the book “thump” on the bottom.
Don’s father escorts him to the children’s room, where a delightful monkey canvas hangs outside the entrance. A man at the circulation desk attends to a woman, The library’s clientele is ethnically diverse. The father tells his son he will drop him off in the children’s room, while he peruses the grown-up section. There isn’t a problem at all in a parent bringing his child to a book reading in a children’s room being managed by read-aloud librarians, and Don straightaway reacquaints himself with a boy he met at the playground. The first reader is Mrs. Edmunds, and the title The Three Sillies evokes the work of picture book funnyman James Marshall. When she is finished Mrs. Edmunds introduces a Mr. Miguel, whose homeland is Puerto Rico, and he presents a book about a donkey named Senor Burro. Miguel knows well how a dramatic “Hee-haw!” will go over, and the kids are laughing in no time. Then the new friends Don and Jack head off to explore the rest of the children’s section, passed the magazine rack and the DVD display. Don can relate to the magazine about dogs as it reminds him of the family dog Reggie. And the Nature magazine about farm animals also holds a special interest. Mr. Miguel again shows himself to be a model librarian when he tells Don that based on his selections he loved books about animals, and he offers him “Sam’s Snake” with a more daunting story of pet ownership. But heck, Don has surely seen The Jungle Book and the Indian python Kaa, whose lethal capabilities never come to fruition. But Don’s taste is not exclusively for animal books, and he shows Mr. Miguel a book about a big red truck, which brings to mind the Caldecott Honor winning Truck by Donald Crews. Mr. Miguel assures him he can all of his selections home.
One of (Lizzy) Rockwell’s most marvelous canvasses is the one of the baby reading a picture book titled Duckie upside down. Pick and yellow are the background colors in a bubbly room of primary board books and a multi-colored bead maze. One would be hard pressed to find any reader who won’t get a big chuckle at Anne Rockwell’s couplet: She goes, “Goo-goo, gaa-baa, woo.” The younger Rockwell’s busy library room tapestry is an illustrative gem. Don, a happy camper holding his pile of books is seen standing near the center, while activities are bursting from all corners. Pastel watercolors abound as the baby last seen in the close-up is now eyed in the context of his location in the room under the watch of his mother and another son; two middle aged children play chess, which is quite popular in many libraries today; a boy with headphones is navigating a computer, and two girls at the forefront are making bookmarks. A library worker is rolling a cart with books. Anne Rockwell as always brings in a diverse assortment of books which include volcanoes, Harriet Tubman and the yellow finch. For young eyes Lizzy Rockwell has offered up a carnival of colors and splendid adornments in a room where everyone is having so much fun. The people and objects are tidily drawn, and the illustrator always exhibits great color coordination with clothes.
A librarian recommends another book, Apples and Pumpkins, a seasonal book by the Rockwells. I always love when authors and illustrators make reference to some of their prior work, as it projects a kind of tongue and cheek reference point, but other than that, why not? These artists have more than earned a self-reference and it brings uniformity to their own aesthetic sensibilities. In any event the book’s dedication page showed the mother and daughter’s hearts were with revered librarians who passed away, one of whom was obviously the model for Mr. Miguel. Don loves both apples and pumpkins, so this book is a no brainer for him. The entire ritual that leads to the acquisition of the card will bring back memories for many who underwent the same exciting experience. But of course it wasn’t of the manual variety, but a light scanner which kept all the information in a computer system with no precedence for mistakes. Walking out the door with a satchel of temporary possessions, but possessions nonetheless a readers can see that this library runs puppet shows, book clubs, painting classes and the like. Don accepts his father’s offer to the Gingerbread Man venue.
Library Day is the latest picture book with a library theme, though it is perhaps the only one that deals with a child’s initial experience and membership rites. Sarah Stewart and David Small’s exceptional The Library chronicled the real life story of a bookworm named Elizabeth Brown, who eventually owned enough books to fill her house, which led to a massive donation of her holdings to the town and a library that was named after her. Suzanne Williams and Stephen Kellogg’s Library Lil also examined a passionate reader, but humor was dominant. Lizzy Rockwell’s art throughout is part and parcel to the positive energy generated by a library visit, and each page is lovingly mounted, beautifully drawn and exquisitely colored. The Caldecott committee should be giveng this close scrutiny.
Note: This is the forty-eighth 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 in the neighborhood of around 50 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 23rd, hence the reviews will continue till two days before that date.