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Archive for the ‘#Caldecott Medal Contender’ Category

by Sam Juliano

So he was lofted with her grace
when she, the bird that nobles praise,
thrown gleaming from his hand (her wingbeats raised
into the heartfelt morning air)
and diving like an angel struck the hern.      -Rainer Maria Rilke

In an unusually captivating afterward, author Danna Smith relates fond memories she had as an adolescent going out to “fly” with her Dad at a countryside hamlet uniquely suited to the sport known as falconry.  Conveying the breathtaking sense of exhilaration associated with an activity dating all the way back to ancient times, but reaching a peak of popularity in Europe during the Middle Ages, Smith imparts facts connected from research that would appear to confirm that this outdoor enterprise was not the exclusive domain of the ruling classes as jackals were with the Egyptians, but rather a pursuit subject to species gradation.  Hence an emperor would have access to eagles and vultures, saker falcons for knights, goshawks for yeoman, sparrow hawks for priests and the much smaller kestrels for servants and children.  British film maker Ken Loach’s 1969 masterpiece Kes, which showcased some of the tenets of falconry in what in a thematic sense was a metaphor for the search for freedom.  Billy Caspar is a teenage boy living at home with his vicious, bullying CroMagnon miner brother Jud and his mother. He has no joy in his life, with both  home and school places of continued emotional pain. His teachers do not, and do not wish to, understand him, and some of the other boys bully him. One day, however, upon observing a nest in an old abandoned wall, he finds a baby kestrel, which he adopts and rears. Not being able to afford to learn how to train it, he steals a book from his local store and the bird becomes the only important thing in his life.  Smith tellingly notes that falconry today faces new and daunting obstacles when she notes the “ever-growing number of roads, power lines, and turbines leading to the dwindling of safe, wide open spaces to fly birds of prey.”

The Hawk of the Castle: A Story of Medieval Falconry is clearly a transposition of Smith’s own experiences with her father to a time roughly five hundred years ago, a time of castles, rolling countrysides, thatched huts and armored knights.  It is told in poetic couplets, with the first two lines rhymed and the other two always ending with various applications to, of and around the ‘castle.’  It opens with the simplest of introductions:  This is me.  This is my father.  This is our home and the castle and commences with a scene-specific documentation of a falconry session, one marvelously amplified and enriched by facts surrounding preparation, precaution and normal negotiation of the event.  Smith gives readers the full adventure, doggedly refusing to compromise on all the fascinating details, culled not only from her contemporary episodes but by time-honored reports passed down over centuries. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

Few things in life are as nagging and uncomfortable as a stuffy nose.  More often than not your breathing is negotiated through the mouth after a runny nose and the ensuing mucus impede the normal coordinated mode.  Taste and smell are mitigated and the voice can be comically compromised.  Usually, the person maligned with the most severe of colds loses interest in doing anything until they are given some measure of medical reprieve.   For a young boy the latter restriction can bring an entirely new meaning to domestic communication when signals are crossed, causing a normally welcome visitor immediate access to one’s unwanted list.  The African American protagonist who is the center of a markedly intimate domestic rhubarb in Liz Garton Scanlon and Audrey Vernick’s tumultuous Bob, Not Bob! has undergone an attitude and behavioral metamorphosis, one completely reliant on a mother’s unbridled attention.  In Bob, Not Bob! by Liz Garton Scanlon and Audrey Vernick, with illustrations by Matthew Cordell, a boy is forced to suspend his favorite activities and rely on parental doting.  Alas not everyone is in his shoes.

Though Little Louie’s prominence in this tale of nasal congestion and all the bedlam it can cause in a household is  abundantly clear on the book’s three member front cover dynamic and end papers of the bawling tot clinging to his mom’s leg he is pictured confidently standing on a rock with one leg on the first page of the text, where the writing duo declare: Little Louie wasn’t all that little.  It wasn’t like he needed his mom every minute of the day.  But all bets are off after a single ah-Choooo! launches perhaps the most memorable sick time spent in a house since Camilla Cream came down with the strangest of maladies in the 1998 Bad Case of Stripes by David Shannon.  As a clock ticks and tocks Louie’s mom is shown attending to her charge, carrying a bowl of soup, measuring a dose of medicine and taking his temperature in three minute intervals. Cordell shows Louie in several stages of congestion, but as is the case with just about everyone in the grip of a head cold, it always comes down to the havoc it wreaks on Pinocchio’s most ubiquitous feature.  In such a  lamentable state all normally welcome activities such as coloring, watching television or even shooting baskets with his own wadded up tissues had zero appeal to an especially unhappy camper.  Though a tiny concession to his fondness for hot chocolate   Cordell’s sublime, trademark uncluttered scratch board pen and ink, watercolor minimalism is the perfect tonic for such a “poor baby” scenario.  The exclamatory request for “Bob!,” which readers of course will understand it really for “Mom” because of the heart shaped “O” but also because all young kids with a bad cold want mom around 24-7. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

A brief survey of the end papers confirms Stephanie Graegin’s Little House in the Forest as something unique.  On the spine of each book on a single shelf shared with a bevy of stuffed animals are titles that reveal the myriad narrative and pictorial structure of the book, which will include a woodland mystery, mythological creatures and a magical unicorn, a preponderance of flowers, forest creatures, a study of bears, birds and the heavens and a primer in animal illustration, the last of which could be equally applied to the story’s central young protagonist and Ms. Graegin herself.  Last year’s Christmas offering The Lost Gift is an underrated gem that received a review for this series, and a few year’s before that Graegin reviewed wide acclaim for the illustrations she crafted for Water in the Park by Emily Jenkins.

The title page, showcasing a young girl of color sleeping with her stuffed animal and including a wall picture of her holding hands with her “little fox” under hearts, makes it clear there is special bond between human and object.  Upon morning wake-up on school mornings the girl places her beloved object back on the shelf, where it remains when she is out of the house.  After dressing she walks to school, sneaks up behind her bespectacled friend and covers his eyes no doubt uttering “Guess who?” though of course Graegin is leaving each reader their own manner of artistic license.  After the students settle in their teacher points to chalk board in a two-third sized canvas..  A show and tell is scheduled for the following day and the specifications are that the choice should be “something old” and “something treasured.” In a thought bubble the girl happily plans her own presentation, one that will feature her adored little fox.  The remaining third of the single page canvas depicts dismissal where the girl is clearly excited over the welcome assignment.  Back at home she takes down her most revered possession and then a box of pictures showing her and the little fox in an array of activities.  It appears that the most memorable times in her young life were spent with the absolute favorite resident of her bedroom bookshelf. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

The following is a transcript of a discussion between  children’s literature Professor Elaine Painter and an undergraduate, Melanie Rodriguez, a major in education at Jersey City State University recorded on December 18th, 2017 during a class session conducted at Rossi Hall at the close of the fall semester.  All sixteen students enrolled were assigned a project to propose a book they felt deserved consideration for the 2018 Caldecott and Honor book citations.  A short interview, where the student speaks about the book and its artistry conducted as a one-on-one with the instructor will represent a major grade for the fall semester.  The basic aim of the interview is for the student to talk about the book he or she has chosen to “sponsor” for the Caldecott Medal.

Professor Painter:  Greetings Melanie!  As per our discussion at the end of last week’s class, I gather you understand the mission of today’s interview.  I’ll begin by asking you to identify your chosen picture book, the author, illustrator and publisher,  and any facts connected to the book you’d like to open with.

Melanie:  My chosen title is Full of Fall by April Pulley Sayre, released by Beach Lane Books.  It is the most recent in a series Ms. Sayre has published that showcase the seasons.  The book is non-conventional when compared to the vast majority of the books that are eligible and are being scrutinized over the course of the year by the real Caldecott committee.

Professor Painter:  Melanie, you state that Full of Fall is “non conventional” when compared with 2017’s picture book crop.  Can you elaborate on that?

Melanie:  Yes of course Professor.  Full of Fall, like the creator’s previous seasonal works was not illustrated, but rather, photographed.  Though many of the spreads in the book bear a remarkable resemblance to illustrations, they were all created by the camera much like the photos taken for the artist’s previous and exceedingly beautiful Best in Snow and Raindrops Fall. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

Into the sea, the starfish
casting them back into the living waters
giving them a chance, an opportunity
a choice of life
in the loving arms
the warm embrace
the seas of the father
Spreading the message of the son
the grace of the trinity
living within us
Casting starfish into the sea        -Raymond A Foss

In each and every year the Caldecott Medal Contender series has staged at Wonders in the Dark, there are a few children’s books that for various reasons associated with publisher size and promotional funding, have not been squarely under the radar of those making predictions or compiling their own year-end lists.  Often discoveries are made down the line, especially in the instance of writers or artists having achieved previous critical successes.  Maine-based nature illustrator Jamie Hogan won wide acclaim in 2017 for her monochrome art in the service of Rickshaw Girl by Mitali Perkins, which was named one of the best books of the year by the New York Public Library Board.  A few books later and Hogan has in the view of this writer entered the sacred pantheon of books worthy of Caldecott attention with the quietly powerful and sensory Ana and the Sea Star, released by Tilbury House Publishers.

The most celebrated picture book depicting a young girl and her father spending some time together at a rocky shore location in the Pine Tree State was Robert McCloskey’s Caldecott Honor winning One Morning in Maine published way back in 1952.  Heck, it is probably the most famous book featuring that human dynamic set in any state, though on the surface the story of loose-toothed Sal, who talks to the fish hawks and the loons en route to her Dad to help dig clams along the shore is slight and scene-specific.  Yet what the two-time Caldecott Medal winner does with his slice-of-life drama is to document coming-of-age and familial bonding under the prism of imagination and gently wrought trial and tribulation.  Seemingly the most innocuous situation turns out a be a defining moment in adolescent maturation, one anchored in the symbolism of a lost primary tooth, and one of those indelible moments destined for permanent record in the mind’s scrap-book.  There is an acute literary kinship between McCloskey’s unforgettable sensory immersion and Ana and the Sea Star by R. Lynne Roelfs, a work that similarly places youthful wishes front and center during the most formative years. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

What ultimately foiled Big Anthony in Tomie di Paola’s classic Caldecott Honor book Strega Nona was his failure to notice the story’s benevolent witch blowing three kisses after a magical recitation aimed at ceasing the production of pasta in her magic pot.  The same basic measure of smug overconfidence initially impedes a determined young girl aiming to solve the “forms” in martial arts without the vital tutelage of an experienced teacher.  Unlike the inveterate boaster in the medieval story set in Italy, a young girl stays the proverbial course in a contemporary setting, where mastery follows a baptism under fire.  The unidentified central protagonist in Barbara McClintock’s exquisite The Five Forms needs to thoroughly experience the power of mystical forces before committed will power can harness and humanize undisciplined temperament in achieving consummate success in the martial arts.

After opening end papers featuring mammals who later come alive in the narrative and some attractive brown and beige matching calligraphy, the frontispiece spotlights a young pony-tailed girl wearing a pink coat, one whom in the Barbara McClintock universe affectionately recalls Maria from the charming domestic drama Where’s Mommy?   Armed only with a knapsack and an inquisitive spirit she spots what appears to be a thick, loose-leaf holed scrapbook sitting on top of a blue tin book-drop outside a library.  Young readers previously exposed to Bill Thomson’s wildly popular 2010 wordless picture book Chalk, and the opening scenes of three children on a rainy day finding a bag of colored chalk hanging on the teeth of a toy dinosaur in a playground, may suspect there is magic in the air again, even if the ground rules this time clearing state that this mysterious portfolio can only enter a “good home.”  Taking the bait out intrepid protagonist, having hung up her coat, taken off her boots and laid down her knapsack is busy investigating her surprising find in a room where cuddly stuffed animals, doll house and a jack-in-the-box sit lifelike aside two shelves of books.  McClintock suddenly intrudes with the book’s title, which is the same as this 2017 release, and the challenge has officially been taken and accepted. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

Most book historians see it as America’s answer to Britain’s beloved The Wind in the Willows.  Teachers have been partial to it almost from the time it was named a Newbery Honor book in 1953, months after it released.  Indeed the very fact it did not win the Newbery Medal remains in the children’s book world a bone of contention to match the Oscar snub of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane in 1941, especially since the vast majority can’t identity the title chosen over it.  Similar to the way some recall where they were when they heard the news of Kennedy’s assassination, former students have never forgotten when they first read the book.  Some like myself can vividly recall the year and place where it happened and teacher who presented it  (Grade 4, Mrs. Celeste Zematies, 1963/4), while many others seem to always recall the experience as something very special in their lives. Though the author of this tour de force of children’s literature only published three novels during a long life, the fascination for his persona has never abated.  Children who read Charlotte’s Web are invariably drawn to questions about its creator.  The intrigue is bolstered by an emotional connection to the book’s characters.  As a child I had hoped the author would still be alive to tell us that Charlotte had not really expired or that she would be resurrected in a sequel.  White lived twenty-one years more after the book was read to our class, and was highlighted in several articles of The Weekly Reader, so some of us never stopped hoping.  What I found out in adulthood is that White was an even more intriguing literary figure, and that after he passed away at the ripe old age of 86 on October 1,1985, information about his life were invaluable in piecing together how this towering literary figure came into the ideas that resulted in his three iconic works, one of which is his wildly popular maiden novel, Stuart Little.

Just barely one year ago two-time Caldecott Honor winning author-illustrator Melissa Sweet released her own homage to the E.B. White literature with a passionate straightforward biography, Some Writer!,  utilizing archival materials that helped paint a provocative portrait of the icon through letters, manuscripts, interview excerpts and photos that achieve immediate visual chemistry with Sweet’s trademark mixed media collage art.  It was an exceptional work, befitting such a beloved American icon, but as it turns out it is not the final word.  Indeed it is doubtful there will  ever be any measure of finality as far as White is concerned.  What even the most passionate White aficionados could hardly have expected was another book so soon and at that one worthy of comparison with its immediate predecessor conceptually and artistically, a collaboration of extraordinary prose and sublime art, pairing together a newcomer with a young artist who already has won a Caldecott Honor among a bevy of magnificent titles. (more…)

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