THINGS I LEARNED FROM READING ALL THE CALDECOTTS, EVER: part II

This is a series elaborating on 5 of the most valuable things I learned (or gained insight into) by reading all the Caldecott winner and honor books, ever, as I originally outlined on a blog post last week. I’ll be putting up new posts each week on the subject through Mid-February. Warning! I've released my inner geek upon my blog. These posts are not for the faint-of-heart who can't stand the smell of old books or the sound of bookish types talking about them. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Thing NUMBER 1 I learned from reading all the Caldecotts, ever:

1. Children’s picture books have evolved dramatically in the last century and many of the changes and evolutions are fascinating and exciting to trace through time.

In all the buzz surrounding books-turning-digital, it’s often overlooked that advances in technology have not only made digital books possible, but advances in technology have also made a wider variety of arty printed books possible – as is evidenced in reading all the Caldecotts.

The better technology gets, the more visual books have gotten and the more varied art in books has gotten. Art that used to be impossible to reproduce can now be used (A good example would be a book like A River Of Words: The Story Of William Carlos Williams, written by Jen Bryant and illustrated by Melissa Sweet).

Technology has brought innovative mediums to the mix (my own medium, collage, to name one), as well as allowing for extraordinary innovations like The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick, which I'm guessing probably would have been far too expensive to reproduce in its entirety decades ago. 

How exciting is this? That increasingly interesting and varied art can be used in books for children? And isn’t it possible that that technology will continue to get better and make printed books even better? Doesn’t that leave a lot of exciting hope for the future of printed books? Why do we rarely talk about this when we have the speculate-on-the future-of-publishing discussions?

Anyway, so it was fun to trace the kinds of mediums that were used in all the books I read and to note how they evolved over the course of 70 years (the Caldecott was first awarded in 1938). Because I’m a collage artist, of course I took particular interest in books that had a collage look to them even if they weren’t illustrated in collage and especially if they came out before collage illustrations were reproduced readily.

The book, Henry Fisherman, by Marcia Brown, was an interesting example. I remember being struck by the solid blocks of shape and how she used negative space in the illustrations. While the book doesn’t look like it was actually illustrated in collage (see footnote on this below)*, it uses a similar aesthetic as collage does -- like solid, simplified shapes and a deliberate use of negative space. I loved paying attention to compositional and color aspects used effectively in older books like this one.

So it was fun to trace illustration mediums evolving, but it was also interesting to trace an evolution in the texts of picture books. I know, Caldecotts aren’t awarded based on text, but still, you can see dramatic changes in style and taste from books printed in the 1940s to books printed in the last decade. Picture books have (mostly) evolved from being storybooks with pictures to stories told in pictures. I must confess that I sometimes had a hard time plowing through a few of the very old books; they were so long seeming. I couldn't imagine reading some of them to my kid. A few times they were flat-out tedious to read (is that sacrilege to admit?). Don't get me wrong, it's not that I don't like longer books. It's just I like the words to matter.

But then at times I’d discover a book that was super, super long, but also so fun to read! Like Paddle-To-The-Sea, by Holling Clancy Holling, about a toy Indian in a boat making a journey through the Great Lakes, on through the St. Lawrence river, and out to the sea. The book has heart and kid-appeal, even if I wouldn't really call it a picture book. It seems like more of a visual novel for younger grades only in picture book shape. Perhaps that’s actually more of what it is meant to be – it has chapters after all, despite its shape (sidenote bonus! while writing this blog post, I learned that the author, Holling Clancy Holling, also wrote at least two other similar looking "picture books" that each won Newbery Honors -- I’ll look forward to reading them when I find them). 

So I hope that offers a smidgen of insight about what I gained in perspective regarding the evolution of children’s books, all by reading all the Caldecotts, ever. It’s been fun, if a bit challenging, to attempt to put this to words. I just hope you'll all forgive me for releasing the complete nerdy research side of me onto my blog. If it's been too much, well, wait until next week! When I discuss what I learned about TIMELESSNESS by reading all those old books.

Until then, Cheers!

*Footnote on Henry Fisherman: I did some digging just now to be certain of the medium this book was illustrated in –– according to this website, from a special collections library at the university of Albany containing Marcia Brown Papers, it looks like Marcia Brown used five-color gouache. Other resources, like a couple of lists I found of mediums used for Caldecott books, actually did credit this book as being illustrated in collage, although they put a question mark after the fact -- meaning they were uncertain. For my money, even though the illustrations have a collage look to them, they don’t look like actual collage to me. That’s my take and I’m sticking with the folks from the special collections library in Albany in saying, nope -- not collage.