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

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 2 weeks ago. I’ll be putting up new posts each week on the subject through Mid-February.

Last week I elaborated on 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.

This week, I’ll focus on thing NUMBER 2, perhaps the most valuable and hardest to put to words: 
2. Timeless books do some things that other books don’t. Or, if it’s possible to be more abstract, certain qualities seemed to rise up again and again in the books that felt most timeless.
A disclaimer: I had a hard time putting these qualities to words, as I mentioned last week. I mean, I think the hardest (and perhaps silliest) thing about this seeming a bit difficult is just having the confidence to say I know something. I’m only little old me. What gives me the authority to extract such broad and fancy statements like, “This is what makes a book timeless!” So, please keep that in mind; I’m only little old me. But I have read a heck of a lot of picture books in my life, and particularly in the last decade of working at being an illustrator. While I have no advanced degree or certificate that declares, “She knows everything,” I'm writing what I've gathered to be true. Take what you think sounds useful or true to your own experience and ditch the rest.

Okay, now that I got the overly apologetic side of myself out of the way, allow me to be bold and make the fancy statement: These are the qualities that the most timeless books amongst the sticker-winners seemed to share:

a. The books draw out authentic emotional feelings of what it’s like to be a kid -- both with the art and the words. In other words, you feel like a kid again when you read them. Think of obvious classics (and Caldecott winners) like The Snowy Day, by Ezra Jack Keats, or Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. There’s a reason why these books resonate with us so. They hit on raw emotions. Kid emotions. And by kid, I don’t mean immature, I mean authentic to a child’s experience in life.  What kid hasn’t relished in the joy of new snowfall? What kid hasn’t felt angst towards their parents, or a sort of prodigal-child feeling when they return home where they find their supper waiting for them – still hot?

b. The art and text meld together in an inspiring way; they feel perfect for each other.  Think of another obvious classic like Cathedral by David Macaulay. This is a book about how a Cathedral was built illustrated in an architectural drawing sort of way. With the cathedral in question drawn mostly to dwarf the teenie-tiny figures building her. The text matches the art perfectly. The two go together so well that they make the book sing.

c. Often the most timeless of the books draw out some sort of new way of looking at the world, or invite their readers to a bit of a different perspective: the reader sees the world (no matter how limited within the book) from a bit of a new (and specific, yet universal) point of view. I wonder if I’m trying to define that elusive thing called voice? Ya, let’s call that thing voice. Voice: when the world/art/character seems so unique and interesting that the world/art/character pulls us in, suspends our disbelief and feels real. I found this above anything else to be the case amongst books that stood out to me as timeless. This elusive thing called voice. I’m trying to pick examples that most people will have read (probably indicating they are the most timeless), and perhaps of the stronger examples amongst the older sticker-bearers would be Madeline by Ludwig Belmelmans.

d. Story arc. Don’t get me wrong I read some amazing concept and atmospheric books amongst the lot. It’s just my own subjective, humble opinion that, after reading all the oldest of the old medal winners, books with story arcs felt more timeless. I’ll even add a note that some of the older ABC books seemed amongst the most dated. Even if the story arc was a bit subtle, like in Owl Moon, By Jane Yolen and illustrated by John Schoenherr, or The Snowy Day, by Ezra Jack Keats. Those characters were changed by their experiences in the world. And we are changed with them as readers.

Okay, while interesting, are any of the timeless traits I’ve discussed here really surprising? I don’t think so. They sound like a bit of a generic list of what makes a good picture book, right?

On the other hand, if you answered, “yes, the traits are surprising,” maybe you aren’t reading enough books and you're reading too many blogs.

Next week I'll talk about the other side of the timeless coin -- books that felt dated.
until then, Cheers!