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

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

Over the last 2 weeks, I’ve elaborated on the following things 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.
 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.
This week, I’ll focus on thing NUMBER 3 I learned from reading all the Caldecotts, ever:
3. Not all the Caldecotts’ texts felt timeless to me: there were reasons that some of the books were difficult to locate and required inter-library loans or trips to special libraries at Universities (but then there were also other qualities in those books that made me glad I took the time to seek them out).
Say you want to read all the Caldecott winner and honor books of all time. What do you do? You reserve a whole bunch of old books at the library. Caldecott books never go out of print after all, right? They should be easy enough to find. So you reserve them at your library. You check them out. You read them. You check them off your list. And that should be that.

Wrong. Caldecott books do go out of print. Some of the oldest Caldecott winner and honor books were extremely hard to find. In order to read all the books I utilized my own public library (how I miss you, Bellingham Public Library!), my mother’s award-winning public library (Snohomish, Washington has an exceptional library. It’s true). Western Washington University’s special Children’s Interdisciplinary Collection (Western Washington University has some passionate kid lit people keeping amazing libraries and even organizing major children’s literature events, check it out!), and then I got a little stuck with the last dozen or so titles.

The University of Washington had a couple of the books I wanted to read, but not all. So I wondered what to do. Then a friend here on my blog finally suggested I try interlibrary loan. Duh. Thankfully she even suggested it before I took a special trip to the University of Washington (in the midst of my move to Malaysia). So anyway, I figured out how to do interlibrary loan and I paid a nice fat sum for about a dozen books to be shipped to me from all over the country. And then finally, I did it. I finished reading all the books on the list.

The things I learned from the hard-to-find books were amongst the most surprising of my discoveries. There were reasons these books were hard to find. And it wasn’t just that they were old.

a. The thing most in common that the hard-to-find books shared was that they were often out-dated, or lacking in relevance in a non-PC sort of way. Like they had an old school, rather embarrassing (in this day and age) way of handling Native Americans, for example. Or perhaps they had a moderately patronizing handling of another culture. This was most often the case.

b. Some of the books handled a theme so often redone that they’ve been replaced dozens of times over. Like a few ABC books in the mix and some old nursery rhyme collections (as a bonus -- a couple of the nursery rhyme collections included several nursery rhymes with heavy spanking references). These books were more conceptual; they didn’t have a character to fall in love with, only a concept. And I’m not sure that’s as easy to keep around.

c. Sometimes it seemed the books that were hard to find were just tediously long, text-wise. The stories felt dragged down by too many words despite the lovely (sometimes little) illustrations that won the book the award in the first place.

d. And perhaps this is the most controversial thing I’ll suggest. I think sometimes the older books that were a bit harder to find were really artistically beautiful, but I couldn’t possibly imagine reading them to a kid. They seemed boring (sacrilege, again, I know). They may have impressed a committee full of adults but they just weren’t kid friendly. Sorry.

Now. Allow me to back-pedal a bit. Some books were hard to find because they’ve been so beloved that they’ve been redone – and I was on a quest to make sure I read the books (mostly) as they were written and illustrated originally. Many Moons by James Thurber (pictured on my original blog post for this series) is a good example of a book I had this problem with. The Caldecott edition from 1944 was illustrated by Louis Slobodkin. But Marc Simont re-illustrated the book at some point, and his was the easier edition to locate, by far. Incidentally I read both, and comparing the 2 was an interesting exercise.

So take everything I’ve said about the hard-to-find books with a grain of salt. I think my library just didn’t stock some old great books. Because far more often than not, I was really pleased I bothered to seek out these books that may not be on top-favorite-classic lists, but still have many classic qualities about them.

So this all brings me to my last thoughts for today. I’m going to skip examples in the event that I insult somebody by suggesting their favorite "classic" book isn't classic, but let me say that I almost always was happy that I had taken the time to find the old books that were hard to find or that I, personally, hadn’t heard of. If for no other reason, but for the art.

Wow. The art. Even in the books that were tedious to read or tiresomely outdated, the art was almost always worth studying. Which I suppose is the whole purpose of the Caldecott anyway, to award outstanding art in children’s literature.

Anyway, isn’t it possible that timelessness is not a trait required for all books that are outstanding? Some books that were deemed extraordinary books in their day perhaps were extraordinary books for their time, but their time has simply passed. And that’s okay.