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

This is the last in a series of posts elaborating on 5 of the most valuable things I learned (or gained insight into) by reading all the Caldecott winner and honor books, as I originally outlined on a blog post several weeks ago. If you are just joining the series, links to the earlier posts can be found below.

Over the last few 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. (link)
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. (link)
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). (link).
4. Everyone knows that, while awards committees do their best to be fair, it’s impossible for subjectivity not to play some role in what gets a sticker and what doesn’t. While reading all the Caldecotts, ever, I often found myself returning to the idea of subjectivity and pondering it. Hopefully I gained some insights on it as a reader that are worth putting to words and sharing. (link).
This week, I’ll focus on thing NUMBER 5 I learned from reading all the Caldecotts, ever:
5. For learning about picture books, there is no substitution for putting in real time with real books and real artwork.
Everything I’ve written about in this series is all well and good for me to say. Hopefully it’s given you some insight. But really, the best way to learn about picture books, isn’t to read about them, it’s to read them, the actual books. Duh. Right?

What I’ve learned by reading so many picture books (not just the Caldecotts, but all the hundreds of other picture books I read every year that don’t have any stickers on them) is a lot more intuitive than what can be put to words in a series of blog posts. In other words, what I’ve learned, I’ve learned mostly by reading, not by reading about reading. Does that make any sense?

It’s like learning a language. When you are a kid you listen to people talk in your language enough that eventually you get it and understand. Indeed, you can go to school and learn how to talk better, and that can be really helpful, but you probably still learn the most by being immersed in the language. In the same regard, as an illustrator, I’ve made it a goal to study and immerse myself in the art of as many picture books as I can so I understand the visual language needed to “speak” myself.

I can go to illustrator talks and read about writing and take classes all I want (and they are often very helpful). But the root of my own knowledge, and the root of my own joy in all of it is reading actual books.

If this series of posts hasn’t inspired you to go digging around for some inspiration in old books, at least I hope it has inspired you to study others' works in whatever discipline is yours.

Thanks for reading.

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

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, as I originally outlined on a blog post several weeks ago. I’ll be putting up new posts each week on the subject through next week.

Over the last few 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. (link)
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. (link)
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). (link).

This week, I’ll focus on thing NUMBER 4 I learned from reading all the Caldecotts, ever:
4. Everyone knows that, while awards committees do their best to be fair, it’s impossible for subjectivity not to play some role in what gets a sticker and what doesn’t. While reading all the Caldecotts, ever, I often found myself returning to the idea of subjectivity and pondering it. Hopefully I gained some insights on it as a reader that are worth putting to words and sharing.
Whenever the awards are given out, I’ve noticed that there’s always buzz about what was left out, what should have won the medal instead of the honor, etc.

Of course there is. If the task of picking the Caldecotts didn’t include a certain amount of subjectivity, it wouldn’t require a committee to perform it.

But in looking back over the entire list of Caldecott books since 1938, it’s especially interesting to note when a beloved classic like Madeline, by Ludwig Bemelmans was an honor book, while the winner-proper from that same year, Abraham Lincoln, by Ingri and Edgar Parlin d’Aulaire, is (in my eyes at least) not nearly as well known now, years into the future (even if it’s a great book).

Does this mean that Madeline should have won the award-proper, not Abraham Lincoln?

I’m not meaning to suggest so. Or to suggest the winner didn’t deserve it. I just mean to point out one of the more obvious years when it’s clear that we may not all agree on the committee's final decisions regarding what book got what award.

A book doesn’t really need a sticker at all to be a beloved classic. Right? Let alone a gold sticker, as opposed to a silver one. But I remember as a kid wondering why a book I didn't really like had a sticker on it, when a book I loved, didn't. Doesn't every kid wonder that?

If Madeline wasn't an obvious enough example let's switch over to the Newbery award for a minute. You may know that Charlotte's Web won a Newbery honor in 1953. But did you know the title of the Newbery winner-proper from 1953? The winner that year was a book called, Secret Of the Andes. By no means do I mean to put it down; I'm sure is a great book. But it won over Charlotte's web? We're talking best of the best, one of the most well-known and most beloved Children's book ever.

So what's my point?

My point is that choosing award-winners is a subjective thing. And by looking through the cannon of Caldecott books, and noticing years like Madeline’s year, it's clear that committees are human. Opinions differ. Subjectivity is a part of the game.

Just for interest’s sake, here’s some other extremely well-known classics (written before 1980) that may surprise you as being honor books their years, not the winners-proper:

Madeline, by Ludwig Bemelmans (mentioned above)
Blueberries For Sal by Robert McCloskey
One Morning In Maine by Robert McCloskey
Inch by Inch by Leo Lionni
Frederick by Leo Lionni
Frog and Toad are Friends by Arnold Lobel
Freight Train by Donald Crews

(Side note: I concede that it’s possible that sometimes a winner-proper from one of the honor books’ years from the above list is perhaps more well-known than the honor book I’m highlighting, but not so well-known to me. That being said, I have been a voracious reader of picture books for decades, I’m familiar with the general canon of children’s literature classics, and I’d guess that I’m at least close to the mark with the above observations).

And now, switching gears a bit...

Here's another note regarding subjectivity that probably won’t come as any surprise for those who follow the awards closely, but I can’t help but point it out anyway.

While the medals used to be given out pretty evenly to both women and men, it’s fairly shocking how infrequently they’ve been given to women in the last several decades.

I’m not the first to ask it, by any stretch, but what’s up with that?

Why is it that more men win this award and its honor? I don’t know. But I’m not the only one who thinks that it's curious (and/or kind of lame). I've read about this subject many times before on others' blogs and in industry journals.

I did some digging to try to find old blog posts and/or articles on this subject to link to here. Alas, I became fatigued of internet surfing in my attempt to find some of the articles I remember reading about this in the past. So I'm copping out a bit here and not being as helpful as I could with this post for the sake of getting back to my own illustration work. In other words, sorry I don't have more links.


But at least I have a few:
Out of 72 Caldecott Gold Medals:
47 have gone to 43 men
20 have gone to 16 women
5 have gone to 5 male/female pairs (all unique illustrator pairs)
Out of 226 Caldecott Honors:
138 have gone to 88 men
83 have gone to 53 women
5 have gone to 4 male/female pairs
 (my own note -- I believe these are the numbers over all the years the award has been given. It's substantially more lop-sided in favor of men winning over the last 2 decades or so. Also please note that the opposite is true for Newbery winners -- way more women than men win there, but at least it's fair to say that there's way more women writing for children than illustrating. Step into any children's literature conference and you'll see quickly that women outnumber men there by a large large margin)

 Please if someone has interesting links on this topic or remembers old discussions I might link to, include them in the comments.

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.

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!





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.

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

Because…
…last week was the week where the American Library Association announced this year's winners of their shiny round stickers,
…and because it was about a year ago that I completed an old goal close to my heart – reading all the Caldecott honor and winner books of all time,
…and because I never really took the time to step back and reflect on that goal’s completion,
… and because just 2 weeks ago I was busy chowing my way through the ENORMOUS stack of picture books I had checked out from the library while I was home, mostly collected due to their places on mock-Caldecott lists…
Today I’m beginning a short series of blog posts related to my thoughts on…
THINGS I LEARNED FROM READING ALL THE CALDECOTTS, EVER.
(I digress to point out that I had read all the Caldecotts, ever, up until the new winners were announced last week. The two honor books both came in under my radar – even though I LOVE Bryan Collier’s work and am surprised I missed a new book illustrated by him. I can’t catch everything though, even when I’m not living in Malaysia. I’ll read them both as soon as I find them).

In the next several weeks, every Monday I’ll put up a post elaborating on each of the following 5 most valuable things I learned (or gained insight into) by reading all the Caldecott winner and honor books, ever.


Here's the nutshell version:
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.
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 or that helped shed light on why they may have won the sticker).
4. Everyone knows that, while awards committees do their best to be fair, it’s impossible for subjectivity not to play some role in what gets a sticker and what doesn’t. While reading all the Caldecotts, ever, I often found myself returning to the idea of subjectivity and pondering it.
5. For learning about picture books, there is no substitution for putting in real time with real books and real artwork.
    I apologize to those arty friends and crafty types who read my blog who aren't necessarily interested in Children’s literature. Like any blog, I hope you read what interests you and ignore the rest.

    For those interested in Children’s literature, I’ll put up the first post of the above 5 next Monday, with a new post (hopefully!) following every Monday until I'm finished with the series.

    Cheers!