Monday, March 5, 2012

In Praise of Picture Books: Books We (and Caldecott) Love

I’ve always loved picture books. My earliest childhood memory is a picture book on puffins. Picture books encourage creativity as illustrations inspire the reader/viewer to write a story in their own imagination. It’s a different type of literacy, entirely compatible and complementary to young readers’ early attempts at phonics and reading.

The Caldecott Medal, awarded annually by the Association for Library Services to Children, is the most coveted prize for creators of picture books. Named for nineteenth-century English illustrator Randolph Caldecott, it honors books that encourage visual literacy. You’re sure to find something intriguing in this year’s winner and runner-up honor books. They’re food for your child’s imagination.

This year’s Caldecott Medal winner is A Ball for Daisy, (cover seen above) written and illustrated by Chris Raschka, published by Schwartz & Wade Books. The illustrations of doggie Daisy as she goes through a day are reminiscent of medieval Asian illustrations. You can see the artist’s mastery in how few actual brushstrokes each illustration took. They’re deceptively simple, yet wonderfully expressive. This wordless book by Chris Raschka tells us the story of an irrepressible little dog whose most prized possession is accidently destroyed. It’s described as a “buoyant tale of loss, recovery and friendship.” I like the way the illustrations invite such personal interpretation. Your imagination (and your child’s) will be sparked.

Caldecott Honors go to Blackout, written and illustrated by John Rocco, published by Disney-Hyperion Books. This is an urban tale of a family (and a neighborhood) that makes the best of a summer power outage. I love the book’s notion that a blackout is a perfect time for roof-top star-gazing, absent of urban light pollution. And it reminds us all of the non-electronic pleasures in life, like spending time with family and neighbors. And don’t forget to eat your ice cream before it melts! I love the use of light and shadow in Rocco’s illustrations, reminiscent of a magic lantern show. We connect with an earlier time, a pre-electric city. When the lights go back on, we better appreciate the simpler joys.

I’m pleased to find a book by Lane Smith in the honor roll. He’s been a star in the world of children’s books for years, and his new book, Grandpa Green by Roaring Brook Press is a lovely, gentle story of a fanciful topiary garden tended to by a boy and his great-grandfather. Lane has a wonderful understanding of a child’s world and seems to have retained the ability to see the world through a child’s eyes, often the better part of the appeal of his books. Just between you and me, I’d like to see him take on bigger, more universal (and profound) themes. He’s more than up to the challenge; and we could have the next Dr. Seuss in our midst.

Primatologist Jane Goodall has always been a heroine of mine, so I was thrilled that Caldecott chose to honor Me … Jane, written and illustrated by Patrick McDonnell and published by Little, Brown and Company. I’ve always loved McDonnell’s whimsical, deceptively simple, but emotional style. It’s fascinating to see how much expression McDonnell manages to get out what are essentially simply drawn figures. Like all true greats, he makes it look easy. And it’s fun to see the world of the child who is the mother to the woman we know as Jane Goodall. Jane’s beloved stuffed monkey, Jubilee, makes a ton of sense. There’s jubilance on every page.

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