This past Monday, I woke up early to catch the ALA Youth Media Awards online. I was most curious about the Caldecott Medal because I had promised to read the medal winner and the Caldecott honor books to two classes of third graders later that morning.
I’ll confess that I was a little dismayed by the results. Yes, they were all wonderful choices, but the winning book was extremely wordy, and all three of the honor books were wordless, or nearly wordless. Sharing wordless books with a large group is a bit of a challenge. But a promise is a promise, so I shared all four books with both classes that day, and with two classes of second graders later that week.
I was especially nervous about reading the Medal winner, Locomotive by Brian Floca. It’s a mini-history lesson that recreates a trip from Omaha, Nebraska to Sacramento, California by train in the 19th century. Floca packs an enormous amount of detail into the text, including how the railroad was built, how the train was operated, and the range of landscapes it passed through. It’s too long to share with the toddler and preschool groups I usually read to, so I had never read it aloud to a group, and wasn’t sure if it would hold the kids’ interest. I was relieved to find that it did.
Floca knows his audience well. Amid all the facts about the train and the railroad, he throws in little details to grab kids’ attention. All four classes were gleefully disgusted by the idea that the toilet dumped out onto the tracks, and that you could tell if a switchman (the man responsible for hitching the engine to the train) was new to his job if he still had all his fingers. Floca also portrays visually the rickety terror of the narrow wooden trestles, the darkness of the rough-hewn mountain tunnels, and the dangers that could befall a train with a careless engineer.
By the time I read to the second grade, I was actually looking forward to sharing the journey. I told the kids we were going to go on a train ride. I showed them the map on the inside cover, illustrating how the track was built in two parts that met in Promontory Summit in Utah. And then I read the book. Along the way, we talked about the different landscapes, and what it would have been like to travel them by wagon before the railroad was built. We talked about the telegraph, and what it meant to be able to send messages quickly across the country.
The kids seemed truly engaged by the book, exclaiming over the details, and asking questions about the illustrations and the current state of the railroad (I just read that most of the original track is gone, but parts of it are still in use. Here’s a wikipedia article with a lot more detail). But I wasn’t sure how the book had gone over until yesterday, when I ran into the mother of one of the second grade boys. She said, “My son said you read the best book to his class! Something about a locomotive. He never tells me anything that happens in school, so it must have really made an impression on him.”
So kudos to Brian Floca for making history so exciting that kids even want to talk about it after school!
I did “read” the Caldecott Honor books to the classes as well, and they loved them. They exclaimed over every page of Journey by Aaron Becker, a beautiful wordless story about a girl’s adventure with a magical red crayon. I loved that in every class, around the fourth or fifth page, the light would dawn across the group, and they’d all start saying things like: “This is like…” “This reminds me of…” “That book!” “The kid with the purple crayon!” And I’d have to stop while they put the pieces together, until finally someone would shout out, “Harold and the Purple Crayon!” It was so much fun to see them making connections, and getting excited about the story as it unfolded.
My favorite part was when the bird brings the captured girl her red crayon, and she draws a rectangle on the floor of her cage. “What is she drawing?” I asked. “An escape hatch!” someone would shout. “A door!” And then I’d turn the page, and as a class they would exclaim, “A flying carpet!” and you could hear the wonder and excitement in their voices. Sharing this book made me feel like a magician. I loved every minute of it.
Since the kids had been sitting for a while by now, for Molly Idle’s Flora and the Flamingo I had them stand up and try to emulate the motions of the flamingo, the way the little girl in the book does. This got lots of giggles, especially when they had to put their heads between their legs, the part that makes the little girl fall down. This is a charming book, especially for fans of ballet, and several kids (admittedly mostly girls) said it was their favorite.
All four classes loved Mr. Wuffles by David Wiesner. I explained that David Wiesner had won the Caldecott Medal three times already (for Tuesday, The Three Pigs, and Flotsam) and a Caldecott Honor for Sector 9. Clearly he knows what he’s doing. Mr. Wuffles is a comic book-style story about a spaceship full of tiny green aliens who nearly fall prey to a big black-and-white cat named Mr. Wuffles. The portrayal of the cat, who disdains all of his actual toys, but torments the poor aliens, is spot on. The kids loved the confab between the aliens and the ants, who plot out an escape plan together. And it’s fascinating to think about an ant civilization, complete with history that they record on the walls. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to convey the story to such a large group, since there is so much tiny detail in the illustrations, but they loved it.
At the end of the classes, I asked them to vote on the book they liked the best. All the books had several votes, but Mr. Wuffles was the clear winner. Granted, I had read that one last, so it was freshest in their memories. But I figure David Wiesner is kind of the Meryl Streep of the Caldecott Awards. We all know everything he does is award-worthy, but they can’t give him the award every year.
Anyway, in spite of my trepidation at sharing what seemed like four challenging books, the kids loved all of them, and I ended up having a blast. Many thanks to the members of this year’s Caldecott Award Selection Committee!
Every January, I try to do a series of storytimes related to the upcoming announcement of the newest winner of the Caldecott Medal. This year’s winner will be announced on Monday, January 27 at the Midwinter Meeting of the American Library Association.
This week, I read some of my favorite Caldecott Medal Winners from previous years, both for my Family Storytime, and to two classes of second graders. But before I get to those, it occurred to me that I had never thought to wonder who Randolph Caldecott was, and how the award came to be named after him. So I looked him up.
According to the Randolph Caldecott Society UK web page, Caldecott was a British artist, who lived from 1846-1886, and was known for his children’s book illustrations. Every year, he would select or write a collection of stories and rhymes, which he would illustrate and publish at Christmastime. The books were enormously popular, and brought him international fame. Like many of the best children’s authors and illustrators (Dr. Seuss, Maurice Sendak, Margaret Wise Brown, and Beatrix Potter to name a few), Caldecott never had children of his own. Sadly, he suffered from heart problems and gastritis, and died a few weeks before his 40th birthday, while traveling in St. Augustine, Florida.
I haven’t been able to find an explanation for why the American Library Association in 1937 decided to name the medal after Randolph Caldecott. After all, according to the guidelines, the award-winning artist “must be a citizen or resident of the United States,” and Caldecott was British. Why not name it after an American illustrator like Johnny Gruelle, Wanda Gág or N.C. Wyeth? My only guess is that it had to do with the quality of Caldecott’s illustrations, and the seamless way he integrated them with the text. Maurice Sendak is quoted as saying, “Caldecott’s work heralds the beginning of the modern picture book. He devised an ingenious juxtaposition of picture and word, a counterpoint that never happened before. Words are left out—but the picture says it. Pictures are left out—but the word says it.” And that is the quality that defines the best picture books.
It amazing the range of reactions I get whenever I read this book aloud. I remember sharing it with some second grade classes last year where some of the kids were very nervous. In one class, every time the little fish bragged about his certainty that the big fish whose hat he stole would never find him, this one boy would say, “No! Don’t say that! He’s going to eat you!” This year, though, all the second graders laughed. The Kindergartners at storytime, however, looked concerned. The fish is so shockingly naughty and brazen (although, of course, most of the best and most memorable children’s book heroes are naughty). The beauty of the book, though, is that the ending is unspoken. Klassen leaves you with the image of the big fish wearing his hat, and leaves the rest to your imagination. So when I asked my storytime group what happened at the end, they said, “The big fish got his hat back.” The second graders, on the other hand, said, “The little fish got eaten.”
I think about this book every time I stand on a swivel chair, which I do often, in spite of this being in part a cautionary tale about that very thing. My only complaint about this book is that it’s really one you want to sit down with and pore over by yourself, to enjoy all the humor in the illustrations, and some of that gets lost in a storytime setting. But the kids love it anyway. At my family storytime, many of them exclaimed over it when they first saw me pull it out of the stack, so clearly they had heard it before (and hopefully had a chance to look at it up close). Officer Buckle’s safety speeches suddenly become a big hit at schools when he is partnered up with a new police dog named Gloria, until Officer Buckle discovers why. This is a wonderful story about a friendship and the importance of working together, and it has great safety tips besides.
I remember being surprised the first time I saw this book, because the style was so drastically different from Henkes’ other books like Chysanthemum and Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse. But since then, this has become one of my favorite read-alouds (along with A Good Day, which is perfect for toddlers). The language in this book is so simple, and compelling: ”It was Kitten’s first full moon. When she saw it, she thought, there’s a little bowl of milk in the sky. And she wanted it.” The story is funny because of all of Kitten’s mistakes and accidents, but you also feel her frustration, so it is deeply satisfying when she comes home wet and exhausted to find her own bowl of milk on the porch. There was a little tussle over who was going to get to check this one out after I read it.
I’ll admit, I hadn’t ever noticed the mouse and the red balloon that appear several times throughout this book, until one of the second graders pointed them out. And then I was instantly transported back to reading Goodnight, Gorilla by Peggy Rathmann with my son when he was small, and trying to find the red balloon and mouse on every page. It’s a subtle reference, but I loved it. The kids loved the pictures of the zoo animals packed into the bus to visit their sick zookeeper friend, and the idea of the owl being afraid of the dark.
1,2,3,4,5, I Caught I Fish Alive
B-I-N-G-O To go along with Officer Buckle and Gloria, I brought out the library’s St. Bernard hand puppet (who likes to lick people’s faces), and we barked the missing letters.
For this craft, I cut out pieces for the kids to color and assemble the little fish from This is Not My Hat, and brought some plants from my yard for them to glue down.
I originally had a crazy idea for taping the fish to a piece of yarn, and cutting a slit in the paper, so it would look like the fish was disappearing behind the plants when you pulled the yarn. But I would have needed thicker paper, and it seemed to complicated for the short time the kids had to assemble the craft. Still, I mocked it up with my daughter, and even though we tried it with construction paper, which is flimsy, she still had a lot of fun playing with it.
I drew the fish shapes freehand, and they’re not great, but if you’d like the template, you can print it out here: fishtemplate
Along with A Sick Day for Amos McGee and This is Not My Hat, I read these four books to some second grade classes this week:
This is one of my absolutely favorite Caldecott winners to read aloud, although I usually share it with older kids. In 1974, Philippe Petit walked, danced, ran, and lay on a tightrope across the Twin Towers. It was an illegal act, so he and some friends disguised themselves as construction workers, then carried the 400 pound cable up the elevator, and then up ten flights of stairs to the roof. Getting the wire across the gap was a harrowing experience all its own, and at one point, the cable fell, pulling Petit’s friends in the other tower to the edge of the roof. And then he stepped out onto the wire, a quarter of a mile above the ground. The illustrations in this book are dizzying. The kids are always transfixed. And even though Petit broke the law (yes, another naughty character, but a real one!), he did so ready to face the consequences. After he stepped off the wire, he held out his hands for the cuffs. He was sentenced to perform in Central Park for free. There is one line at the end of the book that says, “Now the towers are gone,” and always, always the kids ask why. The first year I read it, I wasn’t prepared, and in the pause while I tried to frame my answer, I could hear a bunch of kids exclaiming to each other the bits of information they knew. Fortunately, I knew that this year on September 11 the principal at the school had spoken to all of the classes in the school, explaining about the tragedy, and telling the kids that they should “remember the heroes.” So this time, when the question came, I was able to remind them of that, and, while I’m sure they still had questions, they seemed to accept that. That question is the only reason I haven’t read this book at my regular storytime, since I’m not sure how comfortable my storytime parents will be with whatever explanation I give, and the inevitable questions that will follow. But otherwise, this is an exhilarating book, and one of the best examples of a nonfiction picture book I know.
I shared this book with the second grade because I wanted to show them that they all knew at least one Caldecott winner. This book is so much a part of our popular children’s culture now (most of the kids had seen the movie too), but I also wanted them to stop and think about how revolutionary the book and the art were when it first came out. Max is the ultimate naughty character, fulfilling that fantasy all kids probably have of running away and going wild. I like to mention how controversial this story was, even down to the last line. In an interview, Sendak once talked about an argument he had with his editor, Ursula Nordstrom, “One of the fights I had with Ursula—and her whole office—though it seems silly now, was with the last line of the book [about Max’s dinner]: “and it was still hot.” It bothered a lot of people, and they wanted me to change it to “and it was still warm.” Warm doesn’t burn your tongue. There is something dangerous in “hot.” It does burn your tongue. Hot is the trouble you can get into. But I won.” We were lucky Sendak was always a bit like Max.
This was one of my favorite books as a child, and I still love it. Sylvester the donkey is thrilled to find a pebble that makes wishes come true, until he has a run-in with a dangerous lion, and accidentally wishes he were a rock. Steig really draws out the drama of Sylvester, helpless and alone on the hill as the seasons pass, while his parents worry and mourn. Of course, it has a joyfully happy ending, where the family is reunited, and they decide to lock the magic pebble away, at least for a while, realizing that now that they were together again, “they all had all that they wanted.” Before I read this book, I usually tell the kids that William Steig wrote the picture book Shrek, which, oddly, most of them have never seen, although most of them have seen the movies.
I made the mistake of reading this book last to one of the classes, and it was a bit too long. Still, it’s a fun collection of facts about the presidents, both the traits that many of them shared, as well as the things that made each one unique. The illustrations by David Small are colorful and funny, and there are some great quotes scattered throughout the text. My favorite is from Ulysses S. Grant, about his own musical ability, “I know only two tunes: one of them is Yankee Doodle, and the other isn’t.” This is a great book to share on President’s Day or around Election time.
You can find the complete list of Caldecott Medal winners here. Please tell me your favorites, and more importantly, who do you think will win this year?