Monthly Archives: October 2016

Who Was Randolph Caldecott, And Why Do We Have An Award Named After Him? (and a bit more from the V & A Study Rooms)

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Most American illustrators know about the American Library Association’s Caldecott Award, but how many know anything about Randolph Caldecott? I received a Caldecott Honor in 2004, but I knew very little about him myself. My only reference was from Maurice Sendak’s essay in Caldecott & Co. which I read many years ago. There, he writes:

“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 words says it. In short, it is the invention of the picture book.”

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I took these words to heart when I first read them. I realized that my favorite children’s book illustrators (of which Sendak is one) do just that – they augment the story rather than just retell it visually. I aspire to do the same. I thank both Sendak and Caldecott for that guidance.

Sendak goes on to state:

“Caldecott is an illustrator, he is a songwriter, he is a choreographer, he is a stage manager, he is a decorator, he is a theater person; he’s superb, simply. He can take four lines of verse that have very little meaning in themselves and stretch them into a book that has tremendous meaning – not overloaded, no sentimentality anywhere.”

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While I was in England I intended to write a post about Randolph Caldecott, but somehow never managed it. People in England are much more familiar with Caldecott’s work than most of us in the U.S. It’s not uncommon to see copies of books illustrated by Caldecott in used bookstores there. On my first visit to Foster’s Bookshop, I found a book illustrated by Caldecott on the sale table. I didn’t buy it, but I snapped a few photos, of course.

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Caldecott was born in Chester, England in 1846. He started working in a bank at the age of fifteen, studying art on the side. In 1872, he moved to London to pursue an art career full time. Five years later, he began his well-known work in children’s picture books.

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His work was also published in novels, travel books, and various periodical publications, and he was commissioned to design the British Afghan war medal.

He had suffered from poor health since childhood, and died in 1886 while visiting the U.S. with his wife. He is buried in St. Augustine, Florida. There is a memorial for him in St. Paul’s Cathedral, London. He was only forty years old.

The image below is a sadly prophetic self portrait from The Babes in the Wood (1879).

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Frederic G. Melcher established the Caldecott Medal for the “most distinguished picture book for children” in 1938, fifty-two years after his death. The medal features a relief of this image from The Diverting History of John Gilpin, an animated tale told in 253 lines of verse by William Cowper (1731–1800). It was printed by Edmund Evans in 1878 (the same engraver who worked with Walter Crane).

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Havoc. Falling babes. The women in Caldecott’s illustrations always look so calm and imperturbable. He isn’t usually so flattering of the men.

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When I went to the V & A drawing and print study rooms I requested to see a sketchbook of Caldecott’s from the mid-1870s.

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I also saw a box of loose drawings and paintings from their collection.

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His drawings of faces and hands are wonderfully expressive. His line and brushwork are both fluid and accurate. He excels at rampant gestures.

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He accomplished much in his forty years. It is easy to see how his work influenced Beatrix Potter and other illustrators as well as Sendak. I recommend The Randolph Caldecott Society UK and the Randolph Caldecott Society of America if you want to learn more about his life and art.

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A long, winding book road

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It began as a ditty in my head over 25 years ago:

There once was a Christmas crocodile

A crocka-a-crocka-a-crocodile

Who said with a wicked and cunning smile

“I shall eat the Christmas tree

unless, you see,

I get exactly what I want.”

Seven years later it had morphed into a prose story about a crocodile who eats up Christmas and begins: The Christmas Crocodile didn’t mean to be bad, not really. Alice Jayne found him on Christmas Eve under the tree. He wore a red bow around his neck. It was lovely. Except he ate it.

A few years later Simon & Schuster bought it. Caldecott-winning artist David Small miraculously agreed to illustrate it and in the fall of 1998 it was published. It got a big glowing review by Judith Viorst in the New York Times; it was read on NPR by Daniel Pinkwater and on the QVC t.v. shopping channel; and it sold out that Christmas season.

Unfortunately, it was also orphaned. My editor, Stephanie Lurie, left Simon & Schuster. And without an in-house champion, The Christmas Crocodile was out of print by 2004.

And that seemed to be that.

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But I kept hearing from people how much they loved the book. That it was a Christmas favorite, a Christmas tradition at their house. I just knew it was a good book. It was illustrated by David Small, for heaven’s sake. It shouldn’t have died so soon.

So I tried numerous times over the years to get a publisher interested in a re-issue, but it’s an almost impossible goal. Publishers generally don’t like to re-issue some other publisher’s book. If that publisher couldn’t make a go of it, how could they? is the reasoning. For a while, Simon & Schuster even considered reissuing it themselves.

But it seemed like good old Croc was doomed to out-of-print status until I happened to be chatting with Nancy Pearl at an event[i] and she mentioned that she had a new line of “rediscovered” books coming out.

Nancy is probably the best-known librarian in the world. She regularly comments on books on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition. She has written a number of best-selling books, including Book Lust and Book Crush, recommending books she loves. Perhaps her most fun claim to fame is as the model for the Shushing Librarian action figure.

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She also finds out-of-print books for Amazon that she thinks deserve to be re-issued. A few years ago she set her sights on out-of-print kids books. You can imagine how eager I was to tell her about The Christmas Crocodile. Nancy asked to see a copy; she loved it and it went from there.

So my crocodile lives again re-printed by Two Lions Press, a division of Amazon. The team there, headed by editor Marilyn Brigham, did a beautiful job of it. With David Small’s approval, they developed a new cover for it, and it features a couple pages of introduction by Nancy. But otherwise it’s exactly like the original.

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It just came out this September and here’s hoping the book finds a second life!

By the way, if you have an out-of-print kid’s book and don’t have a chance of running into Nancy Pearl anytime soon, there is one press that specializes in re-issues of out-of-print kids books, Purple House Press.

Also, if you buy the book and would like a signed book plate, just let me know who you’d like me to sign it to and where to send it. You can contact me by leaving a comment here or by messaging me on Facebook.

[i] So this is a pitch for seemingly thankless tasks. Nancy and I were volunteer judges for the University of Washington Bookstore’s annual bookmark contest where kids design a bookmark. We judges pick the winners out of many hundreds of entries and these are printed up by the bookstore to hand out over the year. It’s fun, but one of those things that you don’t expect to further your career.

Unbelievable! Believable!

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So, it’s Wednesday night, I’m in Massachusetts visiting friends, and I go to sleep wondering who might be named this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. Maybe the perennial front runner, Haruki Murakami. Maybe the playwright, Tom Stoppard – wouldn’t that be wonderful? Maybe a poet…Paul Muldoon? Maybe (and most likely) someone I’ve never heard of, barely translated into English yet. And then we’ll all have to wait while American publishers scramble to get the work translated. This is what I fall asleep thinking about.

When I go out sleepy-headed in the morning to tell my friends good morning, one of them tells me that Bob Dylan has been named the Nobel Prize winner, and I smile because I think that is a sweet and silly little joke, and she says, “No, really, Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize.”

This is so far off the grid of possibilities I think I might be dreaming. Or maybe it’s a Let’s-Pull-Julie’s-Leg kind of moment.

I laugh again. “No, really” I hear her say again. I laugh again. But it begins to register. This is real. This is a fact. Bob Dylan has won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Now…I have always and forever loved Bob Dylan. My whole senior year of high school I listened to his records late at night in my bedroom when I was supposed to be asleep. I loved everything he wrote. But my first reaction to my friend’s news was, “But he’s a songwriter.”

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A fine songwriter, a wonderful songwriter, working old traditions into new ones, singing to us as Americans about who we used to be, who we are, what we face, and providing us with lyrical reminders of those things. But…BUT…the Nobel Prize? I thought about Seamus Heaney, Alice Munro, J. M. Coetzee, V.S. Naipaul.

Then a friend read me the beginning of David Remnick’s celebratory essay in the New Yorker:

God is a colossol joker, isn’t She? 

We went to bed last night having learned that the Man Who Will Not Go Away was, according to the Times, no mere purveyor of “locker-room talk”; no, he has been, in fact, true to his own boasts, a man of vile action. The Times report was the latest detail, the latest brushstroke, in the ever-darkening portrait of an American grotesque.

Then came the news, early this morning, that Bob Dylan, one of the best among us, a glory of the country and of the language, had won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Ring them bells! What an astonishing and unambiguously wonderful thing! There are novelists who still should win (yes, Mr. Roth, that list begins with you), and there are many others who should have won (Tolstoy, Proust, Joyce, Woolf, Nabokov, Auden, Levi, Achebe, Borges, Baldwin . . . where to stop?), but, for all the foibles of the prize and its selection committee, can we just bask for a little while in this one? The wheel turns and sometimes it stops right on the nose.

Okay, I thought. Permission simply to “bask.” And I’ve been doing just that. Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Unbelievable!  Read Remnick’s essay (link here) and think of the reasons why Dylan won. You can believe it’s believable, and you can bask.

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Today’s Poetry Friday round-up is being hosted by Irene Latham at Live Your Poem. Head over there to see what people are sharing.

And to read an exuberant celebration of Dylan’s prize, take a look at Jama Rattigan’s Alphabet Soup. 

 

 

What makes a good children’s book?

I dropped by Julie Paschkis’ the other day while I was searching for a topic for this blogpost. Her friend Marjorie was sitting at the kitchen table.

“Write about your favorite book as a child,” Marjorie suggested and began to tell us about her favorite, Little Bobo and His Blue Jacket. Marjorie had searched and searched for a copy in her adult years and luckily a friend found it. Marjorie keeps the book in a vault, but she had photos on her phone, which she delightedly showed us, spread by spread.

The story follows Little Bobo, a child elephant. He takes his blue jacket to a monkey for laundering. The monkey mishears and thinks Bobo wants the jacket shrunk. When the jacket no longer fits, Bobo goes from animal to animal hoping to find someone who will fit it. Many try with no success. Then the hippo wiggles into the shrunken jacket. Although it is too small for the hippo, trying it on stretches the jacket and lo and behold Bobo can fit it again!

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We agreed that, compared to today’s picture books, the text is wordy – maybe twice as long as is currently typical. The artwork is cute, as you can see: cartoony and sweet at the same time. The story seems unremarkable.

But something about that book resonated with that little girl at that moment in time. The child Marjorie and the Little Bobo book made a connection that has lasted a lifetime.  By the measure of belovedness ­­– the Marjorie Meter, I think we should call it – Little Bobo is a good children’s book.

• • • • •

Fellow children’s author Adam Gadwitz writes about what makes a good children’s book in the October 3 issue New Yorker magazine. He suggests several measures by which to judge, beginning with the financial measure, noting the Goosebumps series has sold over 350 million copies. He suggests others might rate a book for its social consciousness, on how “instructive or nutritive, often morally so” that it might be. And he brings up Bruno Bettelheim’s idea that a good children’s book helps the child reader find meaning in life.

Does a good children’s book have to work for adults as well? Gadwitz lets C.S. Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia published in the 1950s, answer: “… a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story. The good ones last.”

Gadwitz, who writes middle grade novels, has found two guides to his own writing. One is content-oriented: “I aspire to write books that are so exciting that my readers will want to devour every page, and are rich and thoughtful enough that every page will be worth devouring.”

The other, results-oriented: “If a child opens a book, reads every page, closes it, clutches it to his chest and says, ‘I love this book,’ then it is a good book.”

It’s good to be aware of these scales on which to measure a good children’s book:  financial success, social relevance, significance to a child’s understanding of life, accessibility to adults and kids, longevity, content and results.

But in the end I have to agree with Gadwitz. It’s content and results that matter.

Content – My favorite picture books are favorites for many different reasons. I love some of them because they have a wonderful voice, (like Harry and Lulu by Arthur Yorinks and illustrator Martin Matje, 1999);

some for the dance of text and art, (Emeline at the Circus by Marjory Priceman, 1999);

some for the expressive illustrations and shining story, (All the World by Liz Garton Scanlon and illustrator Marla Frazee, 2009);

some for a resonant theme, (Owl Babies by Martin Waddell and illustrator Patrick Benson, 1992);

and some for the characters, (Ben Clanton’s brand new Narwhal Unicorn of the Sea, 2016).

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All these content aspects of picture books are vital to the species. Every book has its own mix of these ingredients, stirred in in service to the story.

Results – In the end, Little Bobo and His Blue Jacket shines by measures of results as well as longevity. I would be so happy if, like Little Bobo, one of my books mattered to a reader across a lifetime.

Julie P mentioned Margery Clark’s The Poppy Seed Cakes. For me, it would be Maurice Sendak’s Little Bear. 

SO WHAT ABOUT YOU? Is there a book from your childhood that is still beloved by you? As people suggest them, I will add covers of other books that scored high on the Marjorie Meter.

From “hangtown”:

From Cathey Ballou Mealey:

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Childhood favorites of Deirdre O’Sullivan:

Favorites of Wendy Wahman: