Caldecott & Newbery: Reflections

On November 21 and November 22nd  the Raleigh News and Observer and Charlotte Observer published my thoughts about two of this year’s award-winning children’s books–the piece follows below.

Writing about the American Library Awards allows me to re-read, re-think and reflect. My thoughts on the 2014 Caldecott for best illustrations and Newbery Awards for longer books follow.

Brian Floca’s Locomotive won the Caldecott Award (Atheneum, ages 6-10). The narrative nonfiction moves full throttle into a rich journey following an unnamed family’s 1896 journey from Omaha to Sacramento on the new Transcontinental Railroad. Along the way Floca reveals myriad facets of traveling west, beginning with a sensory view of the railroad’s construction “with a grunt and a heave and a swing/ with the ring of shovels on stone/ the ring of hammers on spikes: clank, clank clank.” Along the way readers meet those who run the train, the mechanics of its operation, and the thrill of chugging through the landscape.

Floca’s illustrations thoughtfully integrate the story with visual depictions of the fictional family, and typography as varied as the journey itself. One detailed watercolor spread shows the iron horse dominating every inch of the right side, while on the left, the family is comparatively dwarfed. Smoke billows across the top, uniting the two images. While the Caldecott Award only rewards illustrations, I prefer the honorees like “Locomotive” that eloquently blend words and pictures. The stanzas of text represent its lyricism and pictures sing with sophistication. The oversized book holds a breadth of ideas and an expansive range of illustrations and writing. When trends extol 600-word picture books, this author-illustrator lets readers luxuriate in the full lushness of his artistry.

Kate DiCamillo won her second Newbery Medal for Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures” (Candlewick, ages 8 and up). The book begins with a comic strip wherein an unsuspecting squirrel is sucked into a vacuum cleaner. This heralds originality in structure, plot and style. Switching to a more conventional text with illustrations, the author witnesses the squirrel’s transformed thinking, his “brain felt larger, roomier … as if several doors in the dark room of his self had suddenly been flung wide.”

Who can believe this wackiness? The 10-year-old, comic-devotee and natural-born cynic Flora Belle Buckman, who knows superheroes are “born of ridiculous and unlikely circumstances.” Flora (thanks to DiCamillo) has a masterful command of wit, words and layered meaning. The sensory description of Flora’s mother speaking while sucking a Pitzer Pop with “sound rocky and sharp-edged” succinctly represents the self-absorbed woman who cares more for her shepherdess lamp with a “pink-cheeked smirk plastered on her face” than for her brilliant daughter.

The book works at several levels. Sophisticated readers can plumb levels of longing and loss. Young readers will be drawn to the cheerful humor and slapstick that aid the author in deftly avoiding pathos. How can you be sad when your best friend is a squirrel who can fly, lift a vacuum and type poetry? DiCamillo sprinkles her chapters with Flora’s favorite comic book quotes, “Holy Bagumba!” and “Holy unanticipated occurrences!” Both describe the book perfectly.



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