Lifestyle

Caldecott book awards recognize innovation

Galen Longstreth
Children's Books

Each year the American Library Association (ALA) awards the Caldecott Medal to the illustrator of the year’s “most distinguished American picture book for children” (www.ala.org.) Classic examples of Caldecott winners include Robert McCloskey for Make Way for Ducklings and Maurice Sendak for Where the Wild Things Are. Both of these stories fit the traditional model for a picture book, with an average length of 32 pages, a large size designed for shared readings, and illustrations dominating the space of each page. In January, the ALA announced that a 533-page book had received the Caldecott for 2008. The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick includes 284 illustrated pages and rivals “Harry Potter” in heft. It looks nothing like a picture book — until you open it. Inside you find lengthy illustrated portions alternating with sections of prose, which combine to tell Hugo’s story, set in Paris in 1931.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a groundbreaking choice on the part of the ALA. I applaud any award committee’s efforts to bring attention to books that move beyond traditional forms. Hugo, in particular, which looks like a novel but relies equally on text and pictures, may be representative of a recent trend to incorporate illustration into children’s books in new ways.

Susan Schade and Jon Buller take a unique approach to illustration in their middle-grade Fog Mound series, the third book of which, Simon’s Dream, is expected in stores this June. The series follows the adventures of Thelonious, a talking chipmunk who lives at a time so far in the future that human existence is part of his society’s mythology, with no evidence to prove it. If this wonderful premise isn’t enough to entice readers, the alternating chapters of prose and comics might just do the trick. The combination of the two forms works to the story’s best advantage when Buller’s drawings show the action-packed scenes and Schade’s prose (with some illustrations interspersed) relates the descriptive, reflective moments — the moments when this particular author’s language really shines.

Megan McDonald also uses comics in her chapter book series, Stink, inserting single page strips between chapters. These short graphic sequences — designed as if they were drawn by the second-grade narrator, Stink — are packed with information. We find facts about bad smells in Stink and the World’s Worst Super-Stinky Sneakers and idiomatic phrases in Stink and the Super-Galactic Jawbreaker. They also provide a little break for children who are still practicing reading longer texts. Stink is an inquisitive, hop-to-it kind of kid, a creative problem solver with a great sense of humor, and his comics make his books all the more fun. Look for the fourth book in the series, Stink and the Great Guinea Pig Express, to be published this month.

Jeff Kinney also gives us a narrator with artistic talent in The Diary of a Wimpy Kid and its sequel, Rodrick Rules, two hilarious novels for kids ages 8 to 12. Greg, the narrator, draws and writes in his diary. Although it is common to see illustrated middle grade novels (think of Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White, for example), the illustrations usually provide a visual representation of what the author has already described. Instead of repeating his text with illustration, Greg shows more details in his drawings than the words tell us.

Kinney’s text alone might satisfy readers because it is so funny, but a deeper, more nuanced reading requires the drawings. Kinney’s work is very convincing. Just as the voice of the narrative is believably that of a middle school boy, so is the artwork — or at least we are willing to believe it because we like the story so much. Kinney achieves the necessary balance of sophistication and inexperience.

Another successful example of the integration of text and illustration is Sherman Alexie’s first novel for young adults, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which won the 2007 National Book Award. Ellen Forney’s illustrations add layers of attitude, emotion, and metaphor to Junior’s story about leaving his reservation to attend high school.

Innovative authors and illustrators are finding new ways to write novels, combining pictures and words in ways such that both are necessary for a full understanding of the story. I hope that Hugo’s new award-winning status will help draw attention to books like the ones discussed above, that Selznick’s book can act as a kind of bridge between picture books and novels. But I’m not convinced that the story Selznick tells meets the ALA’s criteria for “excellence in quality.” To be sure, the illustrations are outstanding. But the story, especially its prose components, I found to be repetitive, unfocused, and, at points, downright dry. For now, I will have to accept this uncomfortable reality, that sometimes a book will be important enough to deserve an award, even if it isn’t of the highest quality. The Invention of Hugo Cabret can be a model for much better books.

Galen Longstreth is an MFA student at Vermont College. She can be reached at glongstr@gmail.com.

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