A Caldecott Celebration by Leonard Marcus

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In A Caldecott Celebration: Six Artists and Their Paths to the Caldecott Medal, Leonard Marcus illustrates the long road six Caldecott illustrators followed to produce to an award-winning book. This book is a combination of biography and art history as it looks at how six artists approached children’s book illustration over the last six decades.

I love the children’s books Marcus highlights, and it was truly fascinating to learn the stories behind them. The books he highlights are these (one for each decade).

  • Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey (1942 Caldecott Medal winner)
  • Cinderella by Marcia Brown (1955 winner)
  • Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak (1964 winner)
  • Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig (1970 winner)
  • Jumanji by Chris Van Allsburg (1982 winner)
  • Tuesday by David Weisner (1992 winner)

I learned so many interesting facts. For example, Make Way for Ducklings was based on a real story in Boston: ducks stopped traffic as they headed for the park. Also, Maurice Sendak rewrote Where the Wild Things Are many times, trying to get it right. (He finally realized he could let the pictures do the talking, and I’m glad he did because it is a great book without lots of dense text.)

I loved to learn the background of the illustrators to see how they got to the award-winning books they illustrated. Who would have thought of putting monkeys in the kitchen but Chris Van Allsburg? (A fan letter, quoted in this book, said “I think you are weird but great.”) Marcia Brown came from a poor family and had to work her way through art school because she really wanted it: how appropriate that she won the award, then, for her Cinderella.

More than that, though, I was once again fascinated by the printing processes for children’s books in the middle of the last century. McCloskey was told he couldn’t do his in color because it would be too expensive. Brown’s colors had to be perfectly mixed to get the right look. Steig painted each of his colors separately so they could be reproduced properly.

I was likewise fascinated by the intricate research required for a children’s picture book. McCloskey he spent months studying ducks and even raised ducks in his bathtub, and David Wiesner created a clay frog so he could get the look right in Tuesday. Illustrating children’s picture books is a serious job, and it was fascinating to learn about it.

If you are interested in the Caldecott winners or children’s picture book illustration in general, I’d highly recommend A Caldecott Celebration. It’s short (less than 50 pages), and I can only wish this covered many more of the Caldecott winners: One a decade didn’t satisfy my curiosity!

Note: I read the 1997 edition of this book, which is all my library had; a new edition highlighting a winner from the next decade (The Man Who Walked Between the Towers by Mordicai Gerstein; 2004 winner) has recently been published.

Reviewed on March 29, 2009

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

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