Kids’ Corner: Caldecott Miscellany

While searching my computer files for something last week, I found reviews of some Caldecott winners that I wrote at various points in the past two years. Although these books are not, for the most part, books I’ve read aloud to my son, I still found them interesting. A few I had strong negative opinions of; they show that even books that earned the Caldecott award do become dated!

I hope there is some book here that interests you, whether you read it to a child or find the subject or art pleasing as an adult.

Historical Books

A River of Words by Jen Bryant and illustrated by Melissa Sweet (Caldecott Honor 2009) is a picture book biography of the poet William Carlos Williams. While the story of his life is interesting, my favorite part of this book are the incredible collages the illustrate it. Illustrator Melissa Sweet did extensive research about Williams’ life before she began work on the book. In the end, she used bits of old discarded books. The endpapers became the background for her paintings. Each page has some words from Williams’ poems: either cut-outs from a book, type-written, or handwritten somewhere on the page. These beautiful, detailed, and interesting collages help tell the story of a boy who became a doctor and yet still loved the times when he looked at words “…and shaped them into poems.” Highly recommended.

I’m rather conflicted by the next book. They Were Strong and Good by Robert Lawson (Caldecott Winner 1941) was not an enjoyable book to read. The illustrations were okay: strong, full-page, black-and-white pen and ink sketches. They were certainly better than my drawing talents, but nothing to be excited about in this day of full-color books. The story of the author’s ancestors is, I think, pretty boring, with racist undertones. In the language of the day (1940s), Lawson tells of the “colored” boys (slaves) his father played with in the South before he fought the Yankees in the Civil War and the “tame Indians” that bothered his mother outside her Minnesota home. Yes, he’s telling history; we shouldn’t censor history from our children. This book, as an award winner in the year it was published, tells us of the history and the attitudes still prevalent in the (relatively late years) of the 1940s. But this book is so boring and so inappropriately dated that it doesn’t seem to be the best book for teaching history to children in this day and age. True, it shows that even ordinary people did something good for their country, but since it is not a story of my ancestors, I have a hard time caring about his story. Not a recommended Caldecott book.

In a series of remarkable paintings on collages, Smoky Night by Eve Bunting and illustrated by David Diaz (Caldecott Winner 1995) shares the story of a boy in the midst of L.A. riots. When arsonists set the apartment building on fire, the neighborhood comes together, despite race. The story of the riots seemed rather violent for me, especially for a children’s book, and the writing behind the story was not impressive and in fact felt awkward (it was all told in present tense). However, the underlying message of Smoky Night was inspiring and the artwork deserving of recognition.


As with They Were Strong and Good, the illustrations in the first winner of the Caldecott Medal (awarded in 1938), Animals of the Bible, A Picture Book, are completely unimpressive in this day of endless choice in picture books. The text is simply verses of the King James Version of the Bible, selected by Helen Dean Fish. Fish selected verses that contain animals, but besides that, there is little relation between pages in the children’s book. It was illustrated by Dorothy P. Lathrop with simple black-and-white illustrations (the cover only has color). Yes, it’s my bias in a world of color, but they seem rather boring to me. This isn’t a book I’d choose to read to my son. I found the unrelated and uninspiring Bible verses to be boring and the illustrations failed to draw me in. (And I like Bible verses! I though a picture book of Bible animals would be fun for my little one!)

And yet a familiar religious story can be incredibly impressive when transferred, with talent, to a picture book. In Noah’s Ark (Caldecott Honor, 2003), Jerry Pinkney has creatively and faithfully captured the Biblical story of Noah using pencil, colored pencil, and watercolors. Many of the pictures are quite busy; while many Noah’s Ark stories I’ve seen have been cartoony, this one is realistic and mature. In the end, the only word I have describe the illustrations is “majestic.”  The artwork is impressive and the overall work complete and thorough.

Prayer for a Child by Rachel Field, illustrated by Elizabeth Orton Jones, is self-explanatory: it is a rhyming evening prayer a child might say over all the familiar things in her life: the milk and bread, the bed, the precious toys, her family, etc. I was not remarkably impressed with it, and yet, the illustrations are soft and friendly and appropriately realistic. Raisin (aged 18 months at the time we read this) was fascinated with the pictures of a little girl and familiar things: “milk!” he said when he saw the picture of the girl drinking some milk. “Shoes!” he said when he saw the shoes. He also liked the up-close faces of children. So while Prayer for a Child wasn’t a winner for me, my son certainly liked looking at the pictures.

Concept Books

1 is One by Tasha Tudor (Caldecott Honor 1957) has the careful and realistic illustrations that Tudor so delighted me with in A is for Annabelle (thoughts here). In 1 is One, we learn our numbers by viewing various scenes, from “one duckling swimming in a dish” to “nineteen flowers that little Jane has drawn” and “twenty geese flying towards the dawn.” I really liked the illustration, but I felt that A is for Annabelle had more of a connection (a doll and her accessories) that brought the entire book together. Tudor’s illustrations and rhymes don’t connect in this book.

I appreciate the ABC book idea behind the 1977 winner (Ashanti to Zulu: African Traditions, by Margaret Musgrove, and illustrated by Leo & Diane Dillon) but something about it fell flat for me. The illustrations, while detailed, also did not capture my interest; the colors were dull and the illustrations seemed out of focus. I suppose, as with many other picture books, this was a deliberate artistic technique; for me, it was not engaging. As for the subject, I loved the tidbits about African cultures. Since the author and illustrators spent years researching the cultures highlighted, I know I was reading something somewhat accurate. And yet, I was disappointed. I suppose it was because each of the twenty-six cultures was chosen to fit the alphabet, that only one or two traditions or stories were shared for each culture, and that I didn’t know anything else about each culture. The problem, then, was that this book just didn’t have enough. I would have loved to learn about the twenty-six largest cultures in Africa or the most important traditions: “African traditions” seems inappropriately broad for a book. Africa is an entire continent! Its indigenous culture deserves more than twenty-six three-sentence tributes.


I loved Seven Simeons: A Russian Tale, retold and illustrated by Boris Artzybasheff (Caldecott Honor 1938). In a style reminiscent of the Brother’s Grimm, seven brothers with seven remarkable talents aid in securing a bride for a good-looking young king. Artzybasheff’s illustrations are spare penned drawings, but they contain rich detail and bright colors. My only complaint is that there were not enough illustrations for the text-heavy pages. Nevertheless, this is highly recommended.

Shadow by Marcia Brown comes from “conversations with shamans in their villages, from storytellers around the fires in Africa that is passing into memory.” It is a poem first written in French, and I wonder if it made more sense in French. An Amazon reviewer says it is a book meant to “entrance” and is not for children who need plot! I’m definitely in the later category and was looking for plot. I didn’t like the poem, and while the bright collage artwork with dark shadows is intriguing, the lack of connection between pages quickly made me lose interest in this 1982 Caldecott winner.

The 1975 Caldecott winner, Arrow to the Sun by Gerald McDermott, is a Pueblo Indian tale, with bright geometric illustrations. The story is somewhat interesting, and I only wish I knew more about what it means to the Pueblo Indians: I felt a bit lost at the end. I didn’t love the illustrations; they remind me of early computer graphics (although it should be noted that the book indicates that the art was produced by gouache and ink). It just wasn’t my style, but I suppose the geometric approach was appropriate given the folkloric subject.


I think the 1939 Caldecott Winner, Mei  Li by Thomas Handforth, shows how the ordinary can be extraordinary. In deceptively simple illustrations (etchings and lithographs), Handforth tells the story of a little girl in North China who searches for adventures in the Great Square in the city. It has its faults; most notably, it shows severe gender stereotyping. In the beginning, the little girl is told repeatedly that there is nothing for “a little girl” to do at the city (I was noticing emphasis on the “little” and then I realized that in 1939, the emphasis was probably on the “girl”). And then “girls can’t be actors.” In the end, she thinks, “Surely no kingdom could be as nice as home,” and the kitchen god tells her that her kingdom will be at home. Besides that, the Chinese traditions discussed may  possibly be stereotypical or incorrect: I don’t know enough to say. Nonetheless, I still enjoyed the little tale, thinking about 1930s China before the revolution, and I liked the illustrations very much.

Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey won the 1942 Caldecott Medal, and yet its story is timeless. I love the story about a family of ducks in Boston. While the illustration do reveal “older” looking cars, and I didn’t notice as a kid and I don’t care today: I love this book. It’s lovingly illustrated with pencil sketches, and I very much enjoy the realistic birds and setting. Even though I’m not from Boston, it’s clear that McCloskey has lovingly illustrated an accurate setting. Raisin and I own this book and I read it to him occasionally (he doesn’t love it as much as I do). He loves the sound of all the ducks names (Jack, Kack, Lack, Mack, Nack, Ouack, Pack, and Quack) and thinks it is fun when I try to say them all really quickly in one breath.

The illustrations in The Hello, Goodbye Window by Norton Juster, illustrated by Chris Raschka (Caldecott Winner 2006), are wonderful: child-like illustrations done in water color, crayon and marker illustrated a story told by a child. I loved the illustrations, for despite the child-like feel to them, they were intricate and detailed. The story is a fun account, especially for grandparents to read to children. A little girl tells us of her overnight visit to Nanna and Poppy’s house, and all the wonderful things about it, from a young child’s perspective. (“When I get tired I come in and take my nap and nothing happens until I get up.”)

When I saw the title for the 1981 Caldecott Winner, I figured Arnold Lobel had illustrated some of Aesop’s fables. No, Fables by Arnold Lobel is a collection of completely new fables, appropriate for our day. In the Aesopic tradition, there is a one line moral at the end of each one page tale. And yet, these are fun, and the one-page illustration accompanying each tale is likewise fun. My favorite fable was the one illustrated on the cover: a bear wanted to be “in fashion” when he went in to town, so he took the advice of a crow as he dressed.

Which of these books have you read? Do you think children’s picture books can be “dated” and become inappropriate for children?

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.

  1. Have you picked up on the fact that I have a “thing” for these medal-winners? I’m not quite as versed in the Caldecott world as the Newbery, but I have a few of these in my collection. My thoughts on Arrow to the Sun and Animals of the Bible are basically the same as yours. I, too, love Make Way for Ducklings, but I’m not quite as wild about The Hello Goodbye Window as my kids. And I just received A River of Words from a friend, and I LOVE it! It really is lovely. Any prophecies on 2010’s winner? I think Chalk by Bill Thomson is great, but I fear the whole pictures-only thing has been captured by Wiesner and Rohmann too often. In fact, Wiesner’s new one has been getting some buzz already. My very favorite Caldecott winner is Where the Wild Things Are. I know the award is all about the art, which is remarkable, but this whole book is perfect. The rhythm, the cadence, the feeling, the scene, the pace – it is flawless. Thanks for letting me think about these lovelies!

    1. Sara C (wordyevidenceofthefact), yeay! I do love the awards thing too so I’m so glad to hear that I’m not just throwing my thoughts off into cyberspace alone. I suspect you’d feel similarly to THEY WERE STRONG AND GOOD. (one Amazon reviewer put it well: “well, they were strong anyway”). I should revisit THE HELLO GOODBYE WINDOW now that my son is older, I think he’ll love the “visiting the grandparents” story. I love the art in that one.

      As for this year’s winner: I’m still only half way through the Cybils nominees (not that the Caldecott will be one of them, but it has been the last few years), but a few stand out already. I think CITY DOG COUNTRY FROG is absolutely excellent, I think it deserves a win, and that’s the one I’m hoping for. Some of those pictures I’d frame on my wall (the winter one where the dog is all alone, so sad and beautiful). Plus a bonus is I love the story. I like CHALK (son likes it very much) and think the art remarkable (but I think you are right that the wordless picture book is kind of overdone shh don’t tell anyone). ART AND MAX (the Weisner one) is just weird. I don’t particularly like it. I know the Caldecott is all about art but I have a hard time, when I read a picture book, separating art from story: it’s for kids after all, and I read it in terms of being (1) a mom and (2) a mom of a 3yr old. I want to find books that both of us like! Maybe older kids would like ART AND MAX more. How old are your kids?

      1. I totally agree about the art being difficult to separate from the story. Like WTWTA, the best ones do both well. I also most admire those excellent books that are written AND illustrated by the same creative soul. But yes, I read children’s books as a writer, a critic, an appreciator of art/illustration, but also as a mom (daughter is almost 6; son is almost 4). Sometimes I can see where my kids will love a book that I don’t love, and some I like a lot more than my kids. For instance, I haven’t read it with my kids yet, but I think A River of Words will be more my deal than theirs – because I have an existing appreciation for WCW. On the flip side, even though I think The Magic Treehouse books are formulaic and poorly written, my kids LOVE them, and I have grown to appreciate the comfort kids can draw from the simple formulas that are transparent and boring to a more advanced reader.

        1. Sara (wordyevidenceofthefact), I forgot to mention one of my favorite books from the past year. I don’t think it will win the Caldecott for illustrations but it is so great. LMNO Peas by Keith Baker.

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