Win the Caldecott medal, which the American Library Association has been awarding annually since 1938 for "the most distinguished picture book for children," and you join the august company of artists such as Robert McCloskey, Ludwig Bemelmans, Alice and Martin Provensen, Barbara Cooney, Maurice Sendak, and Margot Zemach. Even runners-up were giants in the field--Peter Sis, John Steptoe, William Steig and their like--truly, a Pantheon.
The 2003 Winner is Eric Rohmann, for a merry tale of a well-meaning, bad-luck-rabbit who brings on chaos as he tries to retrieve his little mouse friend's airplane, which he'd sent loop-the-looping exuberantly into a tree-top. The text in My Friend Rabbit is suitably spare, and in the manner of Sendak's great Where the Wild Things Are (but without the nuance), words disappear entirely in the wild action middle pages. The New York lingo, "Not to worry," is repeated thrice, thus comprising 11 percent of the book's 80 words--hardly ingratiating.
Of the illustrations, the ALA quotes the dust jacket to say merely that they're "hand colored relief prints." I, and children I sometimes do things with, want to know if they're lino or woodcuts. In any case, they're fun and funny, and generous in spirit. But hardly memorable.
There are three runners-up Caldecott Honor Books. Peter McCarty’s Hondo & Fabian is a heart-warming and magical trip. Hondo, the dog who has a dog friend, and Fabian, the cat who has a "baby" friend, move in one day through poetical color-pencil sand dunes and seashore, through home and shadow and light and texture. With spellbinding reticence, McCarty's soft-focus world displays the discoveries from the viewpoint of a two-year-old--the small play, the brand-new miracles of perspective, of shadow and light, of wind, and of sudden appearances around corners. Big truths from a small angle. I must think of Emily Dickinson. There is a deep and everlasting humor, and, tonally, an impression of rich whiteness which, actually, is never white at all. The whole as pregnant as a Haiku.
Aspects of the next honor book are baffling from the outset. The fault may very well be the publisher's. On its cover, The Spider and the Fly announces itself "based on the cautionary tale by Mary Howitt." In fact, far from being "based on," this text is precisely Mary Howitt's poem, verbatim, as first published in 1829. Here it is strikingly illustrated by Tony Diterlizzi. After the story, there are two additional pages--three coy paragraphs by” Spider," a blurb about the illustrator, and two paragraphs about the author.
Howitt's tale turns out to be surprisingly durable, beginning in a sinister voice:
"Will you walk into my parlor?"
said the Spider to the fly.
"'Tis the prettiest little parlor that ever you did spy;
The way into my parlor is up a winding stair,
And I have many curious things to show you when you are there."
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DiTerlizzi's illustrations move in guise of an old black-and-white silent movie, with white subtitles appearing silvery against the shiny black Victorian-haunted-house setting of the book. The victim "Fly" is a flapper-era young lady, gauzy-winged, bug-eyed and naive. Spider is a predatory eight-legged, round-bellied inveigler wearing alternately a morning coat, a top hat, and a Jack-the-Ripper cape.
"Will you rest upon my little bed?…There are pretty curtains drawn around; the sheets are fine and thin," wheedles the arachnid villain as ghosts of victims past glide foggily across the fly motif wallpaper. At first Miss Fly resists appeals to her vanity, but Alas! the silly thing returns, to meet her deadly end.
At book's end we're told that DiTerlizzi finds inspiration in film noir and (with jolly bonhomie) in the work of the late "Ed Gorey." Gorey and I collaborated closely on 3 books. As far as I know Gorey was "Edward," except for friends, for whom he was always “Ted." For one of the books we did together in the 60's, Gorey framed a black margin on the cover with a little fly in each corner. It makes me nostalgic to now find a little fly in each corner of the frame on DiTerlizzi's cover--perhaps a homage?
Finally, Jerry Pinkney has justifiably been much honored for his virtuoso watercolor illustrations for 40 years. The Coretta Scott King award has been his four times, and he was the U.S. nominee for the Hans Christian Andersen Illustration Award for lifetime achievement. Combine Pinkney's genius with one of the best-ever stories for children--Noah's Ark--and you've got to have a winner. And Pinkney's version is rich indeed. The opening pages of his Noah's Ark begin the fun by depicting a mammoth and a dinosaur--suggesting something I can't decipher about evolution. Thenceforward Pinkney loads every page with teeming life, the animals in two's, the European Noah and his dependents, a monumental ark--the whole epic beginning ominously prophetic with a Near Eastern going up in black smoke and flames. Pinkney--especially his fauna--engrossingly set forth the end of a sinful world and the promise of a fruitful and peaceful future.
Pinkney's book is an eminently worthy Caldecott. And still...and still...for unsurpassed wit and draftsmanship in the Noah story, I'd recommend Peter Spier's 1978 Caldecott-winning Noah's Ark, and for dazzling and unsurpassed elegance, Lizbeth Zwerger's Noah's Ark (1998).
And as runners-up, J. Patrick Lewis and Reg Cartwright's beautiful The Boat of Many Rooms, Arthur Geisert's The Ark (1988) and its sequel, After the Flood (1994).
Whatever the discussable merits of the 2003 Caldecotts, one may wonder whether this year's Committee was aware of one of Ed Young's most beautiful books (What About Me?) or of the striking new work by woodcut artist, Stephen Huneck (Sally Goes to the Farm). The Caldecott Committee's annual disdain for off-beat Arthur Geisert has become a ritual (The Giant Ball of String). Even more inexcusable is that two of the long-time greatest American illustrators ever--Eric Carle and Ashley Bryan--have never received a Caldecott. Only the Caldecotts awards themselves are diminished.
Peter F. Neumeyer, Ph.D., has taught at Harvard, Stony Brook, San Diego State, and other universities both in the United States and in Europe. He has written numerous books for grownups and children, and for six years had a children's book review column in The Boston Globe. His most recent books are The Collector of Moments and The Annotated Charlotte's Web (HarperCollins, 1994).