This upcoming weekend at the American Library Association (ALA) Conference, many of the greatest books of 2017 will receive recognition in special ceremonies. Here is another round of applause for a quartet of amazing books that will be receiving some top illustrator prizes. Congratulations again to the recipients, and thanks for your supermegaawesome books!
The 2018 Caldecott Winner (my review originally ran February 17, 2017):
Wolf in the Snow, illustrated and written by Matthew Cordell, Feiwel & Friends, 978-1250076366. First of all let me say I love wolves. So any book that gives me a great wolf story rises to the top of my “favorites” pile. This poignant, near wordless tale depicts the bond that quickly develops between a brave young girl wearing a Little Red Riding Hood style jacket and a scared wolf cub separated from its pack on a cold, snowy day. Cordell’s work is always a joy, but here he does something brand new with his pen and ink with watercolor art, and the result is a book that gives the reader goosebumps. Cordell serves up two linked storylines that merge as we cut back and forth between the huffing, shivering girl walking home from school and the little wolf who falls increasingly behind its elders. When the two characters meet on an unforgettable series of spreads, we see a bond form. And yet, we don’t get a cutesy revelation that the wolf wants to hang with humans. The reader knows, and the girl knows that she must reunite the frightened animal with its pack, and a real sense of urgency develops. Cordell gives the work the feel of a timeless fable as the kid saves the creature from a variety of dangers, and is then rewarded later by the wolves who come to her aid. His masterful use of double page spreads deepens the tension of the unfolding events. And I love how he puts the girl (holding the cub) and an adult wolf parent in circular frames as they face each other–her eyes wide with terror as the baby wolf howls–they share a connection but nature separates them. This keeps the book from becoming too saccharine; there’s a sense of danger here. The humans in the story look stylized in their oversized coats, but Cordell renders the wolves more realistically, and the effect adds punch. The book’s final third is emotionally satisfying as we see an appreciative lick from the saved wolf cub and howls from its elders that save her life. Matthew Cordell’s Wolf in the Snow is simply one fantastic book, and will certainly make my list of the very best of 2017.
The 2018 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Winner (my review originally ran March 20, 2017):
Out of Wonder: Poems Celebrating Poets, illustrated by Ekua Holmes, poems by Kwame Alexander, Chris Colderley, and Marjory Wentworth, published by Candlewick, ISBN: 978-0-7636-8094-7. Usually this blog looks at picture books for younger readers, but also I love giving shout outs to longer illustrated books that are truly special. Out of Wonder: Poems Celebrating Poets falls into that truly special category, a brilliant collection of poems by three poets at the top of their game paying tribute to (and writing in the style) of a wide variety of celebrated poets. Kwame Alexander, Chris Colderley, and Marjory Wentworth write about a range of topics including “How to Write a Poem” (Alexander’s homage to Naomi Shihab Nye), the beauty of the Chilean forest (Wentworth’s celebration of Pablo Neruda), and the work of Sandra Cisneros (a lovely ode by Colderley). If these wonderful creations weren’t enough, we have Ekua Holmes’ vibrant, brilliant collages giving the book a lush visual beauty, lifting the title to a whole new level of awesomeness. Holmes, who received a 2016 Coretta Scott King John Steptoe Award for New Illustrator Award and a 2016 Caldecott Honor for the great Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement (written by the fabulous Carole Boston Weatherford), does a beautiful job capturing the essence of each work. Just look at her rich, jazzy illustration accompanying Alexander’s poem “Hue and Cry” (a brilliant tip of the hat to Gwendolyn Brooks): a woman sits at a piano, giant flower in her hair, colorful cascading dress, surrounded by music notes on a page, a person playing a saxophone in the right hand of the side of the spread–an explosion of orange and reds. It might be my favorite illustration of the year so far. What Holmes shows here is versatility: a snowy scene with children catching snowflakes on their tongues follows a serene scene of a pensive girl in pink pondering the creation of a haiku while rain pours outside her window (dig those pink flowers that almost match her shirt). This emerges as one of those magical projects where all the pieces come together beautifully–lovely language and compelling art that make this a true feast of the senses, a work of joy and, yes, wonder.
The 2018 Pura Belpré Illustrator Award Winner (my review originally ran November 2, 2017):
La Princesa and the Pea, illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal, written by Susan Middleton Elya, published by G.P. Putnam & Son’s, ISBN: 978-0399251566.
Sometimes an illustrator and author can take a classic tale and make it feel fresh and brand new. By taking The Princess and the Pea and giving it what the book jacket calls a “Latino twist,” the gifted artist Martinez-Neal and writer Elya (her words have a spring in their step) bring a sense of playful joy to the tale of a prince who wants to marry a young woman of whom his mother does not approve. Elya laces the bilingual text with Spanish words (a helpful glossary appears at the book’s start). The story zips from one plot point to the next, with Elya serving up some dramatic tension but also wrapping the reader with a warm but never cloying “it’ll be okay” sense of humor that comforts. Martinez-Neal’s delightful art, created with acrylics, colored pencils, and graphite on handmade textured paper, gives us a compelling cast of human (and in scene-stealing supporting roles, animal) characters who make us giggle with their expressions (the queen’s grumpiness is hilarious, especially when she has an equally grumpy cat sitting on her head). The scene with the princess lying on a pile of colorful mattresses is a sly wonder to behold. Many retellings of folk tales and fairy tales hit shelves every year; this is one of the very best.
And the book that received a 2018 Coretta Scott King Author Honor, Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor, Caldecott Honor, and Newbery Honor (plus an Ezra Jack Keats Award)–my review originally ran October 2, 2017:
Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut, illustrated by Gordon C. James, written by Derrick Barnes, published by Bolden (A Denene Millner Book/An Agate Imprint), ISBN: 978-1572842243. Release date: October 10, 2017.
Some books feel like instant classics the moment you read them. Some books offer such joy they give you a lift. Some books feel thrilling, alive, and new. Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut is that kind of book, a burst of energy that makes you so happy it exists. Author Derrick Barnes writes in an afterword that he wanted to capture the experience of black and brown boys visiting barber shops, receiving amazing haircuts, and leaving with heads held high and with elevated self-esteem. His witty, vibrant prose certainly excels at sharing what a trip to “the shop” feels like, with its second person narration and thrilling sense of urgency. Barnes writes that “you came in as a lump of clay/a blank canvas, a stab of marble” and that the barber is an artist who will treat you like royalty, draping you with a cape, turning you into a Dark Caesar. This is motivational and inspirational writing at its very best, designed to appeal to young guys by putting things in terms that they understand. Barnes avoids sappiness by throwing in funny lines about how you, after getting your fresh cut, become such a star people are “going to have to wear shades/when they look up to catch your shine.”
And I love Gordon C. James’ art in this book. It matches the exuberance, warmth and wit of Barnes’ text while (save one surreal moment of a boy’s head becoming the aforementioned cosmic star) keeping things real. The expression on the boy’s face on the very first page gets us ready for the title’s playfulness: a boy stands with his held up high, smile on his face, slyly giving the reader a sideways glance. This is followed by a more contemplative double spread as the kid walks to the barber chair where the genius barber waits with the royal cape. A flip of the page gives you two images of the boy achieving great things with his new cut, holding achievement ribbons on one side, and (mentioned before) literally becoming a superstar in the cosmos on the other. Then Barnes and James broaden the experience by giving us moments inside the shop, with other customers (grown men) getting cuts of their own. All the while, Barnes’ words compel, and James’ inventive art serves up memorable image after memorable image. The visit results in a fab fresh cut for the boy, with the shop’s other guests wanting to give his new look a standing o. At the very end, as the boy leaves the shop, more “magnificent” and “flawless” (“like royalty”) than before, we have to flip the book so it is vertical. This is extremely effective when delivering the book’s empowering message. The boy appears to be larger than life, brimming with confidence and life. “Hello, world…” Simply one of the year’s best, about a specific cultural experience, but universal to the max.