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Janet's Literature Reviews
Picture Books



A Caldecott Celebration
     by Leonard S. Marcus

Marcus, Leonard S. 1998. A Caldecott celebration: Six artists and their paths to the Caldecott medal. New York: Walker and Company. ISBN: 0802786588.

A CALDECOTT CELEBRATION is an informative book written by Leonard S. Marcus that depicts the lives and careers of six Caldecott Award winners.  The book was written to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Caldecott Award, a prestigious award given to an American children's book illustrator.  The illustrators honored by this book are: Robert McCloskey, Marcia Brown, Maurice Sendak, William Steig, Chris Van Allsburg, and David Wiesner.  The author chose to recognize one illustrator from each decade of the award's existence. 


The author, Leonard Marcus, gives the reader an introduction to the Caldecott Award; how it is chosen, who sits on the committee that makes the yearly selection, and the benefits of being a Caldecott winner.  The book contains a list of all the Caldecott winners from 1938-1998 which is a wonderful resource to teachers and librarians.  A glossary and an index are also included in the book.


The biographies of each illustrator focus less on their early lives or their decisions to become book illustrators and more on the process of illustrating a book that eventually becomes a Caldecott winner.  The author uses dialogue and stories to add details about the illustrators that are not only entertaining, but informative as is evident in Robert McCloskey's biography.  McCloskey, the author/illustrator of MAKE WAY FOR DUCKLINGS, spent over two years studying ducks.  Still not satisfied with his illustrations, McCloskey brought home 16 live ducks to live in his apartment in Greenwich Village.  Marc Simont, also an artist and his roommate at the time, recalls, "[Ducks] wake up at the break of day and don't want you to sleep anymore either.  They raised a terrible racket."  Because of the ducks constant quacking, McCloskey eventually changed the names of the ducks to the more appropriate names: Jack, Kack, Lack, Mack, Nack, Ouack, Pack , and Quack.  The other artist invested as much time, research, and preparation before they were ready to begin their final drawings.


The illustrations in the book are an integral part of the book.  Examples of rough sketches, more detailed sketches from the illustrator's dummy books, and then the very detailed drawings that are used to produce the final product are included in A CALDECOTT CELEBRATION.  These illustrations help to show the detailed process that is necessary to produce books of such high quality.  The author includes two interesting illustrations by Maurice Sendak, the author of WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, that show how the illustrator continually changes and improves upon his drawing up to the last minute.


As a reference book, A CALDECOTT CELEBRATION is an excellent source of interesting facts that will add sparkle to any teacher's introduction and reading of one of the included Caldecott books.  The teacher or librarian may even read the appropriate chapter to older students as a complement to the actual Caldecott winner.  The book would also be appropriate to use in art classes for the dedicated art student at the high school or college level.


The Polar Express
     by Chris Van Allsburg

Van Allsburg, Chris. 1985. The polar express. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. ISBN: 039538496.

THE POLAR EXPRESS is the Caldecott Award winner for 1986.  The author/illustrator also won the Caldecott for his book JUMANJI in 1982.  THE POLAR EXPRESS opens late on Christmas Eve with a little boy quietly lying in bed after a discussion with a friend about the existence of Santa Claus.  The Polar Express, a steam train, mysteriously arrives on his front lawn.  The boy boards the train and with all the other pajama-clad children, they begin their journey to the North Pole "where Santa will give the first gift of Christmas."  The children are greeted by hundreds of elves and they see Santa's reindeer with bells hanging from their harnesses.  According to the little boy, the silver bells made a "magical sound, like nothing I'd ever heard."  The little boy is chosen to receive the first gift of Christmas from Santa Claus and he chooses a silver bell.  He places the bell in his bathrobe pocket.  On his train ride home, he discovers a hole in his pocket and the bell missing.  Christmas morning arrives and the silver bell is in the last gift he opens, along with a note from Mr. C.  When he shakes the bell, it makes a sound only the little boy and his sister can hear.


THE POLAR EXPRESS is not typical of most Christmas stories with illustrations full of bright reds and greens.  Santa and the elves are wearing red and green but the colors used by the artist are muted and soft.  Van Allsburg's illustrations are realistic, but simple.  He places most of the emphasis on a few objects or characters in the foreground and he is a minimalist when he draws his muted backgrounds.  The story takes place at night, so the author uses light to draw attention to objects such as the train going through the dark forest or the little boy sitting in his room.  The use of light on most pages gives a dramatic effect because it emphasizes the darkness of the night and adds interest to each illustration because of the shadows produced.


THE POLAR EXPRESS has a mystical, magical quality throughout the story with the train magically appearing in the boy's front yard and the lost bell appearing on Christmas morning.  The story is told from the first-person point of view of the little boy which seems to give credibility to the tale.  The story is written as a flashback to the time when the narrator was a little boy.  At the end of the story the narrator adds, "Though I've grown old, the bell still rings for me as it does for all who truly believe."  With this one statement, the author gives the impression that this story is being retold by an old man. 


Though the story is mysterious and dark, this story should not frighten younger children because the Santa is kind and loving.  The children, on a very strange adventure, never appear frightened or worried and they are cared for by kind adults.  When the little boy loses the bell, the compassion shown on the faces of the other children seems to offset the sadness the little boy feels.


This story, enjoyed by children and adults alike, is a favorite book of my 16 year old daughter. She said, "I love this book.  It is one of our traditions to read this book every Christmas."    



The Man Who Walked Between the Towers
     by Mordicai Gerstein

Gerstein, Mordicai. 2003. The man who walked between the towers. Brookfield, Conn: Roaring Brook Press. ISBN 0761328688.

THE MAN WHO WALKED BETWEEN THE TOWERS, a new picture storybook by Mordicai Gerstein, is the 2004 winner of the Caldecott Award.  The story opens with a view of the "two towers" rising over New York City and Philippe Petit, a young French aerialist gazing at them.  Philippe, who usually entertained people in the park with juggling and his tight rope act, was fascinated by the space between the towers and dreamed of stretching a wire between them and walking across the wire.  Though Philippe knew that performing such a high wire act was illegal, he devised a plan with friends.  Late one August evening, dressed as construction workers, Philippe and his friends took a reel of cable to the top of the south tower that was still under construction.  They spent a dangerous night stringing the cable between the towers and at dawn Philippe stepped onto the wire to begin his journey between the towers.  What follows is Philippe's joy as he walks, dances, runs, kneels, and even lies down on the wire.  As soon as Philippe is "completely satisfied" with his walk, he turns himself over to the police.  His punishment from the judge is to perform in the park for the city's children.  The book ends with a quiet tribute to the World Trade Center, which would have been awkward if omitted, and to Philippe Petit, now both gone.

The author/illustrator Mordicai Gerstein uses descriptive, precise vocabulary to give depth and interest to his story.  In describing the two towers he writes, "They were each a quarter of a mile high; one thousand three hundred and forty feet."  He also mentions the weight of the cable, the distance between the towers, the thickness of the cable, and the length of his balancing pole; all very important and interesting facts in this story.  Another example of precise vocabulary is the inclusion of the text, "the steeples of Notre Dame Cathedral", which adds interest and gives the students a global perspective. Through Mr. Gerstein's choice of words, the author shows us Philippe's determination to walk between the towers when he writes, "If he saw three balls, he had to juggle.  If he saw two towers he had to walk!  That's how he was."

Mordicai Gerstein's illustrations, done in ink and oil, are detailed (the Statue of Liberty in the Harbor) and add depth to the story that is not included in the text.  The author dramatically emphasizes the passage of time and the chronological events in the story by placing two, three, or four illustrations on a page with text between the illustrations.  My favorite illustrations are the three drawings that show the progression from middle-of-the-night to dawn when the men are stringing the cable.  These same illustrations and others emphasize the height of the two towers and the danger involved for all the participants in this activity.  The illustrations are dramatic!  The illustrator also uses two fold-out pages to show two different perspectives; a bird's-eye view and the spectator's view from the ground.

The illustrations are such an integral part of this book and the story would not be the same without them.  The illustrations show the extent of Philippe's joy and the freedom he felt when he was walking on the wire.  The expressions shown on the faces of the people add to the story, especially the smiling judge that gives Philippe the sentence that is really not a punishment to him.

One weakness I find with the book is the author's portrayal of Philippe's disregard for the law and his depiction of the police officers as ineffective.  The illustrations usually show the officers in a large group shouting, pointing, and gesturing.  In most scenes, they seem to be on the verge of falling off the building and one even loses his hat over the edge.

A fun classroom activity to use with this book may be to explore all the different measurements mentioned in the book.  One example is to measure out the distance between the two towers on the playground and then let the children try walking on an imaginary line or even a rope and try to not fall off.  Probably harder than it seems.


Oh, Look!
     by Patricia Polacco

Polacco, Patricia. 2004. OH, LOOK!. New York: Philomel Books. ISBN: 0399242236.


OH, LOOK!, is a picture storybook by the author/illustrator Patricia Polacco.  This story is about three goats that, when they find their gate unlocked, escape and begin an adventure through the countryside.  They eventually run into a scary, green ogre and that sends them scampering back to the safety of their pen.  The story is an adaptation of the oral folktale, We're Going On a Bear Hunt, which I remember from my childhood.  The story was also later retold in a book by Michael Rosen, titled, WE'RE GOING ON A BEAR HUNT.

This book is an excellent example of a predictable participation book.  Each page begins with "Oh, look" as the goats make new discoveries on their journey.  As they discover a fence, a bridge, a hill, a pond, a lake, and a fair, they also discover that they "Can't go over it, can't go under it, can't go around it ..."   All this leads to a book that children can enjoy as they repeat or echo the chorus as the teacher or parent reads the book.

The setting of the story is not stated, but an Eastern European country is implied by the brightly colored costumes of the children that are the goat's caretakers.  One theme of this book is that the home is a place where we are safe.  For the goats, the fence around the pen where they live is what is "keeping us in ... safe and sound."  The goats also, after encountering the ogre, return "through the gate with a long, loud squeak ... right back home, safe and sound!  Ahhhhhhh."

The language in OH, LOOK! is descriptive and uses onomatopoeias and patterns of triplicates to add interest and music to this fun book.  The mud is described as "soft and gooey, slippery and slick" as well as making a "squish, squish, squish" sound as the goats play with it.  The onomatopoeias are repeated throughout the book to describe the bridge ("click, click, click") and the tent flags at the fair ("flap, flap, flap") just to name two examples.    

The illustrations, which are rendered in pencil and watercolor, are delightful and my favorite part of the book.  The goats, which are Ms. Polacco's favorite animal (and she keeps a family of goats), always seem to be running, jumping, or leaning which gives energy and action to the illustrations and the book.  In BOOKLIST, a publication of the American Library Association, Linda Perkins writes, "The lively pencil-and-watercolor illustrations showcase Polacco's familiar style, but the art is less sedate here, capturing the joy and friskiness of the goats." The illustrations, drawn in an expressionism style, are bright, colorful and dominate each page.  Throughout the illustrations, the goats are continually followed by the children which adds to the protection and safety theme of the book because the children are there to protect the goats.  The ogre, though scary to the goats and children in the story, will not be scary to most young children.

The more I read this book, the more I liked it.  Early elementary children will enjoy the repetition found in the story and they can easily participate in the re-reading. Older elementary children could write their own books using the story pattern with different characters and adventures.  Printed in 2004, this book with its adaptation of the classic story and the beautifully, expressive illustrations is destined to become a favorite for young children and parents.  You may visit the author's website for more information at .

Perkins, Linda. BOOKLIST.  American Library Association.


These reviews were prepared in fulfillment of requirements for "Literature for Children and Young Adults", LS5603, Texas Woman's University, Summer 2004.