After the Fall

At the start of each school year, I choose one picture book to read to every class when the students come for library orientation. I like the idea of building a community around a shared understanding, as well as sharing a great new book with all of our students. Last year, during the first week of school, I read Adam Rex and Christian Robinson’s School’s First Day of School to every class of students. This year, I decided to use Dan Santat’s After the Fall: How Humpty Dumpty Got Back Up Again.

The overwhelming effect of reading the same picture book back to back (to back) over the course of a week can potentially be exhausting. Cracks begin to form in the narrative, and mistakes appear as you share the same pages over and over again. In this case, however, no such flaws arose. After 25 reads in the course of five days, I had the incredible opportunity to share the stunning full-page reveal of Humpty’s transformation with classes ranging from kindergartners on their very first day of school to fifth graders ready to embark on their final year of elementary school. Each class of students sat in awe as we shared that “light-bulb moment” that concludes the story, each time wondering why we’d never thought about Humpty’s logical fate in this way before: of course out of an egg a bird should hatch. Mouths agape, teachers and students alike sat in awe of the sheer power of the storytelling — and the story told.

Santat has crafted a read-aloud classic out of a classic nursery rhyme, a book that will be in heavy rotation in libraries across the country, regardless of the results of the Caldecott committee’s work this February. The real committee will certainly read this book even more than I did that week in early August, and they will also put the book in front of children. Whether with small groups of students/patrons or perhaps with their own children as lap reads, committee members will have a chance to see how well this book works at eliciting a powerful emotional response in its audience.

In the end, the committee will also have to hold After the Fall up to the criteria laid out in the Caldecott manual and determine not if After the Fall is an instant classic but if it is the most distinguished picture book of 2017. Does this book rise above all others published in 2017?

Santat’s story asks readers to consider what happens after Humpty’s famous fall. This is a picture book about fear, anxiety, passion, perseverance, and, finally, transformation. Santat accomplishes so much in the 32 pages of After the Fall by allowing his images to do the heavy lifting. Through Santat’s artwork, the reader understands Humpty’s fears and the tension these fears create when bumped up against his passions. The use of shadow throughout the book, specifically the shadow’s edge, clues readers into Humpty’s internal struggle. Notice how Humpty walks a tightrope created by the wall’s shadow as he walks through the city — his body split between light and dark, the desire to be near the birds, and the crippling fear that keeps him on the ground. Here even on the city’s street he’s reminded of his fall. Compare this spread with one later in the book as Humpty arrives on top of the wall, fear conquered, arms held high in victory. Here we see Humpty fully illuminated by the sun. Shadows still exist lower on the wall, but Humpty has risen above them. He is no longer afraid.

In her 2013 Calling Caldecott post, “How to read a picture book, the Caldecott edition,” Robin Smith wrote:

Read the book all the way through without reading the words. I know. But this has to be essentially a visual experience. Does it hold up with no words? (This is NOT to say the words don’t matter, it’s just important — at least to me — to see how the book works without words.) LOOK AT THE PICTURES VERY SLOWLY. This was the hardest part for me when I started reading and evaluating picture books. You just don’t want to miss any detail. Read from left to right, paying very close attention to the page turns. Pay attention to white space and pacing.

I think about this process whenever I evaluate picture books. Rarely does a book pass this test as well as After the Fall. By focusing purely on the visual storytelling, it becomes clear that Humpty’s story is fully told, even without his first-person narration. We can understand Humpty’s fears, as well as his passion, and we share in his triumph over his anxiety through the art alone.

In its criteria the Caldecott manual specifically points to “delineation of plot, theme, characters, setting, mood or information through the pictures.” In terms of this particular criteria, I believe After the Fall is the most distinguished example this year. What do you say?

Read the Horn Book Magazine review of After the Fall: How Humpty Dumpty Got Back Up Again.

Review of Sam, the Most Scaredy-Cat Kid in the Whole World

Sam, the Most Scaredy-Cat Kid in the Whole World
by Mo Willems; illus. by the author
Preschool    Hyperion    48 pp.
9/17    978-1-368-00214-1    $17.99

As fans of Leonardo, the Terrible Monster (rev. 9/05) will remember, monster Leonardo’s buddy Sam is “the most scaredy-cat kid in the whole world.” In this sequel, Sam and Leonardo meet another monster named Frankenthaler and his own BFF, a girl named Kerry who is “the second-most scaredy-cat kid in the whole world.” Leonardo and Frankenthaler are already pals, but the children are too scared of each other to even think about becoming friends (“I’m not scared of that monster…I’m scared of that kid!”). The monsters exercise some tough love by splitting the scene, leaving the youngsters to figure out their similarities and work out their differences. A selection of both — they agree about roller coasters and “kissing” movies but disagree on tuna salad, for example — are humorously shown in two consecutive, mostly wordless spreads including tidy four-panel art. One thing the children do have in common is a mischievous streak, and they turn the tables on their cool-as-cucumber monster buddies. Willems’s comic timing is spot-on in both the text — a mix of conversational narration, speech-bubble dialogue, well-delineated sound effects, and the odd footnote — and the color-coded illustrations that shine a light on the kids’ histrionics and on the rewards of taking a chance on friendship.

From the November/December 2017 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Week in Review, December 11th-15th


“Life cereal. That’s a ballsy name, I always thought. LIFE.
‘What are we going to call this?’
‘How about Oaties? Squaries?’
‘No! This is much bigger than that. This is LIFE, I TELL YOU!’”
—Jerry Seinfeld

Forget cereal. I’d argue Life is a pretty ballsy name for a picture book. But Cynthia Rylant has officially entered the wise-reflection period of her hall-of-fame career and is clearly (and gloriously) intimidated by nothing. So her latest book (is it her latest? Rylant puts out great books at a Yolen-esque clip) tackles a topic no less grand than existence itself. Freshly minted Caldecott Honor–winner Brendan Wenzel (They All Saw a Cat) provides the mixed-media visuals. As the book goes forward, it balances, impressively, a number of contrasts — it’s deep yet accessible, rich yet unburdened, sophisticated yet elemental — and crosses the finish line not haggard, but glowing.

This is going to sound like a dumb comment coming from a former member of a Caldecott committee, but I can’t find any smarter way to say it: I like picture books that are trying to do picture book-y stuff. Okay, a slightly smarter-sounding second attempt: I’m impressed when illustrations find subtle ways to expand the text. If the illustrations aren’t expanding on the story or theme, no one is going to get excited about them. If my experience on the committee has taught me anything (aside from “Snacks Will Unite Us All”), it’s that committee members have to be excited in order to push the book into the award zone. Wenzel’s illustrations provide the flourishes that will give the committee something to talk about, something to excitedly point to and say, “This! This is excellence in pictorial interpretation of story and theme. This of a sign of a distinguished book!”

Over and over in Life, Wenzel seizes opportunities to interpret the text in delightfully unexpected ways. These moments often happen outside the margins of the “main” illustration. Like the one depicting four separate animals in small vignette illustrations (“trust the rabbit in the field and the deer who crosses your path …”). Dude could have just gone with the four vignette illustrations. But no, he also created a little scene at the very bottom of the page, a sort of gradient in nature form, that shows the habitats of each animal. This is the sort of thing that can elevate a book above its peers, and it happens often in Life.

One of my first reactions when first encountering this book was wondering how Wenzel’s often playful artwork would pair with this (I assumed) serious text. It turned out to be an excellent match. Wenzel’s art has a richness that matches the weight of the topic, but it also has an inherent humor that doesn’t allow a book called Life to take itself too seriously.

Life. Bold name. But when a book is this masterfully executed, any other name just seems too small. I wish I could sit in when the committee discusses this one.

Read the Horn Book Guide review of Life.

BGHB at 50: Revisiting Anthony Burns

In celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Boston Globe–Horn Book Awards, established in 1967, we will be publishing a series of appreciations of BGHB winners and honorees from the past. This is the fifth in the series to be published in The Horn Book Magazine (see Gregory Maguire’s article on Jill Paton Walsh’s Unleaving; Tim Wynne-Jones’s personal recollection of Chris Van Allsburg’s The Garden of Abdul Gasazi; K. T. Horning’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Hamilton?”: M. C. Higgins, the Great; and Carole Boston Weatherford on Brian Pinkney’s The Adventures of Sparrowboy).

It’s been nearly thirty years since I first encountered Anthony Burns: The Defeat and Triumph of a Fugitive Slave by Virginia Hamilton. I was a member of the judges’ panel that awarded it the 1988 Boston Globe–Horn Book Award for Nonfiction. At the time I found it informative, compelling, and an exemplar of Hamilton’s marvelous gift for words. My recent re-reading struck me the same way. Anthony Burns was Hamilton’s third BGHB Award; the first had been the 1974 fiction award for M.C. Higgins, the Great [see Kathleen T. Horning’s column in the July/August 2017 Horn Book]; the second, also fiction, for Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush in 1983. By 1988 Hamilton had established herself as a distinguished and versatile writer not only of realistic novels but also biography (Paul Robeson and W. E. B. Du Bois), fantasy (the Jahdu stories), and speculative fiction (the Justice Cycle). She had also re-awakened an interest in African American folktales with her groundbreaking collection The People Could Fly. So it is not totally surprising that Anthony Burns represents a hybrid genre. The New York Times reviewer called it a novel. The copyright page refers to it as biography. Back matter includes a bibliography and an index, features typical of nonfiction. The book also includes excerpts from the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, which was central to Anthony Burns’s story. In her acceptance speech, Hamilton called the book a “narrative of historical reconstruction…neither a total life study, nor entirely history or fiction.”

It was necessary for Hamilton to reconstruct the early life of Anthony Burns — a man, born a slave around 1834, who became the center of a conflict between Boston abolitionists and pro-slavery sympathizers — because very little information exists about his life before 1854. Most of the scholarship pertaining to Burns centers on his capture in Boston, the resultant protests, and the hearing that led to his return to slavery. Hamilton noted in her BGHB acceptance speech:

If this were the life of any ordinary individual not of a parallel culture who had became enormously famous toward the end of his life, the factual chronicle of his whole life would have been sifted through and the empty places investigated, filled where possible and duly recorded.

But because Burns was born a slave and grew into a kindly, self-effacing server in bondage, no one seems to have had the inclination to look behind the extremely sketchy, biographical material of his early years once he became famous.

Of the twenty chapters of the book, five relate to Burns’s life before Boston, and thus before the historical record. Hamilton gives Burns the ability to mentally remove himself from a situation by going into a trancelike state, and taking himself back in time. This is the device by which Hamilton reconstructs Burns’s early life and humanizes him.

When, in Hamilton’s narrative, Anthony first revisits the past, he is five years old, enslaved by John Suttle of Stafford County, Virginia. Young Anthony, who is a particular favorite of Suttle’s, is excited about an expected pony ride; Suttle (called “he Mars” by the slaves) enjoys early morning rides around his property with little Anthony on the front of the saddle. In Burns’s recollection, this is the time when he learns that, in spite of being one of Suttle’s favorites, he is himself a slave, merely Suttle’s property.

“And now you know, don’t you boy?” he Mars said. “Anthony, you my property, you belong to me. You my own slave chile.”

…Anthony stared after him, half in longing and half in fear and wonder. The meaning of he Mars’ last words would come to him slowly, over time.

By the time Anthony was twelve, Suttle’s son Charles had inherited the Suttle property, including the slaves. As Anthony grew, his labor became more profitable to Suttle. He was hired out to various people, eventually landing in Richmond, where he worked for a druggist. He spent some of his free time at the docks, and one night early in February 1854 Anthony, heeding the siren song of freedom, stowed away on a ship. After a cold and miserable voyage, he arrived in Boston in early March.

* * *

One of the strengths of the book is that it paints a clear picture of the historical and political context in which Anthony Burns found himself in Boston. The federal Fugitive Slave Act had been passed in 1850. It permitted slaveholders to track down escaped slaves and obliged states to return the fugitives to their putative owners. The Boston Vigilance Committee, which had both Black and white members, vigorously opposed the new law. In 1851, the committee had made an unsuccessful attempt to free Thomas Sims, a fugitive who was tried under the Fugitive Slave Act and returned to slavery in Georgia.

One night in May 1854, Burns was snatched off the streets by a deputy U.S. marshal and placed under arrest in the same courthouse room where Sims had been held. When Charles Suttle learned of Burns’s whereabouts, he journeyed to Boston to retrieve Burns. The Boston Vigilance Committee was determined that what had happened to Thomas Sims would not happen to him. The bulk of the narrative relates the dramatic events of the ten days during which Suttle and the Boston Vigilance Committee contested the fate of Anthony Burns.

One of Burns’s attorneys was the writer and lawyer Richard Henry Dana, author of the popular book Two Years Before the Mast. Dana took the case pro bono, while other committee members worked diligently behind the scenes to find a way to free Burns. Among the abolitionists were a number of prominent white Bostonians, including Wendell Phillips, Theodore Parker, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and Samuel G. Howe. They worked alongside Black activists such as Rev. Leonard Grimes, pastor of a church attended by fugitive slaves, and Robert Morris, a lawyer who assisted in Burns’s defense. Throughout the story, though, Hamilton takes pains not to make Dana and the other abolitionists into the ultimate heroes. She does not diminish their good intentions or their good works, but she places Anthony Burns at the center of his own story.

As Hamilton portrays it, the ten days of Burns’s imprisonment were intense. Protest meetings, street demonstrations, printed leaflets, and a failed attempt to rescue Burns resulted in an influx of U.S. Marines and other military personnel, as well as local and state forces. Armed men were everywhere — in the courthouse, on the streets. The presence of the Marines was an indication that the federal government, led by pro-slavery President Franklin Pierce, was determined to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act by whatever means necessary. In addition, the commissioner who heard Burns’s case, Edward G. Loring, also seemed inclined to side with the slaveholders. Loring ruled in favor of Suttle and issued the certificate that allowed him to take Burns back to Virginia — hence the “defeat” of the book’s subtitle.

In a highly dramatic scene, Burns was escorted to a ship by two thousand armed men, marching through a crowd of about fifty thousand citizens, who lined the route chanting “Shame! Shame!” The chanting infuriated some soldiers, who proceeded to attack the crowd, injuring several protesters. Upon his arrival in Richmond, Burns was jailed and held in iron shackles for four months before being sold to a man from North Carolina. His supporters discovered Burns’s whereabouts by chance and contacted his new owner, who agreed to sell him to them for $1300. Burns returned to Boston, where he became something of a celebrity, telling his story to crowds in Massachusetts and New York. He also studied for two years at Oberlin College. Eventually he made his way to St. Catharine’s, Canada, where he served as a minister for a short time and died of consumption at the age of twenty-eight in 1862.

In telling Burns’s story, Hamilton displayed her ability to capture a reader’s attention with an apt description or an unexpected turn of phrase or choice of words. Here is young Anthony out at night in the slave quarters: “Night slid in around him and poured its inky black over him. It covered him, made him unseen. He was out with the dark.” And later, when Anthony boldly asks Suttle for money for his lodging, we are told that this effort to assert himself was a “small opening of freedom’s door.”

It must have been a challenge to produce dialogue that reflected a range of characters whose speech varied according to socioeconomic class, geographical region, and educational levels — Southern slaveholders, enslaved people, Boston abolitionists, hired deputies, attorneys, etc. Hamilton does not make an effort to render different dialects precisely, but she does provide a flavor of the different speech patterns depending on the social situation in which the speakers find themselves. Perhaps most important in a book centered on the life of a slave, she avoids the stereotyped speech that makes the slave characters seem stupid. When Anthony’s mother cries, “My own me don’t belong to me nohow,” it may be considered ungrammatical on the surface, but it is a profound statement of her understanding of her status in the world.

* * *

Anthony Burns was an exemplar of a genre that Hamilton introduced to the field as “liberation literature.” In her afterword she notes that she had “experienced an enormous sense of relief and satisfaction at having at last set free through the word one man’s struggle for liberty…By writing about him I found that he not only came to life for me, but that he lives again for all of us. In gaining a sense of who he was we learn about ourselves. As long as we know he is free, we too are liberated.”

This concept of liberating the reader through the liberation of the subject of the narrative is highly significant in literature related to the experience of slavery, especially literature intended for young readers. It elevates the slave from a pitiable victim of oppression to one who has triumphed in the achievement of freedom.

Anthony Burns remains all too relevant even now, as a reminder of some of the flaws in our justice system, both historical and contemporary. The Fugitive Slave Act was part of an effort to keep in place a race-based system of control and oppression of Black people for the benefit of what Hamilton called the “slavocracy.” I have recently been reading Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, which addresses the contemporary mass incarceration of Black people, especially young Black males. It is striking to read how laws are and have been used in the service of oppression. Alexander identifies the War on Drugs as the root cause of current mass incarceration; Anthony Burns identifies the Fugitive Slave Act as at the root of Burns’s legal defeat. Anthony Burns’s triumph, as Hamilton terms it in her subtitle, is not only in his liberation from slavery but also his success in being able to live the life he dreamed of — to live as a literate man of faith, able to be himself and to be of service to his fellow men and women.

From the November/December 2017 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

All the Way to Havana

Thanks to All the Way to Havana, the vibrant and evocative book written by Margarita Engle and inventively illustrated by Mike Curato, I learned something very interesting about modern-day Cuba. Many of the cars on the road there are pre-1959 American automobiles. We meet a boy whose family owns such a vehicle, lovingly called “Cara Cara.” Passed from one generation to the next, the car needs constant repair, and the resourceful lad at the story’s center loves to grab tools and help. He and his family must prepare Cara Cara for a trip from their rural home to the bustling city of Havana, where they will celebrate his newborn cousin’s “zero-year birthday.”

Once on the road, we see the trip through the boy’s excited eyes, the same color blue as Cara Cara. He looks out the window, marvels at the dramatic cityscape, enjoys a party, drifts off to a contented sleep, and then wakes up the next morning to his papá’s promise that Cara Cara will someday be his. The Caldecott terms and criteria say that a Caldecott contender should display “respect for children’s understandings, abilities, and appreciations.” By putting this relatable boy, who serves as a first-person narrator, at the center of the story, the child reader feels more involved with the trek. All the while, Engle’s energetic language sings. And Curato takes her words and runs with them, creating mixed-media illustrations that burst off the page (they look three-dimensional) with color and life. The artist’s note says he used pencil, acrylic, paper, photo overlay, digital color in Adobe Photoshop, and other mixed media to create the illustrations. The back matter tells how he visited Cuba to see the cars for himself, creating the illustrations by combining pencil drawings, paintings, and textures from the photographs he took while there. His research paid off.

Some of the very best picture books are cinematic, with the illustrator assuming a role similar to that of a cinematographer. Each illustration in All the Way to Havana feels like a shot in a thoughtfully composed motion picture (for me, it ties the remarkable CaldeNott Town Is by the Sea, illustrated by Sydney Smith, for the most cinematic picture book of the year). The book’s dimensions (11.3 x 0.4 x 8.8 inches) call to mind the dimensions of a movie screen. Throughout the book, Curato whisks us inside, outside, up, and over the vehicle, offering a wide variety of POV shots. Early on, for example, when Cara Cara starts malfunctioning, Curato positions us at the front of the smoking car. The automobile seems to be popping off the page. As the boy helps fix the car, Curato has us looking up at the wrench-bearing child. Then when the car starts running again, the engine backfires, and Curato offers a comical close-up of a flapping chicken, startled by the noise near the tailpipe.

The artist does a beautiful job with light and shadow. In one spread we see, from the perspective of the car’s hood, that the family has been joined by neighbors in need of a ride. They crowd inside the vehicle, and we see sunlight glare off of the windshield. The Caldecott terms and criteria say that a Caldecott contender must provide a “visual experience,” and in that regard All the Way to Havana more than excels.

The book’s many panoramic, detail-packed double-page spreads really deliver. The best one shows Cara Cara on a busy “curved road by the seawall.” The boy’s mamá points out the other old, noisy cars, in a wide array of colors; the bright red car with huge sharklike fins is a real showstopper. The blue sky, the greenish sea, the light brown road — this is a feast for the eyes. The next several spreads do an impressive job of showing the boy watching the action going on outside the car. In one spread, we are inside the car looking over his shadow-covered shoulder as he looks inside busy stores. Then we are outside the car as he waves at a couple, just married, in a bright pink convertible in the next lane (look at the details on those surrounding buildings). In a nice touch, the font becomes larger and colorful when sound effects fill the air.

All the Way to Havana offers so many other visual delights. For example, I love the haziness of the final spread with the father lifting his boy in the air, promising him that one day Cara Cara will be his (note how the car stands proudly in the foreground). The endpapers are filled with retro-style drawings of the pre-1959 automobiles, each surrounded by a splash of color, with our eyes drawn to the strikingly blue Cara Cara. And in an added surprise, removing the dust jacket reveals a striking overhead shot of Cara Cara.

All the Way to Havana is an unforgettable road trip through Cuba, one I hope the Caldecott committee takes careful note of.

Read the Horn Book Magazine review of All the Way to Havana.

Review of A Boy, a Mouse, and a Spider: The Story of E. B. White

A Boy, a Mouse, and a Spider: The Story of E. B. White
by Barbara Herkert; illus. by Lauren Castillo
Primary    Ottaviano/Holt    40 pp.
10/17    978-1-62779-245-5    $18.99

The writer E. B. White is introduced here in spare text and warm images, with a focus on White’s love of nature and animals as well as the creation of his first two children’s books. With just a few sentences on each page, Herkert effectively evokes White’s own prose, filled with sensory detail and phrases that roll off the tongue: “His ears captured an owl’s query, the breeze’s beckoning, the scuffing of horse hooves.” Castillo’s illustrations mirror the text with natural colors (warm browns predominate) and lively drawings of the young boy growing into the adult writer. One of the most striking illustrations is of the author and his family in a car heading for their new saltwater farm in Maine — it looks to be springtime with bare trees and green fields, alive with possibility. The book starts with White’s childhood, then moves to vignettes of his youth and adulthood, providing brief descriptions of the inspiration for and creation of Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web, and ends with a double-page spread celebrating White’s life and words: “He basked in the seasons, the peace of the barn, the beauty of the world. His stories capture the glory of nature and the comfort of hope.” An author’s note gives a little more context, but for a detailed examination of White’s life, readers will need to go elsewhere (viz. Melissa Sweet’s Some Writer!, rev. 9/16). A gentle reverie on a beloved writer, ideally suited for children first encountering his children’s books as read-alouds. A brief bibliography is appended.

From the November/December 2017 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

December 2017 Horn Book Herald: Picture Books Edition

December 2017 Picture Books Horn Book Herald: Calling Caldecott’s latest contenders

December 2017 Picture Books Horn Book Herald: More recommended reading