Here we go again. Every year Jonathan and I try to find at least one picture book that seems like a potential Newbery contender. Though a widespread general assumption pigeonholes the Newbery as an award for older, longer fiction, the award terms state right upfront that “There are no limitations as to the character of the book considered except that it be original work.” So let’s look at two picture books that have caught my eye and ear. The challenge: to evaluate the words alone.
Joyce Sidman won a Newbery Honor last year for DARK EMPEROR This year, from the same publisher, comes SWIRL BY SWIRL: SPIRALS IN NATURE, this time with illustrations by Caledcott-Medalist Beth Krommes. SWIRL BY SWIRL is very different than DARK EMPEROR; rather than a set of poems around a theme, it is a short text (one could call the entire main text a single poem) for a young audience, and truly a picture book text as the words and pictures work together to depict spirals in nature. As Jonathan and I have argued re WORDSTRUCK, there is nothing in the Newbery terms or criteria that says the text must stand alone. In fact: “Because the literary qualities to be considered will vary depending on content, the committee need not expect to find excellence in each of the named elements. The book should, however, have distinguished qualities in all of the elements pertinent to it.” Within the main text of SWIRL, the criteria that are most apt are “Interpretation of theme or concept” and “Appropriateness of style.” I marvel at how Sidman uses personifying verbs and adjectives to describe what sprials in nature do, somehow without inappropriate personification. “A spiral is a strong shape. / Its outer curves protect what’s inside. / It knows how to defend itself. / A sprial reaches out, too, exploring the world.” These very simple sentences connect the idea of the shape with how they are applied in nature, in a way that will be understandible for a very young audience. The choice of words and sounds encourage thoughfulness: try reading them aloud. The intended audience for this book will probably be listening to it read aloud, and the text moves slowly. The first and last lines of the text, “A spiral is a snuggling shape,” suggest an interpretation for how the reader should interact with the book (or the reader and listener!), further encouraging an appropriate reflection on the text. This style allows for a very complex idea, for a very young audience, to take shape and take hold….just through the words. We should also consider the text in the notes at the end, which are in a different voice, but which serve their informational purpose well, and further enhance the interpretation of the work.
Full disclosure: I’ve always considered Brock Cole one of the most underrated children’s book authors around. So a new picture book from him was sure to catch my eye. THE MONEY WE’LL SAVE is a great example of a picture book text wonderful attuned to its audience, using words to their fullest extent to communicate character, setting, plot, humor and tension all at once. Here’s the set up in the first few pages: “Ma needed two eggs and a half pound of flour so she could make pancakes for supper, but who could she send to the market? / All the children were busy. Bailey was in the bedroom putting baby Arthur down for a nap. / Bridget was in the parlor pulling basting threads from one of the coats Ma was making for the wholesale trade. / Pearl was on the fire escape hanging out the laundry. / So Ma decided to send Pa. ‘Now just buy two eggs and a half pound of flour,’ she told him. ‘Remember, Christmas is not far off, and we must save every penny.’ ‘I’ll remember,’ said Pa, and he set off with a shopping basket and purse.” Now, because of the pacing, the reader knows that Pa is not going to remember, or at least is going to make a grave mistake. Visual clues enhance this (Pa is seen reading the paper while everyone else is working, and the condition and crowdedness of the house suggests how truly important those pennies are), but in these first lines through words alone the reader has met all of characters, understood the family circumstances, and been set up for the ensuing plot. Pa, of course, comes home with more than two eggs and a half pound of flour–he also brings home a live chicken to raise for Thanksgiving: “Think of the money we’ll save!” Cole’s narrative weaves a tone-perfect sense of humor with a very-clearly dire family situation. (Compare to OKAY FOR NOW.) His use of language is very natural-sounding, but also musical. There are no wasted words, no boring words, and there is a sense of rhythm that enhances the story. “So the bird lived in a wooden box by the stove, and the children fed him table scraps. They named him Alfred. / … / ‘Ma!’ cried Bailey. ‘Afred stole baby Arthur’s biscuit!’ ‘Ma!’ cried Bridget. ‘Alfred’s in the oatmeal!’ ‘Ma!’ cried Pearl. ‘Afred’s messed on the clean ironing, and it’s all got to be washed again!’/ Ma sat down with her face in her apron and began to cry. ‘ I knew I should never have let that bird in the door!’ she sobbed. ‘He’s a mess and a glutton. He’s eating us out of house and home!'” Read this out loud. The “Ma” chorus harkens in rhythm to Goldilocks and the Three Bears, and gets that same effect of a sense of rising disaster, as if the words themselves physically make Ma sit down and cry. “I knew I should never have let that bird in the door!” releases some of the tension, and then, as if that itself gives Ma the wherewithal she needs: “He’s a mess and a glutton” come out with their forceful condemnation like a bell tolling. This is perhaps drilling down farther than this text needs, but I do find that whenever I look at it that closely I find a richness in the sound of the words themselves that supports the entirety of the story Cole is telling. It’s a funny story, an exhausting one, it worries and relieves, it’s a complex story about family and different ways to measure worth in just thirty-two pages, and I think it’s distinguished.