Allison's Book Bag

Archive for the ‘Caldecott’ Category

When looking for books to read, a perfect place to start is with the award-winners. They’re available for all ages and in all genres. Here are three recent ones.

We Are Growing by Laurie Keller bursts with the exuberance one would expect of a winner of the Theodor Seuss Geisel Award. Such exuberance is also perhaps the only way an author could comically write about such a mundane topic as grass. Each blade of grass is growing and proud of being the tallest, the curliest, or the silliest. But one long piece of grass doesn’t know what’s special about him until a lawn mower reduces them to the same size. Through googly-eyed grasses and slapstick moments, Keller gently teaches that we’re all the best at something.

Jean-Michel Basquiat grew up drawing with the support of his mom, who would lie with him to draw on old work papers. From her, Basquiat learned that art is found not just in museums and theaters but also in the games he played and the people he met. Basquiat overcame serious injuries suffered when he was struck by a car at age seven, and the institutionalization of his mom at age 13 to become a famous artist. Steptoe captures Basquiat’s life in his rich writing style and creative illustrations. To give meaning to the book’s artwork, Steptoe collected bits of scrap wood from around Basquiat’s home in New York City, and used them as canvases onto which he painted scenes from his book. He also adeptly integrates Basquiat’s favorite motifs into his illustrations. Radiant Child by Javaka Steptoe is a brilliant Caldecott-winner biography!

Entrenched in fantasy, complex characters, and poignant themes, The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill is impossible to put down. Every year, the people of the Protectorate leave a baby as an offering to the witch that lives in the forest. But nothing is at is seems in this Newbery-winning novel. For example, the witch is kind. She rescues the children and delivers them to welcoming families on the other side of the forest. One year, the witch discovers one of the children possesses magic and decides to raise Luna as her own. But the baby’s mother is searching for her. And the mother meets a man who is determined to free his people from the witch. Eventually, all paths intersect with a message of love.

Reprinted with permission from Lincoln Kids. This article is original in content and not to be reproduced without permission. Copyright 2018.

Years ago, I heard the tale of how Winnie-the-Pooh was based on a true bear. Now Lindsay Mattick has written a picture book that details an amazing story of the world’s most famous bear and even includes a photo album. A #1 New York Times Bestseller and winner of the 2016 Caldecott Medal, Finding Winnie is on my list of books to buy.

If you weren’t already aware, in 1914, there was a veterinarian named Harry Colburn from Winnipeg who rescued a bear while on the way to care for soldiers’ horses during World War 1. After paying $20 to a trapper, Colburn took the baby bear he had just purchased with him to an army base in England. Everyone there agreed she was a remarkable bear. Unfortunately, as winter arrived, so did the orders to fight in France. To keep Winnie safe, Harry took her to the London Zoo, where one day a boy named Christopher Robin Milne met Winnie during a visit …. The rest is literary history.

Why would I want a copy of Finding Winnie, when I already know the tale by heart of how Christopher Robin’s father wrote books all about his son and the adventures of his stuffed animals? Because Finding Winnie is so wonderfully written that it makes a beautiful keepsake. Mattick has framed it as a bedtime story. At the start, her son Cole asks her for a story. And even though it’s late, she tells him one—about a bear. Because she frames it as a bedtime story, throughout there are questions that a young child might naturally ask his mom. There’s also the moment where the story of Harry and Winnie ends, but Cole wants it to continue. And so his mom tells him of how once upon a time there was a little boy with a stuffed bear. Satisfied with this extension to the story, Cole next asks about Harry. And so the questions continue until Cole falls asleep.


Finding Winnie is also delightfully illustrated. The story itself is filled with watercolor washes and cheery ink drawings. The people are rosy-cheeked and expressive, while Winnie appears at times curious and other times soulful. As an added perk, the back pages contain an album of photographs and scans. The photos are of Harry, his fellow soldiers, Winnie herself, and even of Christopher Robin. The scans include a sample of Harry’s diary, as well as an official Animal Record Card that shows when Winnie began her stay at the London Zoo.

Beyond these merits are the thematic ones. I owe credit for these ideas to an article by Lindsay Mattick in The Guardian. She talks about how family histories are worth exploring and sharing with the world. The great-granddaughter of Captain Harry Colburne, she has told Winnie’s story as a radio documentary, spearheaded an exhibition, and traveled to London to commemorate Harry and Winnie’s experience in World War 1. Mattick also talks about how one never knows that impact a single loving gesture can have. If not for Harry’s single loving gesture one day at a train station, Winnie might not have been rescued or become the inspiration for a series of beloved and classic stories.

Finding Winnie will be a lovely addition to the shelves of anyone like myself who grew up reading the Winnie-the-Pooh stories. For those yet to discover the antics of Christopher, Winnie, Tigger, Piglet, Eeyore, and Rabbit, this well-received picture book might inspire a whole new generation of readers.

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

One of the most famous birds in modern literature is back and he is in perfect form in the latest offering by Mo Willems. Through its sassy story and energetic artwork, The Pigeon Needs a Bath will both entertain and educate.

With his latest book Pigeon book, Willems once again creates takes an ordinary routine and creates an imaginative tale. Pigeon just took a bath a month ago. Or at least Pigeon thinks it was that recent. At any rate, “clean” and “dirty” are just words, right? Pigeon feels clean and isn’t that what should matter? After all, aren’t there more important things in life? Pigeon has a litany of complaints, causing the suspense to grow, and making readers wonder if he will ever get a bath. Adults will relate to how difficult getting children to take a bath can be, while children themselves will be eager to see where the story will go, making this picture book a win for all ages.

There are additional reasons too for liking The Pigeon Needs a Bath. Per the usual routine, the bus driver (clad in a shower cap and bathrobe) opens the story by asking readers to help convince the pigeon to take a bath. With the turn of each page, Willems anticipates denials: Pigeon demands, “When was the last time YOU had a bath?!” My favorite spreads are of the flies, who join readers in pleading with Pigeon to take a bath. There’s also the blend of simple phrases such as “I feel clean” and “I don’t smell anything” with sophisticated vocabulary such as: pretty recently, unimportant things, purely coincidental. Best of all is the ending twist. Not only is Pigeon finally convinced of how important bathing is, but now finds he might just want to play in the tub forever….


Then there is the design. Endpapers bookend the story, including a funny turnabout for the duckling, here a rubber bath toy. Page backgrounds appropriately modulate from dirty browns to fresh blues. The large and dramatic font ramps up the energy of the story. Through simple flat-line illustrations, Pigeon’s full range of expressions are easy to discern. When Pigeon is finally forced to step into the water, it takes 28 little panels (and one medium-size one) in which he fusses over the tub and its myriad inadequacies, for him to change his attitude. Later, there are eight more panels that display what happen when Pigeon settles to a bath. My favorite page is one that simply reads, in the biggest possible print, TEN HOURS LATER.

For those of who are familiar with Willems, you may be surprised that this is my first introduction to his famous character of The Pigeon. It won’t be my last!

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

Mo Willems is best known for his characters Knuffle Bunny, The Pigeon, and Elephant and Piggie. Prior to these successes, he also worked as a writer and animator for Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, and PBS’s Sesame Street. According to Mo Willems FAQ, his work in children’s books, animation, television, theater, and bubble gum card painting have garnered him 3 Caldecott Honors, 2 Geisel Medals and 4 Honors, 6 Emmy Awards, and multiple bubble gum cards. 🙂


Mo Willems makes funny drawings that hopefully will make you laugh.–Mo Willems

–Mo Willems, FAQ

The son of Dutch immigrants, and raised in New Orleans, Willems first became interested in cartoon art when he was just a child. Before he even entered school, Willems had started to draw and create his own characters. He also enjoyed writing stories about his characters to share with others. A few anecdotes illustrate Willems’ path to becoming a comedian.

Wikipedia reports that Willems “became very disappointed when adults would constantly praise his work out of politeness. To fix this dilemma Willems started writing funny stories. He knew that even polite adults could not fake a laugh. So when the adults laughed he knew his story was good and if the adults still gave polite comments then he knew his story was bad.

CBS News reports that in second grade, the class bully would not tease Willems or bully him if he had a gag. So, already in second grade, Willems had a daily comic strip. “Just come up with a little gag, and I’d show it to him. And if he laughed, then I was off the hook for the day.”

After graduating from Tisch School of the Arts in New York, Willems spent a year traveling around the world drawing one cartoon per day. All of these have been published in the book You Can Never Find a Rickshaw When it Monsoons.

Upon returning to New York, he started his career as a writer and animator for Sesame Street. Apparently always liking to be busy, Willems also undertook a list of endless other jobs. For example, he performed local stand-up comedy, recorded essays for BBC Radio, created a promotion for Cartoon Network, and animated the opening for a show on Nickelodeon. The latter two led to his developing two animated television series.

In the midst of all this, he also found time to marry and to have children. The family now resides in Massachusetts. According to Wikipedia, besides working and being a family man, Willems also enjoys pasta, wine, and hanging out with friends.


I told my boss, “Hey, I won a Caldecott Honor!” He said, “Great. Story meeting in 10 minutes.”
Unbelievably lucky enough, the next year I got a Caldecott Honor, and so I had a better sense of what it was. So I said, “Hey, boss, I got a Caldecott Honor. I quit!”

–Mo Willems, CBS News

Mo_WillemsWhile serving as a head writer at Cartoon Network, Willems began writing and drawing books for children. In 2003, he resigned his career in television to become a stay-at-home father for his daughter and a full-time writer. In this latter, Willems continues to show his diverse talents. His debut effort, Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! became a New York Times Bestseller and was awarded a Caldecott Honor. Two of his subsequent picture books, Knuffle Bunny: a Cautionary Tale and its sequel, Knuffle Bunny Too: a Case of Mistaken Identity, garnered more Caldecott Honors. In addition to picture books, Willems has created the Elephant and Piggie books, a series of award-winning “Easy Readers”. For older audiences, Willems published an illustrated memoir of his year-long trip around the world entitled You Can Never Find a Rickshaw When it Monsoons and a collection of 20 years of his annual sketchbooks called Don’t Pigeonhole Me!.

Despite switching careers, Willems has also remained as busy as ever. His drawings and sculptures have exhibited in numerous galleries and museums across the nation. His graphic story about his family experiences during 9-11 for DC comics resides in the Library of Congress’ permanent collection. Willems has been heard on NPR’s All Things Considered, where he briefly served as the broadcast’s ‘Radio Cartoonist’. He both voices and produces animated cartoons based on his books. Willems wrote the script and lyrics for plays based on his books, the plays being commissioned by the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. No wonder, The New York Times Book Review referred to Willems as “the biggest new talent to emerge thus far in the 00’s”.

Tomorrow I’ll review The Pigeon Needs a Bath. Save the date: February 17!

I first encountered Jon Klassen’s work while browsing picture books at Barnes & Noble. When deciding on what award-winners to feature this month, I saw Klassen listed for the 2013 award. Immediately, I jumped at the opportunity to review This is Not My Hat. It’s an easy read, with fun pictures that help forward the story.

This is Not My Hat features a rather brazen little fish. He’s sporting a hat that he stole. Not only that but this fish isn’t the least bit repentant. Moreover, he’s pretty sure he’s going to get away with his crime. Maybe I shouldn’t like this little brown fish, but I do. He’s so cocky and confidant. And yet not in a flashy in-your-face way. This little fish reminds me of the time our little Lhaso Apso ran right up to a dog three times his size. Not only did he run up to him, but he barked at him as if to play or perhaps to protect us. Well, this little fish stole the hat while the big fish was asleep. And now he’s boasting about it, but really you might too if you pulled off a heist against a giant. You can’t help but root for him. Or least wonder what will happen next, like in all delightfully tantalizing stories.


Of course, there’s a problem with my parallel. Even if our dog was foolhardy, he didn’t actually act bad. The brazen little fish stole. That’s a crime. We might not want young readers to think theft is okay. The little fish might excuse his actions by saying it’s too small for the big fish. (And it is.) He might say it fits him just right. (And it does.) But the truth is he wanted a hat. He took it. And that was wrong. But…. I trust that young readers will have enough sense to just enjoy the story. (Like I did.)

Apparently, one of the reasons that the Caldecott committee liked This is Not My Hat is that “with minute changes in eyes and the slightest displacement of seagrass, Klassen’s masterful illustrations tell the story the narrator doesn’t know”. I’m not an art critic. I often feel awkward discussing artwork even in picture books. But I can tell you that I enjoyed the simple and soft-colored artwork in This is Not My Hat. Moreover, I loved the wonderful way that the pictures foreshadowed the story’s end. For example, all the while the fish is telling readers that he’s not worried about the fact someone saw him steal the hat, we are seeing that the lobster is a two-faced snitch. There will be irony to come before the final page. Watch the plants, the shadows, the bubbles.

Sometimes when I discuss literature with my students, I ask them why they think the author choose a particular medium. This is Not My Hat is a perfect example of how words and illustrations interconnect to make the picture book unique. Neither could stand alone to make such a perfect tale. Check Klassen out. He’s Canadian and he’s good!

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

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