Debatables

Debatables: Criminally Caldecottless!

Hi everybody! It is time once again for Debatables, the monthly column where esoteric kid-lit questions are argued with way too much passion!

My Debatables sparring opponent is, as usual, my colleague, friend, and collegial frenemy, Cricket Muse.

Here are the Debatables ground rules: Each debater is allowed one brief argument (fewer than 300 words) on a previously agreed-upon topic. These brief arguments will be followed by a briefer rebuttal (fewer than 150 words).

So! On to this month’s topic:

Which Overlooked Illustrator Most Deserves the Coveted Caldecott Medal?

Cricket has selected the always illustrious Barbara McClintock.

And I have chosen the fluid pen of Michael Frith.

So! Let’s get started! Cricket, take it away!

Cricket

I am stunned to discover Barbara McClintock has yet to receive a Caldecott Medal. She has at least forty amazing books to her credit, and yet zippo zilch for the Caldecott. What? Why? I could go on profoundly about her attention to detail, her ability to bring humor to the scene, the fact that she is self-taught, that her books are entertaining and informative, but I have to think Caldecott Merit requirements and not overall distinction. So, I will concentrate on one of her books. That would be Nothing Stopped Sophie: The Story of an Unshakable Mathematician.

Sophie, published in 2018, written by Cheryl Bardoe, is illustrated by the very capable McClintock. It’s a marvelous picture book biography about the little girl from long ago Paris who defied social expectations and overcame so many obstacles to stick with her dream to become a mathematician. Bardoe’s text is wondrous—it really sings. YET McClintock’s illustrations are genius. They absolutely burst off the page in colorful, glorious excitement. Numbers joyously bounce all over. Bright, detailed double spreads expand Bardoe’s story to inspiring heights of appreciation for Sophie and her dream.

Barbara McClintock has been overlooked for too long. Her illustrations for Sophie solidifies her contribution to children’s literature and highlights her capabilities and meet the criteria in many ways: excellent quality, conspicuous excellence, most certainly distinct. So, c’mon Caldecott folk, wake up, and let’s get that medal properly acknowledged for Barbara.

Mike

The best way to determine your favorite book illustrator is to subject his or her work to an experiment I call “The Basement Flood Test.”

Imagine that all of your beloved children’s books are packed away in your basement. A hurricane sweeps through town and turns this reliably dry basement into an indoor swimming pool.

What would be the first book you’d rescue from the rising tide?

As you’ve probably guessed, I was subjected to this test for real—and the first book I lunged for was the Bert and Ernie saga The Perils of Penelope, largely because I found Michael Frith’s illustrations to be a feast for the eyes. As far as I’m concerned, Frith is the only artist who can properly depict Muppets on the printed page. His designs have whimsical, cartoony appeal. His Bert and his Ernie are far more dynamic and expressive than their felty doppelgängers, but they never, ever lose their quintessential “Muppetishness.”

Frith understood Muppets inside and out—literally. For decades he worked alongside Jim Henson as a Muppet designer. But his talents extend well beyond Muppets; he also served as the editor-in-chief of the Dr. Seuss imprint Beginner Books, lending his artistic talents to Because A Little Bug Went Cachoo!, Prehistoric Monsters Did The Strangest Things, and many other titles, adjusting his style to best reflect each book’s subject.

And yet, Frith have garnered no significant awards for his work! It’s an oversight that feels almost criminal. Come on world! I rescued this man’s book from a flooding basement! Surely that must account for something!

Cricket’s Rebuttal

While Mike’s Basement Flood Test is a commendable measurement of appreciating illustrative merit, it is unfortunately not part of the Caldecott standards for excellence. It would be difficult to argue against an artist who captures the essence of Muppet; however, is Michael Frith’s work distinguished by Caldecott definition? That’s the real issue. Is it marked by eminence and distinction? Is there excellence of pictorial interpretation? Perils of Penelope is fun, kids no doubt enjoy Bert and Ernie, yet the illustrations must distinctly resonate to pass Caldecott muster.

In point, Barbara McClintock’s illustrations leap and cavort off the page. She captured Sophie’s persistence to become a mathematician through innovative and imaginative rendering with lively, colorful detail. She captured how essential numbers were in Sophie’s life. Now, that is distinctive interpretation. Mike, the Muppets are great, but you can’t deny McClintock’s numbers add up to a Caldecott winner.

Mike’s Rebuttal

I like Barbara McClintock’s work very much—but she and Frith illustrate very different kinds of books. It’s like comparing apples to oranges, right?

Actually, no! McClintock illustrated Muppet books, too! And when she goes head-to head against Frith on this level battlefield, the winner is beyond obvious.

Compare this:

To THIS!

Artists who place an emphasis on comedy don’t get the respect they deserve. This is certainly true when it comes to selecting Caldecott honorees. Frith’s books might not feel as important as McClintock’s, but his characters have an appeal that that hers often lack. McClintock’s books are easy to admire and beautiful to look at, but her Sophie, Fraggles, et.al. feel a little too formal and a little too stiff for readers to connect with them emotionally.

My argument for Frith, I think, can be summed up this way: His talent makes me invest in his characters.

***

And that’s the debate! Who made the best argument? Which of your favorite illustrators most deserves a Caldecott? Leave a comment and let us know. Let’s get a conversation started! Let’s get the Caldecott jury to right some wrongs! WOO!

Essays/Book Reviews, On Writing

Street Scenes

The place could use a coat of paint. Otherwise, it’s perfect.

There was a certain magic to Sesame Street in the 1970s that doesn’t quite exist anymore. I came to this realization after borrowing Sesame Street Old School DVDs from the library and revisiting the street I remembered from my childhood. It was a very different place, to say the least.

For one thing, there were hardly any Muppets on the street itself. Yes, Bert and Ernie lived in the basement apartment at 123 – but they were rarely seen outside of it. Herry Monster would show up and occasionally wreak havoc. But really, the only regulars on the street were Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch and, later, Snuffleupagus.

This is a far cry from the Sesame Street of today which frequently plays host to large roving gangs of Muppets, often led by Elmo and his loyal posse: Zoe, Abby, Baby Bear, Rosita, and Telly. Big Bird, Oscar, and Snuffy are there too, of course, and other Muppets can be found hanging out apartment windows.

Basically Muppets have taken over the neighborhood. It is a rare episode to see more than one or two actual human beings take on a significant role in any of the “street stories.”

It’s like a fuzzy, adorable West Side Story

This is a far cry from the street of the 1970s. Adults were everywhere then. They laughed and joked with each other. They did things as a group. It wasn’t unusual to see Maria, Luis, Bob, Gordon, Susan, and David – all young, fun loving, and outgoing – hanging out on the stoop chewing the fat. The friendships between them felt genuine – kind of like what you might see in a real neighborhood. Even the fact that Mr. Hooper was rarely a part of these coffee cloches felt right; he was of a different generation and had a store to run.

The physical characteristics of the street itself also changed over time. Today’s street reflects the slow but steady gentrification of the neighborhood. Sesame Street is now as sunny, bright, and colorful as the many, many Muppets who reside there. It is a beautiful place to be sure, but, like the Muppets, the street doesn’t feel quite genuine. The buildings are too crisp and pristine. It feels a bit too fantastic to be a part of this world.

The street of the 1970s looked lived on. The colors were muted to the point of dingy; the color palette leaned heavily toward, grays, olives, and browns. Fixtures were worn, maybe a little bent or rusty. The buildings were speckled with those mysterious black stains that always seem to find their way on to most every structure that’s more than a few years old. It was a clean street by 1970s standards, but 1970s standards weren’t all that clean. New York was an armpit back then and Sesame sort of fit into that environment.

And this is what made the Sesame Street of my childhood so magical: The place looked ordinary enough to be real.

In fact, almost every kid in my kindergarten class thought they knew where Sesame Street was; any visit to New York offered up dozens of potential sightings.

I, too, was one of the true believers. When I was young, my parents took me to the Bronx Zoo. As soon as we crossed the George Washington Bridge, I had my eyes out the window. I checked the street signs, looked for that familiar stoop, and got giddy enough to do a car dance whenever I found a location that came sort of close. I never did spot that friendly, seven-foot-tall canary, but the delightful possibility that I might was always just around the next corner.

On Writing

My Felty Doppelganger

From left, Ellen and Mike.

My wife, Ellen, describes our relationship as very similar to Bert and Ernie’s. And she’s absolutely right.

I’m Bert. While I have never considered collecting bottlecaps or becoming a pigeon fancier, I do have a rather large collection of Nixon political buttons and own two pet rats. Like Bert, I am also a fussbudget who likes things to be in their proper place.

Another similarity: Bert is the kind of guy who, without Ernie by his side, would live the life of a hermit, emerging from his house only to buy food and confiscate the Frisbees that accidentally land on his lawn. His death would be noticed only after the neighbors started to complain about the smell. Without Ellen, I could see myself moving in this direction. I wouldn’t necessarily be happy about it, but is seems like something I might do if left to my own devices.

Ellen is Ernie. She’s disorganized, peppy, sociable, friendly, and has an easy laugh. Also, she, like her Muppet alter ego, takes giddy delight in getting her Bert’s goat.

Look! Bert even likes goats! If Bert was real, he and I would be best friends!

But when night falls, things change. After the lights are turned off and the house becomes quiet, Ellen and I experience a sort of role reversal. Night is when the silly ideas start to fill my brain and I, like Ernie, have an insatiable desire to share.

“Ellen,” I whisper. “Are you asleep?”

“Mm,” she replies into her pillow.

“I just made up parody lyrics to the song ‘The Candy Man.’ The song from the Willy Wonka movie. The lousy one with Gene Wilder.”

“Don’t.”

“The Pickle Man.”

“Stop right there!”

But I have a song in my heart, so I sing: “Who can make the sun shiiiine, with cucumbers and briiiiine…”

Or I might want to discuss why Act II of The Music Man isn’t nearly as good as Act I. Or quote extensively from Wallace and Gromit. Or think up some titles for the most inappropriate children’s book ever. (My personal favorite: The Sluttiest Mennonite.)

Ellen, like Bert, is less than thrilled by all of this.

“I will kill you,” she says.

From left, Mike and Ellen.

I also come up with ideas that I can use, too. Good ones. My best ones. I share those, too.

I don’t mean to be a pest, it’s just when I lie there in the dark, my mind becomes so very fertile. This is why I love quiet moments. This is why, during the day, I become Bert the loner. And it is also why, at night, I come dangerously close to becoming Ernie the murder victim.

So! Let’s open up the comments section. Here’s a prompt: Which Muppet is your alter ego?