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Roaring Success

Illustration by Ali Abarca
Illustration by Ali Abarca

Every morning, Amos McGee politely asks his sugar bowl for a spoonful of sugar for his oatmeal and two for his teacup. Then he ambles out the door. Amos is the city zookeeper, and his closest friends are the zoo’s inhabitants: an elephant, a tortoise, a penguin, a rhinoceros, and an owl. One day, when Amos wakes up ill and must stay home from work, his friends from the zoo surprise him at his house, passing the time with him until nightfall.

Amos and his friends live in a simple world of quiet pastels and soft sketches—they live in a picture book. A Sick Day for Amos McGee, created by author-illustrator team Philip and Erin Stead, won this year’s Caldecott Medal, the country’s most prestigious award for picture book illustrators. It is the third Caldecott winner to be published by Roaring Brook Press, which this year celebrates its tenth anniversary of producing high quality, hardcover, “literary” children’s books.

Though it started small in Brookville, Connecticut, Roaring Book is now an imprint of New York publishing goliath Macmillan. Simon Boughton, Roaring Brook’s founder and publisher, still resides in Westport, where he supports the local children’s libraries—arranging, for example, for Erin Stead to come speak to the lucky children of Fairfield County.

Poetic picture books are Roaring Brook’s specialty. Its other Caldecott winners are My Friend Rabbit (2003) and The Man Who Walked Between the Towers (2004). First the Egg, also published by Roaring Brook, was a Caldecott runner-up in 2008.

The Association for Library Services to Children, or ALSC, awards the Caldecott prize. The organization prescribes specific criteria for Caldecott winners, but Thom Barthelmess, a career children’s librarian currently serving on the faculty of the graduate library school at Dominican University and the president of the ALSC since 2009, said it really boils down to this: A good picture book is born when “first, the people making the book have something to say, and second, they have a way to say it that is somehow meaningful, that has some kind of relationship to the story itself.”

Maybe the success of Roaring Brook can be traced to its small size. It publishes fewer books than its competitors but publishes them more carefully. Boughton likes to seek out authors and artists who are overlooked by larger operations and offer them an “old-fashioned, small-shop kind of attention.” Boughton also credited Roaring Brook with having top-notch editors. A good children’s book editor, he said, can read just a few words on a piece of paper and envision the whole work with illustration. A good editor can judge “what is going to appeal not just to children but also to the people who put picture books in the hands of children.”

Roaring Brook has maintained its focus on picture books at a time when teen fiction is receiving most of the youth publishing industry’s attention. The exact reasons for the teen fiction phenomenon are debated in the industry, but kids are undeniably starting to read black-and-white fiction at a younger age. As a result, Boughton said, “the old fashioned traditional picture book has gotten squeezed.”

Still, the picture book remains an indispensable literary genre. And in terms of child development, picture books teach concepts like colors and the alphabet as well as lessons in emotions like friendship, love, and anger. “Whatever emotion you want to name, there’s a picture book that deals with it,” Boughton said.

In Barthelmess’s estimation, “really genius picture books” are ones that play around with the relationship between text and illustration—the ones in which the words tell one story, the pictures tell another, and there’s a third story in the words and pictures together. As an example, Barthelmess likes to discuss 1996 Caldecott winner Officer Buckle and Gloria. Officer Buckle is a safety officer whose lectures to schoolchildren go from being dreaded to loved after he is assigned a police dog, Gloria. The text suggests that he’s giving safety tips and the kids are really enjoying it, but the pictures show that while he is presenting, Gloria is behind him, goofily acting out his words. The text tells his story. The pictures tell hers. The book is complete only when the two are fused.

Picture books, Boughton said, tend to succeed in the “space between the words and the pictures,” not on the strength of one or the other. The whole of a picture book is greater than the sum of its parts.

And they add up to a lot, Barthelmess explained. “You’re beginning to lay the foundation, the scaffold, for deeper literary understandings and investigation throughout the rest of their life,” he said. “You don’t sit a three year old down and say, ‘We’re going to read A Sick Day for Amos McGee so you’ll be ready to read Hamlet later.’ But in fact that’s what’s happening.”

Boughton told me that illustrated picture books become art objects as well as literature—and when you hold it in your hand, Sick Day does feel like a work of art. Words aside, the pictures are lovely. The turtle carries Amos’s teapot and cup to him on his back, the scarf-clad rhinoceros holds out a tissue on his horn, the penguin watches his red balloon float toward the moon as his friends sleep piled up beneath him. The words tell us that Amos says goodnight to his friends, but they cannot capture the way Amos rests his hand on the elephant’s trunk, rubs his toes against the rhino’s snout, or holds the penguin under his arm as they crowd together on the bed before sleeping.

Artists are embracing Photoshop and other digital tools, incorporating them into their illustrations. Many picture books are now available for iPad and other electronic devices. But in Sick Day, all of the illustrations were hand-sketched, hand-carved, and hand-painted. As Barthelmess put it, “They’re painterly. They’re intended to look personal, like a human made them.”

Above all, books like this are one proof of Barthelmess’s belief that there will always be people who “are committed to the beauty of an honest story.” Sick Day is, as Boughton put it, “a book about friendship, a book about having the day off, a book about going somewhere.” Timeless themes, in literature and in life.

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