|Over the last half-century, The New York Times Book Review's annual listing of the year's best illustrated children's books has included so many key titles by leading artists that retrospectively it offers a kind of pictorial guide to modern American childhood.
The first special children's books issue appeared in the fall of 1947. In 1952, just after the first baby boomers went off to kindergarten, the Book Review convened a special art jury -- representatives of the education departments of the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum, and the art department of the paper -- to look at 100 books culled from some 500 published that year. The jury chose and ranked seven, beginning with 'The Magic Currant Bun,' by Andre Francois, and ending with 'A Hole Is to Dig,' illustrated by Maurice Sendak. Ranked No. 5 was 'The Animal Fair,' by Alice and Martin Provensen.
Over the years, the process has remained essentially the same -- three judges, a large number of books culled from an even larger number (we now receive as many as 5,000 children's books a year), a daylong deliberation. The list has evolved to 10 books, and the notion of ranking them disappeared decades ago. The modern jury always includes a librarian who works with books and children and has a sense of what happens when stories are read aloud; a critic with broad experience and a practiced eye; and an artist, usually a winner in a previous year.
The judges' task is very loosely defined. They are not limited to any particular kinds of art, nor are they asked to evaluate the text, if there is one. There's no requirement that the artist live in this country (as there is for the Caldecott Medal, for example, which is given by the American Library Association), or even that he or she be alive; a number of artists have been honored posthumously. And there's no actual prize, though the winners receive a framed certificate with a drawing done by a previous winner.
Where did the idea of the list come from? The Book Review had observed the midcentury by asking a jury of 'experts' to name the 10 best children's book illustrators of the previous 50 years. The judges chose six unanimously: Jean de Brunhoff ('Babar'), Willam Nicholson ('The Pirate Twins'), Wanda Gag ('Millions of Cats'), Ludwig Bemelmans ('Madeline'), Jean Charlot ('Two Little Trains') and Edward Ardizzone ('Little Tim and the Brave Sea Captain'). Emblematic images from their books appeared on a full page in November 1950. The other artists chosen were C. Lovat Fraser, Leslie Brooke, Alexander Calder and Feodor Rojankovsky. In 1951, the editors came up with the idea of having children illustrate scenes from their favorite books, and the following year they went back to a grown-up jury and made the selection of outstanding illustrated books an annual event.
Why so much attention to illustrated books? Picture books are, in a real sense, the first formal art children are shown. And do they study it carefully! Watch a baby or young toddler with a favorite, poring over a detail -- a cat or a cloud. Listen to preschoolers, after their lights are out, telling themselves the stories they love. As Karla Kuskin has said, the great picture books are more like opera than anything else, with the images and words completely intertwined. Affectionate memories remain, even if the kinds of books children like change as they grow.
Generally a sturdy kindergartner disdains what a toddler loves. Someone going into middle school may be past storybooks, reading fluently beyond Harry Potter, yet may well spend time with biographies characterized by lavish illustrations filled with period details. Furthermore, in our increasingly diverse society, in the absence of common texts like the Bible, children's books (and, to be fair, movies and television series) are what young people share in common. Go to school assemblies and graduations, eavesdrop in college dorms or downtown bars, and their influence is unmistakable. You'll hear people talking about 'Green Eyes,' 'The Red Balloon,' 'Where the Wild Things Are,' 'The Three Robbers,' 'Swimmy,' 'The Bear and the Fly,' 'A Peaceable Kingdom: The Shaker Abecedarius,' 'The People Could Fly,' 'Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs,' 'The Polar Express,' 'The Ox-Cart Man,' 'The Stinky Cheese Man.'
The forms that books for children can take have largely been shaped by the startling richness of contemporary illustration and by the sheer range of techniques available. Modern color reproduction and printing have made drawings, watercolors, oil painting, gouache, collage, photography, woodcuts, computer-generated images and other forms look better and better.
Adults tell children that art is universal, and over the decades the panels of judges have selected children's books by artists from around the world. No year is exactly typical, but this year half of the winning titles are by artists who live and work abroad, whose illustrations also suggest the range of possibility. Christine Davenier, who is French and lives in Paris, illustrates many books by American authors with a Gallic flair, including 'The First Thing My Mama Told Me.' Georg Hallensleben was born in Germany and lived in Rome for decades. He too now lives in Paris and has illustrated many books for younger children published in America; 'Close Your Eyes' is his sixth collaboration with Kate Banks. 'Yellow Umbrella,' illustrated by Jae Soo Liu, who lives and works in Korea, is wordless -- open to interpretation by all ages, everywhere. 'The Little Chick,' written and illustrated by John Lawrence, who is English, is for toddlers and preschoolers, while 'The Last Resort,' illustrated by Roberto Innocenti, who lives in Italy, is for very sophisticated older children and adults; its subject is ostensibly Innocenti himself.
In one case, the work of a single artist encompasses the range of postwar American childhood experience. Maurice Sendak indisputably dominates the Book Review's list and the public consciousness of children's books in the second half of the 20th century. His second book was on the first list in 1952, and 'The Nutcracker,' in 1984, was his 20th appearance. His work includes some of the great anchors of American experience: 'Where the Wild Things Are,' 'In the Night Kitchen,' 'The Animal Family,' 'Outside Over There.'
But if Sendak presides, The Times's list has regularly identified newcomers who have gone on to outstanding careers. Among the debut books cited have been David Macaulay's 'Cathedral' (1973); Chris Van Allsburg's 'Garden of Abdul Gasazi' (1979); 'Rainbow Rhino' (1987), the first book both written and illustrated by Peter Sis; Faith Ringgold's 'Tar Beach' (1991); Carla Golembe's first illustrated book, 'Why the Sky Is Far Away' (1992); and Lane Smith's 'Halloween ABC' (1987). 'The Maid and the Mouse and the Odd-Shaped House,' the first book written and illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky, was on the list in 1981, and he appears this year for the fifth time with 'Knick-Knack Paddywhack!,' the first book with moving parts to appear on the list.
Careers are long in the world of children's books -- see Sendak, Irene Haas, Alice Provensen, Laurent de Brunhoff, early winners and all still productive. But while the judges are quick to recognize new talent, they often see right beyond the work of artists at the top of their form precisely because it is, to them, so familiar. Years pass, and then there are charming surprises, the kind that mature artists particularly appreciate. Simms Taback was on the list in 1965 with 'Please Share That Peanut!' and again in 1997 with 'There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly.' 'Kangaroo and Kangaroo,' by K. Braun, illustrated by Jim McMullan, was on that same 1965 list, and 'I Stink!,' by Kate McMullan, illustrated by Jim McMullan, appears this year.
As with vintages, there have been some very good years in modern children's books -- but with few bad ones in between. I could tell you some of my favorites, but you can find the entire list of the best illustrated books since 1952 on the Web.
Eden Ross Lipson is the children's books editor of the Book Review and the author of 'The New York Times Parent's Guide to the Best Books for Children.'
(New York Times Book Review, US)