Saturday, June 28, 2014

Picture This!

What’s your favorite picture book? The Story of Babar? Bill and Pete Go Down the Nile? The Very Hungry Caterpillar? Where the Wild Things Are

Picture books tell a story with words and pictures together. Although usually written for children, these short books can be enjoyed and appreciated by people of all ages. Whenever you read one to your favorite child, you should thank a man named Randolph Caldecott, father of the modern picture book.

Caldecott was a British artist who lived in the 19th century. Although he died young, at only 39 years of age, he had a great influence on children’s art. Many of his illustrations featured bright colors, humor, and a sense of motion—as if the characters are about to leap right off the page.

A Caldecott illustration

When Caldecott was only six, his mother died. That was the same year he began to draw. Although his heart was damaged by rheumatic fever, young Randolph loved the outdoors and sports. And he took every chance he could to enjoy both.

He did well in school, even though he doodled in his textbooks and spent his spare time exploring the countryside. At age 14, he finished school, and his father arranged for him to get a job as a clerk at a bank in Whitchurch, Shropshire—not far from his home. Of course, what Randolph really wanted to do was to be an artist, but he kept in practice by drawing sketches of people around the bank. And the bank job gave him a lot of free time for hunting, fishing, and art.

Randolph knew that his whimsical drawings would never hang in art museums alongside Rembrandt and Van Gogh. But there was a growing need for illustrations for newspapers and magazines, and he was hoping to break into that market.

After a year in Whitchurch, he saw his chance. A fire broke out at the Queen’s Railway Hotel. Caldecott had to go to the scene and draw the burning building. Then he sent his sketch by rail to the Illustrated London News, where an engraving was made from his drawing. The illustration ran in the Dec. 7th issue, a few days after the fire. His name didn’t even appear on the sketch when it was printed, but the important thing was that his art had been published. He had made the first step toward a new career.

Over time he had more illustrations published, and he began to create children’s books as well. He used few words and let the pictures help to tell the story. Picture books of today use techniques that Caldecott pioneered.

And the dish ran away with the spoon....

Finally, he was able to quit working at the bank. He moved to London to pursue his art full time. And although his paintings might not hang on the walls of the world’s great museums, his work was loved and appreciated by many—including the artists Gauguin and Van Gogh.

Today, one of the most prestigious awards in art bears Caldecott’s name. Each year — beginning in 1938 — the Association for Library Service to Children has presented the Caldecott Medal to the artist of the "most distinguished American picture book for children." The honorees have included such well-known artists as Jerry Pinkney, Gerald McDermott, Leo Leoni, David Macaulay, Tomie dePaola, Maurice Sendak,  and Dr. Seuss. 

Owl Moon, a Caldecott winner

Look for the Caldecott emblem on picture books in your local library — and remember the kid who doodled in his schoolbooks, Randolph Caldecott.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for prompting me to look up the list of Caldecott winners! Make Way for Ducklings, my Robert McCloskey, was one of my favorites growing up. I just learned he grew up and worked in Hamilton, Ohio, just down the road from my home. I want to go visit his museum. I didn't realize Where The Wild Things Are was written way back in 1964. Sendak was ahead of his time. That was my boys favorite. And the Polar Express was another family fave. I think I will begin ordering the winners, from 2014 going backwards, from my local library. What a fun summer project! Joel will enjoy reading them with me.