Monday, August 20, 2012

1946 to 1994...A Small Step Forward or a Great Leap Backward?

As summer begins to wane, I'm still plowing through my stacks of award winners to read (and sometimes reread). Reading through the Caldecott Medal books is often a sheer joy for the eyes. The Caldecott Medal is awarded annually by the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association, to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children. Today I read:

Timothy Turtle
by Al Graham
illustrated by Tony Palazzo
Caldecott Honor, 1946

First things first, much of the award books from the 1940's  have a more non-fiction feel to them. Some of them don't read like "storybooks" or your typical picture book at all. Of course, the 1940's were the war years, and I don't know the specific reason why things weren't being written that were fantastical, but I'm sure someone has studied it.

Timothy Turtle reads like a story. Timothy Turtle isn't happy with his daily life as a ferry service for other animals. Timothy makes enough money, has fruit by the bushel, and a stash of soda-pop and cake (what?) but he is still not content. Timothy's lament is that he isn't famous, and he wants to be noticed. Timothy sets off on an adventure where he will "Wander -- beyond even yonder incline". Of course everyone tells him not to be a "dunderhead" but he will not be swayed.
"Ho for the sport of the gallant and strong, Ho for the gallant and game!"
He goes on his wander, climbs up a hill, nearly gets hit by a rolling rock and finds himself stuck flat on his back. Well, I won't give away the ending, but he does make it "Home to a chorus of turtle-acclaim; Home to contentment -- and permanent fame".

The book itself isn't necessarily the greatest story, and the illustrations are alright, but monotone, nothing breathtaking. However the thing that stood out while reading this book was the language. The language of a child's picture book from the 1940's reads like something we would question a middle schooler of today sounding out. The text flows with cadence and rhythm, and the word choices are great. It's a fun book to read aloud.

After reading this, I'm stuck pondering the mystery of what has happened to children's literature? Why is a book from 1946 filled with vocabulary such as this? Why have many recent books been so "dumbed down"?

In startling comparison is another Caldecott Honor Award book from 1994:

Yo! Yes?
written and illustrated by Chris Raschka
Caldecott Honor, 1994

Jump ahead almost 50 years and see that an award winning book for children is full of simplistic one-syllable words. My critique isn't the story, it tells of two boys meeting, getting to know each and in the end being friends...nothing wrong with that, right? But again, SIMPLISTIC. Why have we jumped to the point where books are simple one-syllable words? Just something to ponder.

Again, my critique isn't this book, it's just in looking at the bigger picture, why do we think that children cannot understand, or follow, read or enjoy a book with stronger vocabulary? Are we cheating children by not challenging them to stretch their reading skills? What would the challenge be if a child had to use a dictionary to look up a word they didn't know?

I want to point out that I find Chris Raschka, the author and illustrator of this book, to be a great artist. He won the Caldecott Medal in 2006 for his illustrations for:

The Hello, Goodbye Window

(a book that I love!)

and again this year, 2012, with

A Ball for Daisy

which I wrote about here:

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