Caldecott. Sendak. Mo. They’re giants in the field of children’s literature, and they are the subjects of three 2013 releases, two at the hands of noted historian and scholar Leonard Marcus—Randolph Caldecott: The Man Who Could Not Stop Drawingand Maurice Sendak: A Celebration of the Artist and His Work—and one introduced by the legendary Eric Carle, Don’t Pigeonhole Me!, a Mo Willems collection. Anyone who follows children’s book illustration with interest could spend many happy hours exploring these entertaining books, each one appealingly designed and providing fresh insight into the celebrated illustrators featured therein.


Both the late Maurice Sendak and author-illustrator Mo Willems have been recognized multiple times by the American Library Association with either Caldecott Honors or the big award itself, the Caldecott Medal. That award wouldn’t be possible without British illustrator Randolph Caldecott, the subject of Leonard Marcus’ new biography for young readers, Randolph Caldecott: The Man Who Could Not Stop Drawing.

As a young man in England, where he was born in 1846, Caldecott made a living as a bank clerk, doodling while on the job; Marcus even treats readers to several of those sketches in this art-filled biography, as well as previously unpublished drawings from the illustrator’s last sketchbook. After he landed his first editorial illustration assignment for a London monthly in 1872, his career accelerated and he became known for his lively illustrations, eventually finding success with picture books in England and the United States. It was in the States that he died while traveling, one month shy of his 40th birthday, and was buried in Florida.

Caldecott is remembered today for his innovative work in merging text and art to tell one seamless story. It’s for this reason that the American Library Association named the award in his honor in 1938. Prior to his time, children’s books included illustrations that made no effort to extend the story told by the words. Caldecott put page-turns to work to add drama, increase tension and establish unique rhythms, and he introduced story elements in his illustrations that were not mentioned in the text, further expanding a book’s storytelling possibilities. This, at the time of Walter Crane and John Tenniel, was revolutionary.

Marcus’ exploration of Caldecott’s pivotal contributions to picture books make this juvenile biography an essential read for picture book lovers of all ages. He tells the story of Caldecott’s life with great reverence (and thorough research), and those who appreciate good design may linger over such things as the thick, cream-colored pages and the endpapers filled with Caldecott’s picture book illustrations.


One of numerous illustrators inspired by Caldecott was Maurice Sendak. He often spoke during his lifetime about his deep respect for Caldecott’s work, even naming his 1989 anthology of essays on writing and illustrating for children Caldecott & Co. Recently, Abrams published Maurice Sendak: A Celebration of the Artist and His Work, a lavish volume edited by Leonard Marcus and released in conjunction with a June 2013 Society of Illustrators exhibition of Sendak’s work.

This one is a must-have for Sendak fans, a compelling tribute to the famed illustrator. It includes 12 essays from art collectors, librarians, editors, fellow illustrators and more. Featuring the private collection of art curators Justin G. Schiller and Dennis M.V. David, the book treats fans to rare drawings, posters, lithographs, sketches, commercial art and design work of all types. Some previously unpublished photos are also on display; Sendak mimicking a Wild Thing doll, circa 1970, captures an impish joy.

The essays in this in-depth volume, many giving us compelling peeks into Sendak’s personality, are not to be outdone by all the rare artwork on display. Author-illustrator Paul O. Zelinsky, whom Sendak taught at Yale, contributes an outstanding essay, writing about Sendak’s energy and conviction as a lecturer and teacher, as well as his disdain for those who condescended to children’s books: “He believed that art can be for children,” Zelinsky writes, “that it mustn’t be treacly or pandering, and that it should be as rich and good as the art that adults want for themselves.”


Like this Sendak tribute, Don’t Pigeonhole Me!—a look at two decades of Mo Willems’ sketches—is aimed squarely at adults. “Mo Willems is a master of the doodle, sketch, cartoon, and scribble,” writes Eric Carle in the book’s foreword. In the introduction, Mo explains that the book—which even shows the birth of the Pigeon, his most famous protagonist—is a culmination of decades of making art that is “purely mine, free from any restrictions, without regard for those who will eventually see it.”

Well, his fans can see it now, and it’s worth their time. It opens with sketches from the early ‘90s and takes readers all the way up to recent sketches made on the butcher paper laid out on the kitchen table in his home, where visitors are encouraged to sketch. Readers see Mo’s personality from just about every angle in this collection of his minimalist cartoon sketches. Some are particularly clever and funny; others, obscure and mildly to moderately amusing. “I was so tired,” Willems writes about the sketches in the “Wise Things” chapter, the most refreshing of them all, “of rendering jolly round-headed scamps that my subconscious just wanted to kill them.” This was the phase, he explains, where an Edward Gorey influence snuck up. The youngest of Pigeon fans need not apply, but for adults, it’s a trip.

The holiday season draws nigh. Consider any—or all, if your pocketbook allows—of these books great gift choices for the picture book fans in your life.

Julie Danielson conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.

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