recess radio program

01/11/05
Caldecott's Picture Books
    by Rita Smith

I love Randolph Caldecott's picture books for children. Many people are familiar with his name because the Caldecott Medal, given annually to the most distinguished American picture book, is named for him, but the 16 picture books he illustrated are worth getting to know, too.

The text is usually a simple nursery rhyme which Caldecott expands through his illustrations to include humor and a depth of meaning that just isn't there in the rhyme itself. Bye Baby Bunting, published in 1883, is an example of this: Bye, baby bunting / Father's Gone a hunting / Gone to fetch a rabbit-skin / To wrap the baby bunting in. Caldecott converts this simple four line nursery rhyme into a twelve page picture book filled with spontaneity, humor and the unexpected. The first pictures show a cozy domestic scene: mother, father, brother, baby, nurse, and dog. Then comes the double page spread of father out on the moor searching for a rabbit. He carries a rifle and is dressed in full hunting regalia; his coat tails fly as he gallops back and forth across the moor all day, his faithful dog at his side. There is not a rabbit to be seen anywhere. The next page shows father and dog, undaunted, heading into town where they stop at a retail establishment that deals in rabbit skins and father simply buys a skin. Then they are back at home, with baby happily wrapped in the rabbit-skin coat. Here the text ends, but Caldecott has one more picture up his pen. The final illustration shows the mother and baby, who is wrapped in his warm rabbit coat, going for a walk. They are on a sidewalk rounding a little hill, and on the hill sit nine adorable little bunnies. The child looks at the bunnies and on his face is an expression of astonishment and dismay with the dawning realization that his wonderful coat was once a live bunny rabbit just like those sitting on the hill.

Maurice Sendak, an illustrator who has been inspired by the work of Caldecott writes, "After the [humor] of what had preceded, the final scene strikes a poignant note. Caldecott is ...too elegant an artist to become melodramatic; he never forces an issue, he just touches it lightly. And you can't really say it's a tragedy, but something hurts, like a shadow passing over quickly. It is this which gives a Caldecott book - however frothy its rhythms, verse, and pictures - an unexpected depth ... and its special value.1....Caldecott never tells half-truths about life," Sendak concludes, "and his honest vision, expressed with such conviction and robust energy, is one that children instinctively recognize and appreciate as true to their own lives."2

Notes:

1 Sendak, Maurice, "An Appreciation," in The Randolph Caldecott Treasury, Elizabeth T. Billington, ed. New York and London: Frederick Warne. 1978, p. 13.
2 Ibid., p. 14.

Sources:

Caldecott, Randolph, Hey Diddle-Diddle and Baby Bunting. London: George Routledge & Sons. 1882.

The Randolph Caldecott Treasury, Elizabeth T. Billington, ed. New York and London: Frederick Warne. 1978.

Copyright 2005 Rita Smith

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