Next week I'll be attending the ALA Midwinter convention, and I'm pretty much thrilled. Not only is it my first trade show as an almost-librarian, it's also the one where the ALA Youth Media Awards are announced. You probably know these awards more by their individual names: Caldecott, Newbery, Printz, Coretta Scott King, Sibert, etc. This is a big deal for us kidlit folks - think the Oscars for children's book geeks. Swoon!
The Awards will be announced on Monday, and the kidlitosphere is all abuzz in predictions. (Pragmatic Mom has a nice rundown of the frontrunners compiled from some heavy hitters in kidlit.) Usually I don't dip my toe into those waters, preferring to watch from the sidelines and root for my own favorites to take the top prize, or at least an Honor. But this year I'm putting it out there in the form of my own pick for the Caldecott, the prize for illustration: Unspoken by Henry Cole.
Unspoken, according to the author's note, arose out of his history of living in Loudoun County, Virginia, an area steeped in connections to the Civil War. Cole reports growing up hearing stories from elderly relatives, themselves connected in some way to people who had lived during the war. And so, Cole recounts, "It's not so suprising that I wanted to create a picture book that was evocative of that era. . . . I wanted to tell -- or show -- the courage of everyday people who were brave in quiet ways."
And that's exactly what Cole has done. In this evocative book, we are transported to a homestead during the Civil War, when a young girl living on the farm discovers a runaway slave hiding in the family's barn. She knows what she's expected to do, to raise the alarm, and yet the look in the stranger's eyes convinces her otherwise. She begins to sneak out food, day by day, bit by bit. Then one day slavers come looking, asking questions. The girl watches, hidden, and fearful for her friend's life. Later, she sneaks to the barn, underneath the night sky with the North Star shining bright overhead. And there she finds her friend has gone, but left behind a gift: a smiling doll, fashioned from the cornstalks behind which the slave found refuge.
Unspoken is a bit of an unusual choice for an award winner: it features a black-and-white palette AND it's wordless. The two characteristics themselves aren't that uncommon - Chris Van Allsburg won the prize for his black-and-white Jumanji, for instance, and Jerry Pinkney for the wordless The Lion and the Mouse. But the two together? That's a bit of a stretch for some. And then let's not forget that this is a historical title to boot.
But quite honestly I don't think any of these factors, taken singly or together, should stand in the way of Cole receiving the top honor this year. Because this, my friends, is a simply extraordinary picture book. There's so much we don't know -- who the slave is, why he or she found this place, where he/she is headed next -- but none of that alters one bit of the power of this story. Cole's use of pencil brings the stark contrast of light and dark to the forefront, where it belongs in a book about slavery and the Underground Railroad. The expressiveness of the features on the characters, in particular our heroine, communicates so much beyond the thread of narrative - it tells of the emotions that surround the difficult choice one girl must make, the connection she feels to someone she knows not at all, and the fear she experiences when it seems her bravery may be uncovered. Cole goes far beyond technical skill here, to tell a story of courage in the face of danger, of hope in the midst of unspeakable fear.
Unspoken, for me, elevates the picture book format to art form in a way that I think might cause even non-picture book fans to stop and take note. And, whether or not the committee agrees, that's the mark of a winner in my eyes.
Unspoken by Henry Cole, published by Scholastic Press
Ages 4 and up
Bonus: a review of Unspoken from Kirkus Reviewer Julie Danielson