Hey, Al and the 1987 Caldecott Committee

I love second-guessing the children’s book award committees as much as anyone. I used to even be pretty accurate at predicting what would win the Newbery, though the Caldecott has always been more unpredictable.  I spent a certain amount of time speculating on what the committee might have been thinking when they picked/did not pick a particular book. Maybe the book came out too early. Maybe it came out too late. The number of honor medals given is always great fodder for trying to figure out what motivated the committee–what does a lot mean? What does just one mean? I had some good ideas.

Now I have had the very unsettling experience of having MY committee’s choice publicly labeled as “quirky.” My longtime editor Roger Sutton has berated me for many years that we didn’t select his top pick that year, and others have wondered why another especially strong title that year didn’t win. But it is a really startling experience to have the work of your committee held up to scrutiny after so many years.

K.T. Horning, the extremely astute Director of the Center for Children’s Books, wrote a piece for the November/December 2013 Horn Book as part of a series celebrating the Caldecott’s 75th anniversary. She titled it “Hey, Al and the Quirky Choice,” and in it she says, “The selection left most people scratching their heads, wondering what made this book the ‘most distinguished’ picture book of the year. It may have even caused some to wonder what the word distinguished meant to the 1987 Caldecott committee.” She comments that “The birds that populate paradise are beautiful, and Eddie the loyal dog is appealing, but what kid wants to sit around in a waterfall-fed pool, doing nothing but eating
tropical fruits and sipping drinks all day? This is is clearly an adult’s fantasy.”

Horning also wonders if the Committee was influenced by a discussion going on at the time about the style of picture books that had been winning the Caldecott for the past few years, and if we particularly on the 50th anniversary of the Caldecott wanted to go with something more in keeping with  earlier winners. She wonders if we thought of it as an homage to Where the Wild Things Are.

Even 25 years later, I am still bound by confidentiality–discussions are supposed to be kept secret forever. I think every committee member entrusted with an award grapples with the meaning of the word “distinguished” and that all committees do their best to meet the demand of that word. I can’t say what we discussed, but I can tell you what I think myself about our choice all these years later.

First, 1986 was an incredibly rich year for picture books. The number of excellent books that came out that year was astonishing–I still have a shelf of them because they have stood the test of time that well. Some years, though more with the Newbery than the Caldecott, a particular book just blows the others out of the water, but that was most certainly not the case that year. There were about 15 books that I looked at over and over and over, and tried out on storytime groups and classes in schools multiple times.

Here’s what K.T. misses. Kids love that book. It’s one where the story begins before the first page, so you point out the mop and the bucket before the title page, and then you see Al walking along carrying the bucket and mop accompanied by his dog, Eddie, who is looking worriedly at some birds following close behind them.  You see them walking into their very shabby tiny apartment. In the picture, the room makes a box, the frame of the picture, and the door opens outside of the frame and Al is walking into the picture. You ask the kids to look at the picture, and ask if it looks like a nice place to live. (They don’t think it does.)

The story beguns, “Al, a nice man, a quiet man, a janitor, lived in one room on the West Side with his faithful dog, Eddie. They ate together. They worked together. They watched TV together. What could be bad?” Then at the turn of the page: “Plenty. ‘Look at this dump!” A mysterious giant bird pops his head into the bathroom window and says, “Al, are you working too hard? Still struggling and going nowhere? Hmmmm?” Kids know enough to be wary of sweet-talking strangers, even when they are giant birds, so they are already suspicious.

After the bird returns to pick them up, we get the first double-page spread, with a  island in the sky, which strangely has a giant bird-shaped mountain in the middle. It’s a wow moment, followed by the next double-page spread with another wow as Al and Eddie are unceremoniously dumped onto the island: “Unbelievable! Lush trees, rolling hills, gorgeous grass.” The third double-page spread is the moment that completely grabs the kids.

Hey Al 1

And here’s the thing that they notice that adults don’t always see:

Hey Al 2The beautiful and bizarre birds have human elements. It is a chilling discovery. So while the adult readers are looking at the page with Al leaning back in a waterfall, wearing a lei, with his drink in a umbrella-decorated coconut  beside him and thinking This is an adult fantasy–kids won’t be interested in this, kids already know that Al is in trouble even before the next page where he sprouts wings and his nose begins turning into a beak. At the end, when Al and Eddie have escaped and are joyously reunited after Eddie nearly drowns, the kids notice the newspapers piled up outside of Eddie’s door. They see that on the last page, Al is painting his ugly apartment so it won’t be so ugly anymore, and they notice that the endpaper facing that last page is the same bright yellow that Al is painting his room. It’s an extremely satisfying conclusion.

Now, we don’t pick the Caldecott according to whether it’s a favorite book of kids, but some books don’t come fully to life until you have used them with kids. And the elements of the book that work so well for kids are great picture book-making, with thoughtful endpapers, beautifully composed pictures that draw your eye, entertaining details to find, and the brilliant use of framing. The voice of it is also very strong. I will admit that I don’t care for the last line (“Paradise lost is sometimes Heaven found”) but other than that, I think it’s beautifully paced and with a great relationship between man and dog brought to life.

So those are the things I liked about it. I’ll certainly allow that it might have been a quirky choice, but I stand by it.

Here’s the thing I realized when reading K.T.’s piece. If someone as well-versed, thoughtful, and insightful as K.T. Horning mis-guesses when she’s speculating on what an award committee might have been thinking, then there’s just no question that we are all off by a mile when we try it ourselves. I will be a lot less certain that I know what went on during the discussions and how things played out…not that it will stop me.

To hear the results of this year’s committee discussions as they are being announced, click here on Monday morning, a little before 8am ET. Then speculate away! It’s fun as long as, like K.T., you are respectful to the committee members. We just can’t know what went on in their discussions.

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5 Responses to Hey, Al and the 1987 Caldecott Committee

  1. Deiter says:

    The dodo with the hand is a direct steal from Tenniel’s Alice in Wonderland. It’s a good one though.

    • sdlempke says:

      Oh, agreed, though I’d prefer to think of it as an homage to Tenniel, and probably where they first got the idea for the book. I suppose maybe that’s why kids respond to it so strongly–it’s a new image for them. They also notice the human-like eyes on some of the birds.

  2. KT Horning says:

    Thanks for responding to my speculations. I’m glad to know they were wrong. But here’s the thing: even after reading your post, I still don’t understand why the Caldecott Committee found Hey, Al to be the most distinguished picture book of 1987. I really wish ALSC had a statute of limitations on confidentiality so after 25 years any surviving committee members could talk, not just about the book they chose but why they didn’t choose, say, Brave Irene. I know the committees look at the books really carefully and discuss deeply, so it would be great if they could share their insights into what won and why, and what didn’t and why.

    • sdlempke says:

      No, I can see that–I’d have to write a comparison of Hey, Al against each of the other strong contenders, and even then you would only be getting my opinion. (I adore Brave Irene, for the record.) I love your idea of a statute of limitations but do you suppose it would stifle anyone from speaking frankly in meetings in the future?

      • kthorning says:

        That’s an interesting question, Susan. I think if it were placed at 25 years that would feel like enough time so as not to stifle discussion. And it could still be up to the committee member whether he or she said anything.

        There is no longer anyone around from the 1952 committee who can tell us about why Secret of the Andes won over Charlotte’s Web; however the ballots are in the ALA Archives. Would it matter to know if Secret of the Andes won on the first ballot or if it took five or six? We do at least know they Charlotte’s Web came in second.

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