It is interesting to look over the production rate of those artists who have won the Caldecott Award in past years. Some claim that the medal itself launched their career in picture book illustration.
Leo and Diane Dillon admitted as much when they were in Salt Lake City recently, saying that the award given to their two picture books that won in back-to-back years - "Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People's Ears" in 1976 and the 1977 medalist, "Ashanti to Zulu: African Traditions" - "really legitimized (their) work."Other young artists, Eke Chris VanAllsburg and Paul Goble, found a willing market for their talents after the national award and have produced books nearly every year since becoming Caldecott winners.
Gerald McDermott was a filmmaker when one of his films, "Arrow to the Sun," was put in book form and won the Caldecott Award in 1975. Since then, many of his picture books have received ac-claim: "Raven: A Trickster Tale from the Pacific Northwest" received a Caldecott Honor Award in 1994.
Other Caldecott Award winners had a long career in publishing before they won the medal.
Such is the case of William Steig, whose essays, sketches and novels were well-known before his picture books. In 1970, William Steig's "Sylvester and the Magic Pebble" won a Caldecott Award. Since then, Steig has illustrated over two dozen picture books that have received varied honors: for example, "Doctor De Soto" (American Book Award, 1983; the International Board on Books for Young People Honor List, 1984; Newbery Honor Book, 1983), "Dominic" (Christopher Award for illustrating excellence, 1972) and "The Amazing Bone" (Caldecott Honor, 1977). He has won praise for his "total works," both at state and national levels.
McDermott and Steig both have new picture books that bring a contrast of mediums and intensity into focus. One is a masterful look at mythology with symbolic designs and intense color. The other is a simple telling of a game played with a child who is feeling out-of-sorts.
"Musicians of the Surf' by Gerald McDermott (Simon & Schuster) is based on lost fragments of the mythological traditions of the Aztecs. "When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in 1519, they subjugated the Aztecs," writes McDermott. "They burned almost all the precious bark-paper manuscripts that recorded customs, history and religion."
McDermott found the story of the sun gods and the musicians in a 16th Century French translation, "Histoyre du Mechique." Variations of the tale have appeared in Historia ecelsiastica indiana (1597) and the Monarquia indiana (1615). His interpretation includes the Aztec deity Tezcatlipoca, Lord of the Night, and the creatures that accompany his winsome ways.
In this mythological telling, the Lord of the Night summons the wind god, Ecehatl, to bring music and color to Earth. To do this, Ecehatl must battle the sun and free the four musicians held prisoner there. Each of the musicians are represented by colors basic to the primal palette.
McDermott's illustrations were rendered in acrylic fabric paint, opaque ink and oil pastel on paper that was handmade in Mexico.
"Pete's a Pizza" by William Steig (HarperCollins) is one of the cleverest books I have seen in a long time. It will certainly appeal to all households when children are in a bad mood.
When Pete's father sees how miserable Pete is, he attempts to cheer him up by making him into a pizza. First he lays him on the kitchen table and "kneads the dough," (rolling Pete over and over). Then he stretches the dough and whirls and twirls it in the air. He oils the dough (using water), puts on flour (really talcum powder) and adds tomatoes (checkers). The dough gets tickled and "rolled," then laid on the couch (in the oven) until it is nice and hot. When it's time to slice the pizza, "the pizza runs away and the pizza-maker chases him. The pizza gets captured and hugged."
Steig's illustrations are his trademark: simple line drawings with a touch of watercolor to augment the scene. Moods are achieved through subtle facial expressions: rounded eyes that portray surprise and arched eyebrows that convey feelings of humor and glee. The force of Steig's work can be seen in the mastery of a single line interwoven with a well-focused text carried through to a successful conclusion.
It is a book like this that helps us recall Crocker Johnson's words about the "seemingly simple" that is not simple at all.
"Pete's a Pizza" is based on a game that Steig used to play with his youngest daughter. It is obvious that this game holds many happy memories for the family, especially the artist, who celebrated his 90th birthday last year.