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Posts Tagged ‘Caldecott Medal’

Mei Li

Posted by Tracy Poff on March 16, 2014

Mei Li wishes to go to the New Year Fair in the city, but little girls always have to stay home. Undaunted, she sneaks out to visit the city, following her brother. What adventures await?

MeiLi-cover

Thomas Handforth’s Mei Li is the winner of the 1939 Caldecott Medal. Unlike the previous winner, Animals of the BibleMei Li is a real picture book.

The story centers around a young Chinese girl, Mei Li, who is unsatisfied with remaining at home, while the New Year Fair is going on. “If I always stay at home,” she asks, “what can I be good for?” So off she goes to have adventures like her brother, San Yu. He wonders what a girl could do at the fair, but she bribes him to take her with him, all the same.

The fair is as exciting as Mei Li had hoped, and she shows her doubting brother all the things that a girl can do, at the fair. Looking at a group of circus performers, she tells him, “They can walk on stilts. They can balance on a tight-rope. They can throw pots and pans in the air with their feet. And so can I!”

Mei Li doesn’t juggle pots and pans with her feet, but she does ask a strong circus girl to lift her upside-down in the palm of her hand; she feeds a bear a bit of bean-cake; and she dances on the back of a circus pony. Later, a fortune teller predicts that Mei Li will rule over a kingdom–naturally, she believes him. Soon after, they must hurry home, so they will be in time to greet the Kitchen God.

When she returns home, Mei Li’s mother refers to her as “the princess who rules our hearts.” She is surely a princess, but what sort of kingdom will she rule over? That night, the Kitchen God explains:

“This house is your kingdom and palace. Within its walls all living things are your loyal, loving subjects.”

Mei Li sighed happily, “It will do for a while, anyway.”

Mei Li is based on Handforth’s experiences while living in China for six years, beginning in 1931, the characters and drawings are based on people he knew, and the titular heroine is based on Pu Mei Li, a four-year-old girl he met there. Much more information about this, including a photograph of the real Mei Li holding Handforth’s picture book, can be found in this article from The Horn Book Magazine by Kathleen Horning (who, coincidentally, wrote From Cover to Cover: Evaluating and Reviewing Children’s Books, which I read almost exactly two years ago).

MeiLi-panorama

The illustrations are in ink, done with a brush, which Handforth felt better captured the spirit of China. Few of the illustrations feature any background, but the figures represented are generally very dynamic. The book does feature a number of two-page spreads, varying text positioning depending on the artwork. The illustrations depict the actual scenes in the book, making Mei Li much more of a ‘real’ picture book than its predecessor for the Caldecott Medal.

Mei Li has been criticized for sexism. Not without grounds: Mei Li is told that her ‘kingdom’ is the home, and the book ends with a poem extolling the virtues of a woman who keeps a good house:

This is the thrifty princess,
Whose house is always clean,
No dirt within her kingdom
Is ever to be seen.

Her food is fit
For a king to eat,
Her hair and clothes
Are always neat.

Furthermore, Mei Li is shown to be frightened of fireworks, allowing San Yu to set them off while she plugs her ears, and she gives her last lucky penny to San Yu to throw at a bell (for the promise of money all year), since she is sure that she could never hit it.

I think these criticisms are a little misguided; at least, they don’t look at the whole picture. Compare what Mei Li does at the fair to what San Yu does: while Mei Li balances upside down on a circus performer’s hand, San Yu dresses up as a wise man for a play; while Mei Li feeds a real bear a cake, to show her bravery, San Yu pretends to hunt a lion that is really two boys with a mask; Mei Li dances on the back of a prancing horse, after which San Yu throws her penny at a bell and goes off to buy a kite (a fake hawk, which he later uses to frighten Mei Li). Mei Li’s adventures at the fair are real, and San Yu’s are merely imaginary. Certainly it is Mei Li who comes off best in their little competition!

Too, Mei Li gives her first lucky penny to a beggar girl she meets when entering the city, and it’s that girl who holds the gates open so that she can leave the city and return home to greet the Kitchen God, “And even five policemen and five soldiers could not force her away until Mei Li was through the gate.” Not so easily cowed, this girl!

Finally, though the statement of the Kitchen God that the house is Mei Li’s kingdom may be reinforcing the domestic role of women, Mei Li responds that it will do “for a while, anyway”, which also means that eventually, it won’t be enough. And Handforth wrote, of the real Mei Li:

No Empress Dowager was ever more determined than she. A career is surely ordained for her, other than being the heroine of a children’s book.

Certainly some older children’s books do not stand the test of time, as cultural values march on (The Five Chinese Brothers or Shen of the Sea, both coincidentally also dealing with China, are examples of this, for different reasons), but I wouldn’t fear to recommend Mei Li.

Relatively little is to be found online about this book or its author. There is some other material from The Horn Book Magazine, linked above, including the magazine’s contemporary review of the book, written by Elizabeth Coatsworth, originally published in the July-August 1939 issue. The Art Institute of Chicago, The Smithsonian American Art Museum, and The Seattle Public Library Northwest Art Collection each provide a few samples of Handforth’s other art, including one picture which must (I think) have been the original model for a scene from Mei Li.

Altogether, I find Mei Li to be a much worthier recipient of the Caldecott Medal than its predecessor, and a good book, besides. I hope that the later recipients continue more in this vein!

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Animals of the Bible: A Picture Book

Posted by Tracy Poff on March 12, 2014

Animals feature prominently in the Bible. Animals of the Bible: A Picture Book collects passages from the King James Bible, selected by Helen Dean Fish, that relate to animals, and pairs them with illustrations by Dorothy P. Lathrop.

1938_Animals_of_the_Bible

For children’s literature, two awards are preeminent: the Newbery Medal, first awarded in 1922, for children’s literature; and the Caldecott Medal, first awarded in 1938, for picture books. Each has been awarded to some truly outstanding literature, over the years.

It has also, apparently, been awarded to some less-than-excellent books.

Animals of the Bible is less of a picture book, and more a series of drawings, each with an (extended) epigraph selected from the Bible. One can hardly criticize the quality of a set of Biblical quotations, each at most, perhaps, a dozen verses together, but it can be said that the text certainly forms no story, nor teaches anything in particular, nor has any coherent theme. It’s more what I would expect from a Bible-themed calendar than a Caldecott winner.

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Even the illustrations are something of a mixed bag. The animals are, as the introduction insists, generally relatively lifelike. The humans, though… well, just look at them. The prodigal son, there, looks as flat and oddly-posed as a thirteenth-century Madonna. Worse, really–especially in comparison to the substantially more realistic swine.

I suppose it was overly optimistic of me to assume that this book must be very good, just because it was a Caldecott winner–particularly since it was the first Caldecott winner. It’s remained in print, all these years, on strength (I imagine) of that award. But it doesn’t measure up to its successors.

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The Big Snow

Posted by Tracy Poff on August 31, 2011


Some animals leave for warmer climates when winter approaches, while others store up food or prepare in other ways. When a big snow comes and covers up all the food, the animals must rely on the kindness of an old man and woman who feed them to help them through the harsh winter.

The Big Snow by Berta and Elmer Hader is a children’s picture book which receive the Caldecott Medal in 1949. It tells of how different animals prepare for the coming winter, and how they survive after a big snow.

The art is charming. Some pages are black-and-white, done in pencil, while others contain watercolors. The penciled illustrations are quite detailed, and the watercolors are lovely, too.

Although the animals are ultimately secure, I think it’s a little sad that all their preparation was for naught. It makes the deer, who believed that there would be food for all, growing plentifully, seem quite foolish. Then again, they are just animals.

The Big Snow is an excellent children’s book, featuring many creatures, beautifully illustrated. Definitely recommended.

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