By judging thoughtfully, we grow in understanding

Sometimes you can judge a book by its cover.

Just ask the fifth-graders at Altamont Elementary School. As their teacher Robert Whiteman put it, they spent last Friday “locked down” in the library — reading, discussing, and arguing about books.

“This book doesn’t have a title, but it doesn’t need one,” Ryan Murphy told his classmates as he held up Jerry Pinkney’s picture book. One side of the book’s dust jacket was filled with a painting of a lion. The other side was filled with a painting of a mouse.

With the dust jacket removed, the front cover had a smaller painting of a lion next to a smaller painting of a mouse. The portraits were joined by an ampersand. The back cover had the words “The Lion & the Mouse.”

Ryan liked the book. As he told his classmates about the artwork, he opened to a painting of the lion holding out its paw.

“What do we call this?” prompted librarian Anne Johnson who had taught the children the vocabulary to discuss artwork and layout.

“A two-page spread,” said Ryan, continuing, “The lion looks surprised.”

“I think he looks terrified,” countered Regan Roberts, a classmate wearing a sparkling silver beret. Ah, yes, the detailed drawing was open to interpretation. It made you think about what the lion was feeling and why.

Later, Whiteman told the children that Pinkney had started out telling the fable of the lion and the mouse — the mighty king of the jungle is held in a rope trap until the humble mouse can chew through to set him free — with words as well as pictures. But, the more Pinkney worked on the pictures, the less he needed the words. “There are only two words left in the book,” said Whitman.

Ryan named them: “squeak” and “roar.”

Pinkney won the 2010 Caldecott Medal for his illustrations in the book. The American Library Association each year gives out the country’s top awards for children’s books — the Newbery and Caldecott medals. The Randolph Caldecott Medal is awarded for the “most distinguished American picture book for children” and the John Newbery Medal is for the “most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.” John Newbery published children’s books in England in the 1700s, and Randolph Caldecott, an English artist, illustrated books in the late 1800s.

It was appropriate that Pinkney was a Caldecott winner since the famous illustrator for whom the medal was named was known for using pictures, rich with subtleties, in place of words. A verse G.K. Chesterton inscribed in a Caldecott picture book that he gave to a child goes like this:

 

This is the sort of book we like

(For you and I are very small),

With pictures stuck in anyhow

And hardly any words at all....

 

Stand up and keep your childishness:

Read all the pedants’ screed and strictures;

But don’t believe in anything

That can’t be told in coloured pictures.’’

 

So yes, indeed, Ryan judged a book by its cover — in an informed way that he shared with others; he learned from it and liked it.

Although being judgmental is often seen as a flaw, judging, when it is informed and open-minded, can have great value. The Altamont fifth-graders were well schooled in the words and pictures they were judging. The kids have spent weeks reading this year’s Newbery contenders and last Friday they went through stacks of former Caldecott winners to educate themselves. As each looked at a book, she or he carefully wrote observations on Post-It Notes to share later with their classmates.

“Use book terms,” Whiteman urged them. “Go into detail beyond ‘pretty’ and ‘cool.’ If I hear that I might have to step out of the room.”

He did not have to step out. Some of the kids’ observations were so exacting that even their librarian said there were elements she hadn’t before noticed.

For instance, on the 1956 winner, Frog Went A-Courtin’ by Feodor Rojankovsky, Johnson surmised the relatively few full-color pictures might be because it was “expensive to print the whole book in color.” Fifth-grader Paris Rosario-Dube though, pointed out that only the pages about the frog were in black and white — with a green wash, like a frog.

Johnson then paged thoughtfully through the book, nodding her head. “Interesting,” she said. “It might have been an artistic decision.”

Earlier on Friday, the kids made their own art in the style of another Caldecott winner — Marcia Brown who has won the prestigious award three times. The children looked at her book, Shadow, which is based on a poem written in French, by Blaise Cendrars, capturing the beliefs of African village storytellers. A shadow “does not cry out, it has no voice...It follows man everywhere, even to war.”

Brown’s illustrations depict silhouetted figures in black, against backgrounds of vivid color.  The Altamont kids cut out their own silhouettes from black paper and placed them against bright backgrounds of acrylic wash.

Brown’s work was chosen, Johnson said, for “its local connection”; Brown was a 1940 graduate of the teachers’ college that became the University at Albany, and has donated much to the university’s library. Whiteman told the children that he had seen Brown’s original artwork for Shadow and that she had worked with fragile tissue-thin paper.

“The shadows make the background pop out,” said the student who reviewed the book for his classmates.

“You know from doing this how hard it is,” said Johnson.

A soft groan went up when the kids were told they had to return the books. They gently pulled off the Post-It Notes and piled the books in the center of the rug where they sat.

The day culminated with the fifth-graders forming their own committee, patterned after the committees that award the Newbery and Caldecott medals.

Whiteman talked about a friend of his, a librarian, who served on the real Caldecott committee. “She had to go to classes and workshops, even as a well-read librarian, to analyze,” he said. “She had to bring a book that won and talk to the committee about it.” She chose My Friend Rabbit by Eric Rohmann.

Whiteman served as the head of the Altamont committee. The real Caldecott committee, he explained, has 14 members, and the chairperson votes only if there is a tie. Whiteman explained some simple rules the judges would have to look for: The copyright date had to be 2014 and the illustrator has to be a resident of the United States.

Whiteman gave his committee members this advice, “When I’m trying to decide on a winner, I always ask myself: Is this a book I’ll want to look at again, over and over?...My favorite winners are books I never get tired of.”

That’s a good criterion for judgment. We have books we read as a child that had once been read by our parents. We, in turn, read them to our children. And, even though our children are grown and gone, we still like to read these books to ourselves.

A good book can offer us new things as we grow. Jerry Pinkney says in an artist’s note at the end of his Caldecott winner, The Lion & the Mouse: “As a child I was inspired to see the majestic king of the jungle saved by the determination and hard work of a humble rodent; as an adult I’ve come to appreciate how both animals are equally large at heart: the courageous mouse and the lion who must rise above his beastly nature to set his small prey free.”

While other kids this past weekend were talking about who would win the Super Bowl, these fifth-graders were waiting to learn who would win the prestigious book awards. Although the snowstorm on Monday canceled school and their plans to see the results by watching the announcements live in their classroom, Whiteman sent the students links to watch the announcements live from home. He then spent the day on an email thread with much of his class as students offered their thoughts on the Caldecott and Newbery choices. Several students had picked the actual winner while the mock committee choice won a Caldecott Honor. (See picture page at the center of the paper.)

Imagine: Kids home on a snow day spending their free time corresponding with their teacher about books. Their commitment speaks volumes. They were engaged because they had judged.

Whether they picked the winner or not, they learned the value of judging. They understand now not just the vocabulary for bookmaking but that appreciation for a work of art comes from trying the technique yourself, expressing your own thoughts about what you like and what you don’t, and listening to others who may disagree and learning from them.

When Sonia Sotomayor, an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court, was being appointed and was questioned about being a woman with parents who were born in Puerto Rico, she said, “My hope is that I will take the good from my experiences and extrapolate them further into areas with which I am unfamiliar. I simply do not know exactly what the difference will be in my judging. But I accept there will be some based on my gender and my Latina heritage.”

So it is with any judging. We bring who we are to the task but, if we’re curious and open minded as well as educated — whether in an artist’s techniques or the case history of law — we can extrapolate into unfamiliar territory. In short, by judging thoughtfully, we grow in understanding.

Another Supreme Court justice, from an earlier era, a century ago, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., commented similarly, “A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.”

Books with their words and illustrations do that for us. We watched and marveled as the kids at Altamont Elementary stretched their minds last week. Their judging wasn’t about adding up points to see who was a winner. Rather, it involved exploring their own reactions to what they saw in a book and discussing it with each other.

“The main part of an education is not the acquisition of facts,” Holmes also said, “but learning how to make facts live.”

That’s what we saw happening in the ebb and flow of book talk in Altamont, and it is something we all should do more of. Because, as Holmes put it, “Life is painting a picture, not doing a sum.”

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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