Chris Raschka brings the spirit of modern art to to American picture books, but is that good?
A Ball for Daisy. By Chris Raschka. Schwartz & Wade/Random House, 32 pp., $16.99, Ages 2–4.
By Janice Harayda
A vacancy has existed at the summit of American picture book illustration since the death of Maurice Sendak, who shared that spot with Chris Van Allsburg and Nancy Ekholm Burkert. Some critics might usher in Chris Raschka, who won his first Caldecott Medal for The Hello, Goodbye Window and his second for A Ball for Daisy. And it’s easy to see why reviewers like the more than 40 books for children that he has produced alone or with authors such as Norman Juster and Jack Prelutsky.
More aggressively than any recent illustrator, Raschka has brought to American picture books the spirit and techniques of modern art: Fauvism’s symbolic use of color, Cubism’s fragmented geometric forms, Expressionism’s bold lines and emotional drama. That pattern holds in A Ball for Daisy, a wordless tale of a shaggy dog who suffers acute but fleeting heartbreak when a poodle punctures her adored red ball during a romp in the park. Raschka works with familiar materials – ink, watercolor and gouache – but uses them inventively enough to refresh an ageless theme: A new love eases the pain of losing an old one. His debt to the modernists shows up clearly in the destroyed ball, which in its shape and intensity of color resembles one of Matisse’s six-bladed leaf cutouts.
Raschka certainly deserves credit for originality in the conservative field of picture books – a realm that, as Sendak said, “is becoming a creatively exhausted genre.” But whether he should have won the latest Caldecott Medal is debatable. Novelty isn’t the same as greatness. And all the modernist influences on display in his book don’t lift it above some of the animal tales that the 2012 Caldecott judges rejected, including Ekholm Burkert’s Mouse & Lion. Like the 2011 winner, A Sick Day for Amos McGee, A Ball for Daisy is a sweet book unlikely to offend anyone.
Then there is the issue of the wordlessness of the story. The presence or absence of a written text is neutral in picture books, which can work with or without one. But words can add layers of meaning to a story. When they don’t exist, those layers must come from the art in order for a picture book to stand up to multiple rereadings. And A Ball for Daisy doesn’t really have them. What you see is what you get.
Three of the past six Caldecott winners have had no words, and that fact has led to speculation and some anger online. Have the judges bypassed worthy books because of fonts or stories when the medal is an award for illustration? Are they dumbing down America’s most prestigious picture book prize? The deliberations of the Caldecott judges are confidential, so it’s unclear why wordless books are winning a disproportionate number of medals. Whatever the reason, for the second year in a row they have played it safe. Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are still inspires spirited arguments more than a half-century after it won the 1964 Caldecott Medal. Gift-shoppers may see it as a strength — while others can only see it as a weakness — that A Ball for Daisy gives you so little to debate.
Best line/picture: A wordless spread in that has eight roughly square pictures showing Daisy’s stages of grief for her destroyed ball, which include confusion, sorrow, anger, and finally a pained resignation. The spread makes the most sense when “read” horizontally across the two pages, which gives you a background that darkens with each image to show the dog’s growing despair. But it also works if you read the images on the left-hand page first (as some children will do) in an up-and-down, clockwise, or counterclockwise direction.
Worst line/picture: The young girl who owns Daisy remains headless until she and her beloved pet return home, more than halfway through the book, after the ball deflates. Raschka clearly did this to keep the focus on the dog’s emotions. But it distracts you from the story by adding a subplot: Who is Daisy’s owner?
Furthermore: A Ball for Daisy won the 2012 Caldecott Medal from the American Library Association, which also honored him for The Hello, Goodbye Window. Meghan Cox Gurdon reviewed A Ball for Daisy for the Wall Street Journal. One-Minute Book Reviews reviewed Jack Prelutsky’s Good Sports, which Raschka illustrated.
Janice Harayda is an award-winning journalist who has been the book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and a vice-president for awards of the National Book Critics Circle. You can follow can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.
© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.