A fable about an oak leaf that doesn’t want to leave its tree
The Little Yellow Leaf. By Carin Berger. Greenwillow, 32 pp., $16.99. Ages 2 and up.
By Janice Harayda
Carin Berger first caught my eye when her wonderful pictures nearly stole the show from Jack Prelutsky’s whimsical poems in Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant. Now she’s back with The Little Yellow Leaf, a book that has turned up on many lists of favorites for the Caldecott Medal that the American Library Association will award on Monday to “the most distinguished American picture book for children.” The ALA judges have good reason to consider this lovely fable.
Its plot works well on its own terms. A yellow oak leaf is “not ready” to fall from the tree in autumn and bides its time until early winter, when it finds a scarlet leaf left on the bough and the two agree to leave together. And throughout the book, Berger maintains suspense about how or whether the yellow leaf will leave its perch.
But The Little Yellow Leaf also works a parable about teamwork, or how a friend’s encouragement can make the difference when you’re facing a change. In that sense the book resembles such classics as The Story of Ferdinand and Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, which tell good stories that have a second layer of meaning: They are parables about nonviolence and growing old, respectively.
Berger works in her signature mixed media that include exquisite cut-paper collages made from everyday items – a 1914 water bill, graph paper, faded snippets books or articles in several languages. Her most memorable illustration helps to show how the yellow leaf (actually, yellow and tawny) clings to its branch day and night: It’s a two-page image of the sun made from thousands of tiny hand-cut squares and rectangles, each unique, laid out in a parquet design. Such humble materials show the beauty of recycled objects.
Berger also has a fine and subtle sense of color, one of the best I’ve seen in a living picture-book artist. She knows how to infuse a muted palette with drama by using techniques such as shifting perspectives that show her leaf from varied angles and distances. Her work benefits further from two exceptional design elements: an unusual vertical format that suggests the shape of a tree and an extra set of endpapers at the front and back (for a total of four in front and four in back) that trace the path of a leaf in midair and draw your eye into and out of the book.
The Little Yellow Leaf is old-fashioned book in the best sense of that term — meticulously crafted and free of commercial taint — that will compete against flashier books, some of them much less effective, in the Caldecott stakes. So I’d guess that if it wins a 2009 award, it will be an Honor Book citation, not the top prize. And although it isn’t the only medal-worthy book of the year, I’d be delighted if I were proved wrong on Monday.
Best line/picture: “Into the waiting wind they danced … ”
Worst line/picture: “A chill filled the air / and the sun sank slow.”
Recommendation? Apart from its high artistic merits. this book could help children explore their feelings about many events for which with they don’t feel ready, such as the first day of school, preschool, or day care.
Published: August 2008
Furthermore: The Little Yellow Leaf was one of the New York Times’s Best Illustrated Books of the Year. Carin Berger lives in New York City and shows an unusually generous number of illustrations from the book on her Web site.
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© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.