Kitten's First Full Moon
Written and illustrated by Kevin Henkes
Greenwillow, 40 pp., ages 2-6, $15.99
The Red Book
Written and illustrated by Barbara Lehman
Houghton Mifflin, 32 pp., ages 4-8, $12.95
Coming on Home Soon
Written by Jacqueline Woodson
Illustrated by E. B. Lewis
Putnam, 32 pp., ages 4-8, $16.99
Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale
Written and illustrated by Mo Willems
Hyperion, 36 pp., ages 4-8, $15.99
The Caldecott medal this year goes to Kevin Henkes's ''Kitten's First Full Moon," designated ''the most distinguished American picture book for children published in English during the preceding year" by the American Library Association.
Sweet, merry, humorously told, ''Kitten's First Full Moon" is a patterned and rounded tale of the little kitten who is experiencing the first full moon of her life. Bowls of milk she knows well, and so she assumes that what's actually the moon must also be ''a little bowl of milk in the sky." For the next 20 pages, kitten reaches, chases, climbs after that heavenly orb, even jumping after the moon's reflection in the pond, until finally, wet and hungry, the little thing toddles on home again to find -- ''just waiting for her" -- you can guess! The illustrations are black, white, shades of gray, on slightly tinted paper, and the 200 moons on the endpapers are a lark.
Henkes is patently steeped in the American illustration tradition of his childhood: Ruth Krauss, Crockett Johnson, Garth Williams, Maurice Sendak. In the case of ''Kitten's First Full Moon," previously reviewed in the Globe, a reader so inclined may well find Henkes's homage to his fellow Midwesterner and fellow Caldecott honoree Wanda Gag (1946). Feline descendants of Gag's ''Millions of Cats" (1928) may be revisited in Henkes's book, and the concluding pages of both books speak to each other loud and clear, across the years.
Next the runners-up, the Honor Books. Barbara Lehman's ''The Red Book" is most literally a picture book -- totally wordless, inviting the reader by its bold design, striking color, and the pinpoint stares with which the characters fix the viewer, and demonstrating the artist's interest in maps, space, and distance, as rendered by long perspective and shifting and sometimes vertiginous viewpoints, and playful inversions of time. The facilitating device of the book -- the enabling machinery of the ''plot" -- is the character who is trapped in the book itself. This is an old stratagem. Monique Felix, also wordlessly, used it in ''The Story of a Little Mouse Trapped in a Book" (1980), in which the hero ingeniously nibbles herself out, page by page. And only two years ago, David Wiesner employed the same idea brilliantly in his own 2002 Caldecott winner, ''The Three Pigs." In Lehman's version, child finds red book in snow on way to school. Child, in schoolroom, homes in on page of South Sea maps. Darker-hued child, presumably of South Seas, finds same red book lying on beach, looks, sees skyscrapers and original finder, who is now looking out, seeing him, even as he looks in from book's page (with her picture on it). The original child now comes home from school, buys balloons, lets them carry her high over her own city, and drops the red book, which falls open to the picture of the South Sea child -- which picture she now floats into, even as the boy rushes open-armed to welcome her (within the pages of their book). The last-page illustration shows someone new spying the book on the quay -- and we're left to wonder, where to next?
Realistic, skilled watercolors such as in the next Honor Book, ''Coming on Home Soon," are a careful read in themselves, rewarding the closest scrutiny. Magically, if you look at the paintings attentively, things are not what they seem -- snow is not white, sunlight comes in all hues, and E. B. Lewis has evocatively rendered plenty of snow, sunlight, and windows for the poetically told and touching story of little Ada Ruth, waiting, waiting with her grandmother for word from her mother, gone to work in Chicago to clean railroad cars while the men are off to fight a war.
Mo Willems's ''Knuffle Bunny" follows two of his earlier, highly praised successes, featuring a cartoonish, flat-colored, hard-edged, and geometrical pigeon distinguished in my mind by violent outbursts of temper signified by scrawling crayon and comic-book shorthand. ''Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!" was a Caldecott Honor Book last year. This year, we have the sharp and tiny tale of little Trixie, who accompanies her father to the laundromat, forgets and leaves her ''knuffle bunny" there, screeches in distress, returns, retrieves bunny from the laundromat, and, having hitherto babbled baby talk, now triumphantly utters her first words: ''Knuffle Bunny!!!" The illustrations are painted against what appear to be treasured sepia-toned photographs of Brooklyn.
Despite the charms of these books, their selection in this year of some of the most glorious children's books ever is to me unaccountable. It is as though the selection committee had viewed the whole rich panorama through a keyhole.
Let me be specific. Even now, in 2005, shamefully, neither Eric Carle (Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal) nor Ashley Bryan (Coretta Scott King Award) has yet to grace the Library Association's lists. This year, also, we are blessed with Stephen Huneck's magnanimously exuberant woodcut ''Sally Goes to the Vet"; with James Rumford's important and technically dazzling ''Sequoyah"; with Steve Jenkins's stunning life-size collages of animal parts; with Douglas Florian's wittily rhymed ''Omnibeasts," subtle and multilayered as the work of Paul Klee himself; Lois Ehlert's ''Pie in the Sky," a work of such rainbow joy and sophistication that it should be a lifelong memory for any child who has ever seen it; and, by no means least, the sensational pastiche ''Egyptology," an irresistible publishing phenomenon that should not be wholly disqualified just because children and parents love it, and bookstores can't keep it on the shelves.
Peter F. Neumeyer lives in California. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.