My Caldecott Front Runner

January 12, 2022 Comments Off on My Caldecott Front Runner

Awards season is upon us! On Monday, January 24, the American Library Association will award the prestigious Caldecott and Newbery Medals, as well as a host of other coveted honors and awards. It’s like the Oscars for kid lit! I’ll be tuning in with bated breath, ready to celebrate many of the winners and, if history is any indication, scratch my head at a few others. There will probably be some books I haven’t read yet, perhaps even one I haven’t heard of, but I’m hoping many of my favorites will make the list. In any event, I promise to share a recap on Instagram after the announcements!

Let’s talk about the picture book I’d love to see sport a shiny gold Caldecott sticker. (I’m also pulling for Watercress, which I gushed about in April. Born on the Water, of course. Time is a Flower. Probably Unspeakable, if my library hold would ever come in.) Today, though, I’m talking about Wishes (Ages 4-8), written by Múón Thi Vãn and illustrated by Victo Ngai, based on the former’s refugee journey out of Vietnam as a young child in the 1980s. This book sends my jaw to the floor. Every. single. time. (Back in May, my daughter discovered it on our dining table, sat down and read it, and called out, “WHOA, Mommy, I think I just found your favorite book of the year.”)

And yet, I’ve been putting off sharing my thoughts about Wishes. It’s a daunting book to review, because its power lies largely in what is left unsaid. How do I write about a book that manages to tell a sweeping, suspenseful, emotionally pulsating narrative in just twelve short sentences, without my own clunky words compromising the grace of such economical text? (Heck, I’ve greatly exceeded that sentence count already!)

But that’s precisely why Wishes is deserving of a Caldecott, which I’ll remind you is awarded for pictorial interpretation. To be sure, Múón’s sparse text is immensely effective: loaded with lyricism and vital in relaying the story’s central theme of desire—the wishes that frame our periods of loss and uncertainty. But the reason Múón is able to communicate such depth and breadth with her text is owing to Ngai’s luminous illustrations, which carry a great deal of the storytelling weight. (Ngai herself is a migrant, moving from Hong Kong to the United States when she was eighteen.) Wishes is that rare example of a perfect marriage between words and pictures, each working to interpret and augment the other.

Wishes is about more than one journey. Taken literally, it’s the story of a girl who leaves behind her home—including her grandfather, her dog, and nearly all her worldly possessions—to journey by boat to a foreign city of safety and promise. But it’s also an emotional journey: a sequence of wishes that speak to the turbulence within. Ngai underscores this journey with her color palette, beginning the story in dark, somber tones, moving towards super-saturated reds and oranges as the oppressive sun beats down upon the tiny boat, and concluding with a soft palette of greens and pinks for an ending tinged in the hope of fresh starts.

The story begins with the first wish: “The night wished it was quieter.” “Quieter” is our clue to the urgency, the danger, of this upcoming journey. This is a book that makes the reader work to extract meaning, whether from attention to specific words, close study of pictures, repeated readings, or dialogue with the adult reader. A girl watches as her father digs something out of the backyard; children may need help identifying this as gasoline, perhaps payment for their pending escape.

In the next few pages, the girl watches as more preparations ensue, alongside more wishes. “The bag wished it was deeper,” as suitcases are stuffed with food wrapped in banana leaves. “The light wished it was brighter,” as the mother lights incense on the family altar. “The dream wished it was longer,” as the parents wake the girl’s siblings and ready them in traveling clothes.“ The clock wished it was shorter,” as the girl hugs her crying grandfather. While the text remains purposefully vague, speaking to universal truths of the refugee experience, the illustrations ground us in Vietnam, embedding the details of this specific cultural example.

The family sets off on foot, eventually arriving at a long queue for a very small, rickety boat. Behind her fellow refugees of all ages, some sporting the conical-shaped hat worn by many Vietnamese, the girl turns back as if to make eye contact with us. It’s a powerful and immensely effective move on Ngai’s part, inviting us into the story and, specifically, into the girl’s uneasiness. “The boat wished it was bigger.”

The passage of time, the boat’s small size relative to the enormity of its surroundings, and the danger of the voyage are all effectively cued by the next few illustrations, one showing pelting rain and rough seas, another portraying the blistering sun. “The sun wished it was cooler.” These are the most dramatic moments in the story, the passengers on the boat clinging to loved ones, their faces sharpened by fear. “The heart wished it was stronger.”

But there are also calm, clear nights. One of my favorite illustrations—another where the girl looks directly at us—is a dreamlike one where the girl thinks of her grandfather and her dog up in the stars. “The home wished it was closer.” The girl’s face is dirt-streaked, but there is less confusion, less anguish. If anything, she looks resolute. This is also a journey of resilience.

With her resilience comes a lucky break: the boat is spotted by a ship, the passengers pulled to safety. In real life, there are plenty of refugee stories that don’t have happy endings—this one ends with some ambiguity, as we don’t know what happens to the family once they arrive in Hong Kong—but the promise of hope is an important one for the young readers who have followed along on this harrowing journey.

As the harbor comes into the view, with one final wish I won’t give away, the mother stands with their arms around her children, projecting strength, solidarity, and love.

I can’t wait to see which books are recognized on January 24. I’ll probably be wrong; I almost always am. But I’m glad we are living at a time where there are too many outstanding titles and not enough stickers.

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Book published by Orchard Books, a division of Scholastic. All opinions are my own. If you’re in the Alexandria area, please consider shopping at the beautiful Old Town Books, where I assist with the kids’ buying!

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