Peter McCarty doesn’t just include his dog, but also his cat in Hondo and Fabian, a 2003 Caldecott Honor book. This story describes a day in the life of his pets. Hondo goes to the beach while Fabian stays home, but both have a good time. The soft pencil illustrations of the yellow Labrador retriever and the gray tabby on the front jacket cover are matched with photographs of the real Hondo and Fabian on the back jacket flap.
Though noted for her books featuring cats, Clare Turlay Newberry’s first Caldecott Honor was awarded in 1939 for Barkis, a story about a boy who receives the cocker spaniel puppy Barkis for his birthday and doesn’t want to share him with his sister whose cat is named Edward. Newberry’s subsequent honor books were April’s Kittens in 1941, Marshmallow in 1943, and T‑Bone, the Babysitter in 1951. On the website created to honor her mother, her daughter Felicia says Newberry began drawing cats at the age of two. The New Yorker described her as “the paragon of cat portraitists.” She used her own cats and children as models for her illustrations. “My mother always drew from life and…all of her drawings and stories were based on true events.” Each realistic Newberry cat is distinctive, painted in monochromatic black watercolor with a just a touch of another hue.
Kevin Henkes, winner of the 2005 Caldecott medal for Kitten’s First Full Moon, was a great admirer of Clare Turlay Newberry. His black and gray colored pencil work achieves a soft look similar to Newberry’s watercolors, though his kitten lacks the details that make Newberry’s cats so realistic. In his Caldecott Medal acceptance speech, Henkes stated, “I thought of Kitten’s First Full Moon as a sort of tribute to Clare Turlay Newberry all the while I worked on it….And although she isn’t given a name other than Kitten, I secretly think of my heroine as Clare.”
Another Caldecott cat is Mr. Wuffles!, David Wiesner’s 2014 Caldecott Honor book. The namesake cat encounters a crew of aliens inside what appears to be a cat toy. Realistic watercolor and India ink illustrations depict a curious, determined, and frustrated cat in pursuit of the unwitting visitors. Wiesner incorporates graphic novel panels in this science fiction thriller.
This device moves the action forward and gives readers a wide range of perspectives. To capture the cat’s perspective, Wiesner followed his own feline Cricket around the house with a small video camera mounted to the end of a pole.
Much like Wiesner, Elisha Cooper followed his cats around the apartment as he sketched them. And, like Raschka, he wanted to capture a “particular emotion” through his art in his 2018 Caldecott Honor book Big, Cat, Little Cat. He and his wife bought their daughters two kittens, and one of them died inexplicably a year later on Christmas Day. The girls were devastated. They bought a new kitten, and Cooper wanted to somehow relate their family’s experience as well as convey the hopefulness when grief dissipates over time. This provided the inspiration for his book, and his spare black and white ink drawings communicate the simplicity of his message.
With heartfelt true stories and memorable tributes to real dogs and cats, these Caldecott Award illustrators succeed in captivating young readers. A variety of art styles reflect the personalities of the protagonists. Communicating canine and feline emotions through limited facial expressions and body language requires skill in a chosen medium. It also requires an understanding of animals — and an understanding of the child audience reading and rereading Caldecott Medal and Honor picture books.
Picture Books Cited
Cooper, E. (2017). Big cat, little cat. New York: Roaring Brook Press.
Henkes, K. (2004). Kitten’s first full moon. New York: Greenwillow.
McCarty, P. (2002). Hondo and Fabian. New York: Henry Holt.
Newberry, C. T. (1938). Barkis. New York: Harper.
Newberry, C. T. (1940). April’s kittens. New York: Harper.
Newberry, C. T. (1942). Marshmallow. New York: Harper.
Newberry, C. T. (1950). T‑Bone, the babysitter. New York: Harper.
Wiesner, D. (2013). Mr. Wuffles! New York: Clarion.
Cooper, E. (2017). The life cycle of a book.
Henkes, K. (2005). Caldecott Medal acceptance. Horn Book Magazine, 81, (4), 397 – 402.
Trujillo, F. N. (2014). Newberry cats!
Wiesner, D. (2013). Creative process: Mr. Wuffles!