Transportation, Part I: Hitting the Road

From an ear­ly age, chil­dren are cap­ti­vat­ed by “things that go,” from climb­ing on trucks in a Big Rig library event to rac­ing bicy­cles along a park path. This arti­cle offers a line-up of Calde­cott Award books that fea­ture var­i­ous modes of land trans­porta­tion. Part 1 con­sid­ers vehi­cles that trav­el on roadways.

The Paperboy

For many chil­dren, a bicy­cle is their first oppor­tu­ni­ty to explore the world from the driver’s seat of a wheeled vehi­cle. Indeed, a gen­er­a­tion ago, many young entre­pre­neurs deliv­ered news­pa­pers by bicy­cle, as in the 1997 Calde­cott Hon­or book The Paper­boy, by author-illus­tra­tor Dav Pilkey. He was a paper car­ri­er as a youth in Ohio1 and shares that the book was “sort of a med­i­ta­tion or almost a reflec­tion on being a child and being very inde­pen­dent and hav­ing a job at the age of 12, and rid­ing your bike through the neigh­bor­hood when it’s all qui­et. It was a nice vision to explore.”2

The sto­ry begins on the title page, as a deliv­ery truck leaves the load­ing dock of the Morn­ing Star Gazette in the mid­dle of the night. On the fol­low­ing full-bleed dou­ble-page spread, Pilkey uses the copy­right and ded­i­ca­tion pages as a can­vas, with the truck trav­el­ing along a coun­try road. In the third spread of this sequence, the truck is parked in front of a home while a work­er unloads a heavy bun­dle of newspapers.

From here, the text begins and the focus changes to a boy in bed, dog snooz­ing at his feet in the ear­ly morn­ing dark­ness. Once awake and dressed, the paper­boy and Cor­gi eat break­fast in a qui­et, warm-hued home, before mov­ing to the garage to pack news­pa­pers in a sack. On this spread, read­ers spy part of a bicy­cle wheel and fend­er peek­ing in from the far recto.

The Paperboy
illus­tra­tion copy­right Dav Pilkey, from The Paper­boy, Orchard Books, 1996

When the two begin their news­pa­per route, the boy bik­ing with the dog trot­ting behind him, the moon and stars light the sky. On these expan­sive spreads, the bicy­cle lamp guides the paper­boy past dark homes in the sprawl­ing small town. In a naïf, child-friend­ly style, the flat, acrylic and India ink3 illus­tra­tions are imbued in blues and greens out­doors, where shad­ows abound. When the two com­plete the route under a spec­tac­u­lar orange and rose sky, a few lights appear in homes as “lit­tle by lit­tle the world around them wakes up.” Sub­tle changes in col­or and light show the pas­sage of time. The sun ris­es in the daz­zling sky as the pair make their way back to bed. In lush, cool hues, the final sin­gle-page spread shows the boy and dog float­ing in their dreams in an homage to Marc Chagall.

Last Stop on Market StreetTak­ing a turn from the rur­al to the urban, two Calde­cott Hon­or books fea­ture city bus­es. In Last Stop on Mar­ket Street, writ­ten by Matt de la Peña and illus­trat­ed by Chris­t­ian Robin­son, a boy and his grand­moth­er leave church on a Sun­day morn­ing and climb aboard a bus. The trip appears to be rou­tine for the pair, although CJ express­es some reluc­tance. Nana, how­ev­er, remains upbeat and encour­ag­ing. Rather than look out the bus win­dows to watch the cityscape, CJ and Nana observe the intrigu­ing pas­sen­gers. The inte­ri­or of the bus is a dull green and the rich col­ors of its pas­sen­gers are gen­er­al­ly muted.

Last Stop on Market Street
illus­tra­tion copy­right Chris­t­ian Robin­son, from Last Stop on Mar­ket Street,
writ­ten by Matt de la Peña, G.P. Put­nam’s Sons, 2015

Col­or bursts from a dou­ble-page spread when one of those rid­ers begins play­ing his gui­tar and CJ is “lost in the sound [giv­ing] him the feel­ing of mag­ic.” The palette changes once again to sub­dued tones as the Nana and the boy dis­em­bark at the last bus stop and walk to their des­ti­na­tion. She reminds her grand­son of the beau­ty of the bleak neigh­bor­hood as they arrive to vol­un­teer at the soup kitchen, wel­comed by famil­iar faces.

Robin­son cre­at­ed his car­toon­like illus­tra­tions with acrylic paint and col­lage, using some dig­i­tal manip­u­la­tion. From small­er vignettes to framed and unframed sin­gle- and dou­ble-page spreads, the illus­tra­tions reflect a cityscape famil­iar to many chil­dren. Robin­son, who grew up rid­ing the bus with the grand­moth­er who raised him, mus­es, “And I think there’s some­thing heal­ing about see­ing your­self, see­ing your com­mu­ni­ty shown in a book. …[It] was so impor­tant for me to show the city as it feels, as I expe­ri­ence it.”4 For young read­ers who have nev­er rid­den a bus, the book brings to light a dynam­ic envi­ron­ment where one can “always [find] beautiful.”

The gen­e­sis of the book broke pro­to­col, as Robin­son explains: “So when illus­trat­ing a book, it gen­er­al­ly begins with the words that the author writes. In this case, Last Stop on Mar­ket Street kind of began with a paint­ing that I did of a boy and his grand­moth­er rid­ing a bus. And then Matt saw that pic­ture and an entire sto­ry kind of came from that.”5 The dis­tin­guished work brought Robin­son a 2016 Calde­cott Hon­or and de la Peña a New­bery Medal.

Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!In a depar­ture from this heart­felt sto­ry, author-illus­tra­tor Mo Willem’s Don’t Let the Pigeon Dri­ve the Bus! is an inter­ac­tive romp involv­ing an emp­ty bus and a pigeon who is deter­mined to dri­ve it, as sug­gest­ed on the front end­pa­pers. How­ev­er, in the open­ing pages of this post­mod­ern pic­ture book, the bus dri­ver announces that he needs to leave for a lit­tle while, ask­ing read­ers to “watch things” until he returns. His last emphat­ic request con­ve­nient­ly appears on the title page: “Don’t Let the Pigeon Dri­ve the Bus!”

Not sur­pris­ing­ly, Pigeon peeks in from the rec­to of the ded­i­ca­tion page while the dri­ver saun­ters off the ver­so on the copy­right page. Pigeon offi­cial­ly makes his entrance in the fol­low­ing spread, the bus parked in the back­ground. In a series of sin­gle-page spreads, Pigeon appeals direct­ly to read­ers with per­sua­sive, albeit unrea­son­able, rea­sons why he should dri­ve the vehi­cle. Pigeon con­tin­ues his pleas in a dou­ble-page spread of eight vignettes. A page turn shows the exas­per­at­ed bird’s dra­mat­ic break­down. In the next spread, a sulk­ing Pigeon walks off.

Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus
illus­tra­tion copy­right Mo Willems, from “Don’t Let the Pigeon Dri­ve the Bus!” Hype­r­i­on, 2003

The return of the grate­ful bus dri­ver doesn’t mean the end of the sto­ry. End­pa­pers of a dream­ing Pigeon sug­gest that he has oth­er goals to pur­sue, per­haps behind the wheel of a semi-truck.

Willems cre­at­ed the cal­li­graph­ic car­toon draw­ings in dark mark­ing pen­cil and then dig­i­tal­ly cleaned and col­ored the images. With sim­ple lines and lim­it­ed col­ors, Willems con­veys a remark­ably expres­sive Pigeon. The illus­tra­tor explains, “I like my char­ac­ters to be two-dimen­sion­al. Just because you can do some­thing in 3‑D doesn’t make it bet­ter. I want my line to be focused, so the emo­tions of a char­ac­ter are clear.”6 Unabashed sim­plic­i­ty and clar­i­ty beget bril­liance in this 2004 Calde­cott Hon­or book.

TruckIn Don­ald Crews’s 1981 Calde­cott Hon­or book Truck, the pro­tag­o­nist shifts from dri­ver or pas­sen­ger to the vehi­cle itself. A red semi-truck, with “TRUCKING” embla­zoned in white block let­ters on its side, departs a city with a load of tri­cy­cles. The truck cross­es an expan­sive land­scape dur­ing the day and at night, in clear, rainy, and fog­gy weath­er, until it reach­es anoth­er urban warehouse.

There is no tex­tu­al nar­ra­tive, yet this is not a word­less book. Words appear on every dou­ble-page spread, always on the icon­ic red truck, and often on road signs and oth­er vehi­cles. Diag­o­nal lines con­vey move­ment and momen­tum with­in the illus­tra­tions. Crews’s con­tem­po­rary, ener­getic illus­tra­tions meld such styles as Pop art and con­struc­tivism.7 His use of graph­ic imagery is influ­enced by his back­ground as a design­er. Crews reflects, “So, being a design­er and being a com­mu­ni­ca­tor, pic­tures came nat­u­ral­ly, because telling sto­ries and explain­ing things is what design­ers do. It’s the same thing with a pic­ture book. You’re telling a sto­ry, pri­mar­i­ly in pic­tures, with some words as support….The fact that they call it lit­er­a­ture is an exten­sion I did­n’t intend.”8 Design takes cen­ter stage in the book, even in its trim size: The open book is the same oblong shape as a truck trailer.

illus­tra­tion copy­right Don­ald Crews,
from Truck, Green­wil­low Books, 1980

The bright pri­ma­ry and sec­ondary col­ors of the flat, poster-like9 illus­tra­tions were cre­at­ed from four halftone sep­a­ra­tions with black line draw­ings.10 The art­work focus­es on build­ings and vehi­cles, roads and coun­try­side. No pedes­tri­ans are shown, nor are any dri­vers seen through the black wind­shields. Crews allows the read­er to com­plete the nar­ra­tive. Who is dri­ving the bus? Where is its final des­ti­na­tion? How long is the jour­ney? Final­ly, one tri­cy­cle box remains on the truck. Was it over­looked or is it intend­ed for a spe­cial child?

Through a range of Calde­cott Award books, read­ers take road trips by bike, bus, or truck. Delv­ing into these pic­ture books puts read­ers in the driver’s (or passenger’s) seat as they expand their expe­ri­ences. In Part 2, read­ers will take pic­ture book jour­neys by train.

Picture Books Cited

Crews, Don­ald. (1980). Truck. Green­wil­low.

de la Peña, Matt. Last Stop on Mar­ket Street. (2015). Illus­trat­ed by Chris­t­ian Robin­son. Putnam.

Pilkey, Dav. (1996). The Paper­boy. Orchard.

Willems, Mo. Don’t Let the Pigeon Dri­ve the Bus! (2003). Hype­r­i­on Books for Children.

  1. Alex­ie Basil, “5 Fas­ci­nat­ing Facts about Dav Pilkey and The Paper­boy,” Judy New­man at Scholas­tic, accessed 6 Jan­u­ary 2022.
  2. Tran­script from an Inter­view with Dav Pilkey,” Read­ing Rock­ets, accessed 6 Jan­u­ary 2022,.
  3. Asso­ci­a­tion for Library Ser­vice to Chil­dren (ALSC), The New­bery & Calde­cott Awards: A Guide to the Medal and Hon­or Books (Chica­go: Amer­i­can Library Asso­ci­a­tion, 2017), 112.
  4. Inter­view with Matt de la Peña and Chris­t­ian Robin­son,” Scholas­tic Book Clubs, accessed 6 Jan­u­ary 2022.
  5. Inter­view with Matt de la Peña and Chris­t­ian Robinson.”
  6. Lisa Kumar, ed., “Mo Willems (1968 – ),” Some­thing about the Author 228 (Detroit: Gale, 2011), 208.
  7. George Bod­mer, “Don­ald Crews: The Signs and Times of an Amer­i­can Child­hood — Essay and Inter­view,” African Amer­i­can Review 32, no. 1 (Spring 1998).
  8. George Bod­mer, “Don­ald Crews.”
  9. George Bod­mer, “Don­ald Crews.”
  10. ALSC, The New­bery & Calde­cott Awards, 125.

Asso­ci­a­tion for Library Ser­vice to Chil­dren (ALSC). The New­bery & Calde­cott Awards: A Guide to the Medal and Hon­or Books. Chica­go: Amer­i­can Library Asso­ci­a­tion, 2017.

Basil, Alex­ie. “5 Fas­ci­nat­ing Facts about Dav Pilkey and The Paper­boy.” Judy New­man at Scholas­tic. Accessed 6 Jan­u­ary 2022. 

Bod­mer, George. “Don­ald Crews: The Signs and Times of an Amer­i­can Child­hood — Essay and Inter­view.” African Amer­i­can Review 32, no. 1 (Spring 1998): 107 – 17.

Inter­view with Matt de la Peña and Chris­t­ian Robin­son.” Scholas­tic Book Clubs. Accessed 6 Jan­u­ary 2022.

Lisa Kumar, Lisa, ed. “Mo Willems (1968 – ).” Some­thing about the Author 228 (Detroit: Gale, 2011): 203 – 10.

Tran­script from an Inter­view with Dav Pilkey.” Read­ing Rock­ets. Accessed 6 Jan­u­ary 2022.

Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments