Sometime during the 19th Century in a...

Sometime during the 19th Century in a small English town, a 15-year-old bank clerk revealed a hidden talent as he doodled on deposit slips and desk blotters. Randolph Caldecott eventually joined an artists club, took lessons, then began having his sketches printed in local newspapers. Encouraged by the recognition, he moved to London in 1872 as a full-time artist, with international magazines soon accepting his work. It's doubtful he envisioned that nearly 50 years later, a prestigious medal would be awarded in his honor to American illustrators of children's books.

Using pen and ink as his medium, he often transferred the drawings to wood blocks for engraving, using a separate block for each color, usually six. Caldecott prided himself in being able to tell much with little, humbly explaining, "The fewer the lines the less error committed."

Like Robert Louis Stevenson however, he was robust in spirit only: Both men hid ill health behind their art. Caldecott sailed to Florida hoping sunshine would cure his tuberculosis, but he died in 1886 at age 40. Certainly there were other popular illustrators at the time (Kate Greenaway, Walter Crane), but it was Caldecott's joie de vivre that set standards for excellence remembered today.

These standards are what have guided the American Library Assn. each year since 1938 as it awards the Caldecott Medal to the artist of the most outstanding picture book for children. The 1986 winner is Chris Van Allsburg for "The Polar Express" (Houghton Mifflin), reviewed in these pages by Marilyn Carpenter, December, 1985. Two Honor Books were also named.

Stephen Gammell illustrated The Relatives Came (story by Cynthia Rylant; Bradbury Press: $12.95; 32 pp.; ages 5-8), a zany adventure about a family in a rattletrap station wagon that journeys from Virginia one summer for a marathon visit with relatives. Their car is a rainbowed wonder as it bounces along, sideswiping a mailbox, then finally crashing into a fence on arrival. It takes "at least four different hugs to get from the kitchen to the front room," and though the house spills over with dinner and people, there is laughter and love. Gammell's pencil drawings are done in primary colors with affectionate detail: the dog slurping up picnic leftovers, mis-buttoned pajamas, auntie's fat legs.

Humor also reigns in King Bidgood's in the Bathtub, illustrated in oils by Don Wood (written by Audrey Wood; Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $12.95; 32 pp., ages 4-8). Renaissance court life turns chaotic when a flamboyant king refuses to get out of the tub. Beautiful double spreads show the elaborate and comic means by which his subjects try to coax him out, a child page finally is the one who uses an adult solution. Through Wood's deft use of jeweled hues, the tale moves from dawn to a moonlit night, evoking a sort of time-for-bed mood.

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