Saturday, April 4, 2009

Snowflake Bentley

Front Cover
By Jacqueline Briggs Martin
Illustrated by Mary Azarian
Edition: illustrated
Published by Houghton Mifflin, 1998
ISBN 0395861624, 9780395861622
32 pages
A biography of a self-taught scientist who photographed thousands
of individual snowflakes in order to study their unique formations.

See the Snowflake Crystals


Critical Review of Illustrations

Snowflake Bentley

on-line unit:

other on-line resources for snowflakes:

Caldecott Award

Each year a Caldecott Medal, named in honor of English illustrator Randolph J. Caldecott, goes to the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children published in the United States during the preceding year. The American Library Association sets the criteria by which a committee views and judges children’s picture books each year. The committee members consider (American Library Association:

- excellence of execution in the artistic technique employed.

- excellence of pictorial interpretation of story, theme, or concept; of appropriateness

of style of illustration to the story, theme, or concept; of delineation of plot, theme,

characters, setting, mood, or information through the pictures.

- excellence of presentation in recognition of a child audience. (p. 2)

Using this list as a measuring stick, it surprises few that Mary Azarian won this year’s Caldecott Award for her outstanding artwork in Snowflake Bentley (1998). Jacqueline Briggs Martin’s eloquent portrayal of the life of Wilson Bentley, noted authority on snowflakes, provides the perfect prose for Azarian’s colorful woodcut art form. The pictorial interpretation of the story complements Martin’s description of the rural landscape of Vermont as it looked in the late 1800's. Simple, detailed illustrations provide the visual beauty of this book. Woodcuts give a flavor of times past and emphasize line and structure. The framed borders reflect the beauty of snowflakes as Martin describes them to the reader and also provide space to include bibliographic information about Bentley that might have slowed the text down too much for children to enjoy.

Cleverly done illustrations portray the literary elements of a picture book. To judge the worthiness of Azarian’s work in Snowflake Bentley, a look at the way she portrays these elements helps us make sound judgements about the true quality of the illustrations. The illustrations in this award-winning book reflect character, plot, theme, setting, point of view, style, and tone.

Azarian’s portrayal of characters in this book compliments Martin’s description of Bentley, at various stages in his life, his parents, and his friends. On the first page of the book, Martin describes the difficult life of a farmer who must do his work with an ox and sled. Azarian chooses to depict a stoop-shouldered figure coming from a barn in the dark with only a hand-held lantern to light his way as he walks back to the warm glow of the yellow window-lights of his home. The deep snow surrounding the farmer parts way to leave him only a narrow path by which to walk to his house. The lantern lets readers know that the snow’s true color reflects white, but the surrounding snow appears to have a blue-gray tint, alerting the reader to the fact that no artificial street lights exist on this farm. From the very first page readers know something about the farmer holding the lantern.

Azarian’s characters appear robust, round, and solid looking. The clothes they wear seem appropriate for the time in history that this story takes place. Rosy cheeks and smiles let the readers know that little turmoil surrounds the family in this story. Illustrations of Bentley as he reaches adulthood make him look very much like his father. A strong feeling of "family" permeates the text and the accompanying illustrations. Facial expressions on Bentley’s mother suggest demureness and worry lines on his father’s face imply concern and a feeling of disconcertedness. Bentley’s youthful face reflects joy and wonder when he works with his snowflakes, cameras, and as he shows his parents what he discovers.

Azarian’s illustrations also add to the plot of this story. From observing the second page of this book, readers can tell much from the open arms of Bentley as he welcomes the snowflakes onto his mittens. The abundance of snow in this scene reinforces the text in declaring that 120 inches of snow fall occurs here every year. Without words in this text, readers would know that Bentley loved nature, as depicted in the illustrations of him gently holding a butterfly, Bentley bringing his mother apple blossoms, his intent work with a grasshopper, and his constant fascination with snow. Perhaps the most gripping portrayal of plot comes at near the end of the book as Bentley seems "lost" in a blizzard of snow. Azarian depicts Bentley walking away from us into oblivion, his footsteps disappearing behind him.

The theme of this book seems to suggest that people should follow their passion, regardless of what other’s may think or how impossible it may seem (Azarian, 1999). Subordinate themes might suggest the merits of a supportive family and of hard work toward reading a goal. Azarian chooses to show us Bentley depicted as an outsider as he walks past his friends building a fort, to pursue his passion. Other important illustrations relating to theme show Bentley explaining the camera he wants to his mother and his parents discussing the impracticality of such a purchase.

We see Bentley in complete solitude as he works with his microscope and his drawing of snowflakes, suggesting how lonely and long the nights might seem to those pursuing a dream.

Azarian uses all the tricks up her sleeve to bring us the setting in this book. This seems the most powerful story element portrayed by the artist. Azarian’s use of line appears consistent throughout the book. Horizontal and vertical lines meeting at right angles suggest stability. Doorways, panels on doors, paneling, window frames, flooring, and sideboards all indicate to the reader that a sense of security and permanence exists in this story. The artists use of color with muted shades of white, blue, and gray give character to the snow in all phases of the snowfalls. The farm and farmhouse appear inviting and summon the reader to a simpler place and time. Warm colors used inside the house suggest comfort and assurance. We can tell from the illustrations in this book that the place where Wilson Bentley grew up provided him an ideal place to grow and dream. Azarian’s depiction of the setting in this story initially "grabs" the reader and the images stay with the reader long after the book closes.

The point-of-view that Azarian takes in her illustrations matches that of the author, third person. Readers are invited inside Bentley’s home and his dream as the author and illustrator work together to make readers informed observers. Looking at the illustrations in this book mimics browsing through a Bentley family album of snapshots of their lives.

Azarian’s style and tone of illustration in this book plays heavily on realism. People, buildings, and animals appear in proportion to the surroundings. Very calm pictures match informative and straightforward text to tell Bentley’s life story. Openness and honesty flow both from the text and the illustrations in this book.

The very effective pictures in this book enhance and compliment the text. Children will love a book about snow, but on the surface the story of a man who thought of little else seems less than compelling. Azarian lets children feel the snow, feel the passion, and sense that a dream pursued can provide a fulfilling life. We get the emotional context of this story from Azarian’s talented portrayal of the elements that make a story worth telling.


American Library Association. ALSC: Caldecott medal descriptors, history, & criteria. On-line:

Azarian, M. (1999). Caldecott medal acceptance. The Horn Book Magazine, 75(4), pp. 423-429.

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