To the bafflement of most of the knowledgeable children's literature world, "Ella Sarah Gets Dressed" garnered itself the prestigious and highly sought after Caldecott Honor Award in early 2004. It beat such potential contenders as Peter Sis's, "Tree of Life" and Gerald McDermott's, "Creation", both far worthier (in my humble opionion) winners. This isn't to say that the book is bad. As a charming tale about a stubborn toddler and her intense desire to wear the clothing of her own choice, the book is sweet and good-natured. Just the same, I was amazed by its reception.
As far as the plot goes, it's fairly basic. Ella Sarah plods around the house in her sheep pajamas, a floppity stuffed animal (with the nose and mouth of a martini glass) accompanying her wherever she goes. Right from the start, our heroine knows exactly what kind of clothing she would like to wear. Says she, "I want to wear my pink polka-dot pants, my dress with orange-and-green flowers, my purple-and-blue striped socks, my yellow shoes, and my red hat". Her mother complains that the outfit is too dressy. She suggests an alternative, which is met with Ella Sarah's reiterated desire. Her father says it's too fancy and she repeats her outfit (this time accompanied by a very realistic tantrumesque stamping on the floor). Her older sister says it's too silly and offers some clothes she's outgrown. Now the stuffed animal goes flying, as Ella Sarah proclaims her perfect outfit for the last time. Carefully she dresses herself in the colorful eclectic ensemble. When the doorbell rings we see that her friends are just as snazzy as our intrepid heroine. And with that, the four friends sit down to tea and donut holes. It is a colorful sight.
Cute plot all right, but it's the illustrations that really take your breath away. Using a kind of paper cutout style (the publication page is a little unclear about this, content to merely call the process, "a variety of printmaking techniques") everyone is presented with a series of rounded colorful forms. We never see the heads of Ella Sarah's parents or older sibling, which makes perfect sense. After all, we're on a toddler's level with this book. No surprise there. Especially enjoyable are the printed backgrounds that make up the wallpaper, bedspreads, and rugs in this story. As for the outfit Ella Sarah eventually dons, it's a pip. If there is an award winning moment in this book then it is the two-page spread of the protagonist doffing a bright red hat. The hat is not only colorful, but also tilted at a rakish angle. It's just a quick moment of kiddie noir before we're back to the usual story.
Kids reading this tale will be inspired by it. It has the capacity to not only send a message like, "Just be yourself" but to also encourage kids to learn how to dress themselves. And heck, any kid with a wardrobe like Ella Sarah and her friends will probably want to learn how to dress forthwith. As you can see, this is a darling tale. It's not the most inspired or original in the world, but it has a very particular knack and charm to it that's adorable. A tale that will entice not only the parents of the world, but their kids as well.