Me…Jane

[First, an apology: I was supposed to post here Wednesday but have been fighting a virus all week. The best laid plans fizzle when a long day at work is followed by a comfortable armchair. Zzzz.]

me jane cover Me...JaneJane Goodall demands respect. Even as a young woman on the American lecture circuit, there was a sense of quiet dignity about her — until she broke into a loud demonstration of the “pant-hoot.”

At first glance, Patrick McDonnell has made some surprising choices in this picture book biography: the “cheeky” title (Roger’s word), the near-total concentration on Goodall’s childhood, the sudden switch from illustration to a photograph of grown-up Jane on the last spread of the narrative.

In a book that appears at first to be dashed off, every decision works to create a whole that — to my mind — is in the top handful of this year’s picture books. Notice the old timey faded paper color, slightly darker along the edge of each page, and the distressed serif typeface. Notice the joyfully loose pen and watercolor art showing young Jane in an English garden, stuffed chimp Jubilee in tow, imagining herself among the animals of Africa. In a seemingly haphazard style, McDonnell throws in the kitchen sink including images from Jane’s actual childhood notebooks and clip art-like stamped images. The text is paired down to the essentials, letting visual elements impart much of the story and all of the emotion.

That final photo of grown-up Jane isn’t so jarring if you noticed the childhood photo of Jane and Jubilee on the title page. So why the mixture of old-fashioned decorum and timeless joie de vivre? I can think of a few reasons, but am more interested in hearing what you all think.

 

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Lolly Robinson About Lolly Robinson

Lolly Robinson is the designer and production manager for The Horn Book, Inc. She has degrees in studio art and children's literature and teaches children's and adolescent literature at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education. She has served on the Caldecott and the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award committees.

Comments

  1. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Lolly, I’m with you on the care and skill with which this book was made. But here’s another of those criteria questions: what about that final Hugo van Lawick photo? It’s completely queer to me that the earlier interpolations of drawings by Goodall are permissible as collage elements (the Caldecott handbook mentions the photos in Hugo Cabret as examples of “allowed” art not by the illustrator) but, for me anyway, it’s that final photo in Me . . . Jane that gives the book its impact. Meaning, I suppose, that we would not be talking about that book here had the photo not been part of the book. It’s a tricky one, yes?

  2. Dean Schneider says:

    I agree with Roger. Photographs are perfectly fine to be considered as illustrations, but when Patrick McDonnell illustrates ME…JANE, and you then throw in a photograph by someone else (Hugo van Lawick) to surprise readers, that’s a problem. And not necessary: Wouldn’t a McDonnell illustration of that scene or a similar scene been at least as effective, and kept the illustrations consistent right through the end? And the photo could have then been included in the “About Jane Goodall” section. As Roger said, when the impact of the book relies on an added element–the photograph–not by the illustrator, that’s an issue the Caldecott Committee is likely to ponder. It doesn’t mean this is a bad book or one poorly conceived. It’s a very good book, just one likely to have problems with this particular award.

  3. Lolly Robinson Lolly Robinson says:

    For me, the final photo is not what gives the book its impact. That photo actually bothered me at first, and I wondered why McDonnell hadn’t just done a drawing of a similar scene, much as the cover features his drawing of the childhood photo of Jane and Jubilee. I thought using the adult Jane photo was a daring choice, but it didn’t work for me on my first read because I wasn’t taking it slowly enough to see that it related back to the photo on the title page. But my first experience of this book was while designing the HBM book review section, so I was trolling for a representative image to use with the review, ideally one that showed the difference between this book and Jeanette Winter’s which was in the same issue. This is NOT the best way to experience a picture book for the first time!

  4. Lolly Robinson Lolly Robinson says:

    Gosh, Dean. We must have uploaded within seconds and I hadn’t seen your comment when I was writing mine. We agree that the photo seemed jarring at first, but I didn’t address the photo as problematic to the committee. Personally, it makes me like McDonnell and his editor for not kow towing to the rules and regs, which they could have done pretty easily. It was important to him to use the photo within the narrative and not just in the backmatter. He had his artistic reasons, and now the committee will need to discuss whether or not this disqualifies it. Or would the ALSC leaders get to make that call? I seem to remember sending questions their way about this kind of thing.

  5. I just do not love this book. It does not sing to me. The same week I read this, I also read Jeanette Winter’s THE WATCHER: JANE GOODALL’S LIFE WITH THE CHIMPS (Schwartz & Wade) which I loved more in every possible way. Winter’s art is clean, crisp, and elegantly simple, and I don’t understand why no one is talking about it. I confess the title ME … JANE was the first thing that put me off, but I didn’t like the text, nor the pictures (nor that irritating photo).

  6. Lolly Robinson Lolly Robinson says:

    GraceAnne, I’ll have to take another look at The Watcher on Monday. You describe Winter’s style to a T: “clean, crisp, and elegantly simple.” I guess for me, McDonnell’s style matches Goodall’s sensibility better: at first glance messy and haphazard, but ultimately magical and uplifting. His approach is certainly more daring, too. Like Goodall’s approach to her research.

  7. I find I’m surprised that people think the photo might disqualify Me…Jane from Caldecott consideration. It seems like a natural transition: first we follow Jane around as a child, and then we leap gracefully to the fulfillment of her childhood dream. The Jane-Jubilee and Jane-Chimp photos act as a clear framing device. I also like the way the illustrations show the cluttered, imaginative, and joyful thinking of a young primatologist in the making. (“At first glance messy and haphazard, but ultimately magical and uplifting,” as Lolly R puts it.) The pages from Jane’s childhood journal further add to the mix, along with lovely details like the ornamental engravings. Me…Jane feels well-crafted and complete, and it does really sing to me. In a world where mixed media is recognized more and more for its potential as an art form, I hope the Caldecott judges honor Patrick McDonnell’s success in creating this beautiful little book.

    • Lolly Robinson Lolly Robinson says:

      Kate, I think the problem we’re talking about with the last photo — at least as it relates to possible disqualification — is that this photo is artistic. It is famously well captured and cropped by Hugo Van Lawick and has made a strong statement on its own for many years. If the book won an award for illustration, would Van Lawick then deserve part of that award? I’m guessing this is exactly the kind of sticky question ALSC wants to avoid.

      The stamps/engravings are probably in the public domain and Goodall’s early sketchbooks and notebooks and the childhood photo would probably be given a “pass” as historical documents. But Roger, I’m not sure I get why then the stills from Georges Melier are allowed? Are they public domain? Is it because he’s not around anymore to make a fuss?

  8. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    I’m with Kate in thinking that the photo is a brilliant artistic choice, but it’s up to the committee to decide if it disqualifies the book. I can’t speak for the Cabret committee, of course, but my own thinking was that the Melies stills worked as collage elements, which is just what ALSC cites them as in the latest manual.

    If you had a picture book bio of Da Vinci, I don’t think an interpolated reproduction of the Mona Lisa would be a problem, and this photo is Van Lawick’s Mona Lisa!

  9. Eligibility of individual books or illustrators is actually not the Caldecott Committee’s call. Rather, the Caldecott Committee Chair refers these kinds of questions to the ALSC Priority Group Consultant. There’s a lot of communication back and forth between the Chair and the PGC, and the PGC seeks other info, if necessary. If the PGC can’t make a determination, he or she will pass the question along to the ALSC Executive Committee for a final ruling. Usually the Executive Committee will err on the side of inclusion, as I believe they would do in the case of “Me… Jane,” weighing the part against the whole work, and discussing just how crucial the photo is to the overall success of the book.

    The PGC spends hours and hours each year dealing with eligibility questions, and the most complicated ones are, in turn, considered by the ALSC Executive Committee, which also spends hours discussing such questions. What you want to avoid is having these sorts of questions arise at the actual Midwinter meetings, because they can be so time consuming to figure out, and the committee really doesn’t have time to devote to eligibility at that point.

    When I chaired Batchelder many years ago, I probably spent the equivalent of an entire week on the eligibility of a single book. The PGC had to take it to the ALSC Executive Committee and then the ALA Board, since it involved the official ALA definition of what constituted a book. The book in question is what we would call today an e-book, but back then it was such alien object that no one knew what to make of it.

  10. Andrea Spooner says:

    Thank you for this interesting discussion! As Patrick McDonnell’s editor for ME… JANE, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to share a little bit of “inside information” about Patrick’s creative process for the book. Using a photograph of Jane at the end to create a startling contrast to his drawings was always, from the earliest dummy I saw of this book, a distinct and critical part of his vision for the storyline and emotional impact of the book. The transformation of a child’s dreams to a complete and total reality is exactly what he was trying to convey.

    Patrick and I had discussed several times whether or not the “overnight” transformation of Jane Goodall from child to adult made it seem too easy and quick; I even brainstormed ideas for adding pages in between that he and I discussed. But Patrick was steadfast in his belief that this the magic of the book was in this dramatic page turn, and I am infinitely glad we didn’t add those pages with filler that would have diluted the impact. Patrick did, however, design a more subtle touch: As we approach the shift from Jane’s dreams to reality, the engravings (which represented the encyclopedias and books about nature that Jane studied as a child) fall away, the pages become starker and cleaner, and eventually the only graphic is a simple sun shape that was inspired by an African textile (which also subtly hints at Jane’s perception of Africa changing from one as rendered by early-century colonial artists to the Africa she was now able to observe firsthand). This book is, as Patrick describes it, a “love letter” to Jane Goodall, to nature, and to books—which were a tremendous inspiration for Jane as a child. He wanted to share that sense of inspiration with the reader, and I’m personally convinced from the staggering amount of reader feedback I’ve received that it’s seeing a photo in the context of the story that “socks” the reader in the gut and makes the point in a profound (and refreshingly unusual) way we believed a drawing simply would not.

    As for why a well known photo was selected, on our end there was never any discussion about how famous the photo is. As a longtime friend of the Jane Goodall Institute, Patrick had access to a full range of options, but he only felt two adequately achieved his narrative goal. Ultimately we went with the one that Patrick felt best conveyed the human/animal connection that Jane’s work represents. Of course, there’s a reason that certain photos become iconic; it’s because they do capture something far beyond the literal meaning. A photo like this can’t help but call to mind Michaelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam”, which has resonated with people for centuries. We feel very lucky to be able to share this amazing picture with many generations of readers who are not so intimately familiar with Jane’s work and public image. It’s a strong image on its own that I think takes on a whole new life in the context of Patrick’s complete narrative vision of text, art and design.

    While I’m not surprised by some readers experiencing the end as a sudden visual shift, I’m also pleased to hear from so many readers who felt this unconventional artistic choice was right on target in terms of eliciting the response Patrick had hoped it would.

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