The Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award in children’s and young adult literature was presented this year to a writer/illustrator whose work is just becoming known in the United States, the Argentinian picture book artist Marisol Misenta, or Isol.
The Lindgren prize, or ALMA, was established in 2002 to honor the memory of the author of Pippi Longstocking and recognize the achievements of writers, illustrators, and others working in her spirit on behalf of children. Funded by the Swedish government, ALMA is administered by the Swedish Arts Council, which appoints a standing committee of twelve jurors to choose winners from a roster of nominees submitted by some four hundred accredited organizations from around the world. With a cash purse worth close to one million dollars, ALMA inevitably prompts comparisons to the Nobel Prize in Literature (notwithstanding the Hans Christian Andersen Award’s prior claim to being the juvenile book world’s counterpart to that loftiest of honors). According to Larry Lempert, director of Stockholm’s International Library and chair of the ALMA selection committee, “In Sweden, many people wonder why Astrid Lindgren did not win the Nobel Prize.” Memorializing Lindgren in such grand style by naming an award after her has perhaps proven to be the next best thing.
Two of the children’s book world’s iconic figures, Maurice Sendak and Austrian writer Christine Nöstlinger, shared the inaugural 2003 award. Subsequent laureates have included artists and writers from four continents, some of whom (Katherine Paterson, Philip Pullman, Shaun Tan) were already household names to American readers, while others (the Brazilian fiction writer Lygia Bojunga, for instance) were not. ALMA jurors have twice given their nod to institutions rather than individuals, awarding the 2007 prize to the Venezuelan literacy organization Banco del Libro and the 2009 ALMA to the Tamer Institute for Community Education in Ramallah, Palestine.
Isol, who was born in 1972 in Buenos Aires, is the illustrator of over twenty-five books, eleven of which she also wrote. She has worked as a commercial artist and editorial cartoonist and maintains a flourishing second career as a singer and recording artist of both pop and classical music. Her picture books have been published in twenty countries. At present, five are available in English, all from Canada’s Groundwood Books. She is the first ALMA winner not to have had any books in print in Swedish at the time of the announcement this past March, though by the day of the award ceremony two months later, that situation had been rectified.
The two most celebrated Argentinian writers of the twentieth century — Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar — share with Isol what the artist, in a conversation I had with her in Stockholm this May, spoke of as an Argentinian obsession with the role of chance in every aspect of life. Borges’s great short story “The Library of Babel” envisions a universe stocked with books generated from every possible letter and word combination — wisdom and nonsense shelved side-by-side in no discernible order. Cortázar’s best-known novel, Hopscotch, unfolds along multiple narrative pathways from which readers are free to choose, each one leading to a different ending. For Isol, childhood is itself just such a labyrinth. In her open-ended, slyly playful picture books, she presents young readers with a distilled version of the chaos they confront daily, the better to prepare them to live in a world largely woven from riddles.
The style, form, and substance of the books all pull together toward that end. Isol’s drawings have a raw, unfinished look, with hardly a straight line in sight. To keep the result a bit less predictable, she told me, she sometimes draws with her left hand. Mid-image, she may suddenly change the art medium of an illustration, rendering a figure half in line, for example, and half in planes of deeply saturated color that have perhaps also been embellished with ornate decorative patterning. Proportions surprise, too, with characters, especially child characters, given absurdly oversized heads that showcase their intense emotional responses. The result of all this is the graphic representation of a world in constant flux. The unpolished manner of the art is meant to encourage children to feel that they could do just as well. Its shape-shifting buoyancy reminds readers that there is no one “correct” way to picture — or perceive — anything.
Beautiful Griselda (2011), a darkly witty original fairy tale, offers many such fine graphic surprises, though the story itself, which is littered with the severed heads of a vain princess’s many suitors, seems intent on merely shocking the reader. Petit, the Monster (2010) is Isol’s most completely satisfying book in English so far. It records a small child’s confusion as he puzzles, always very reasonably, over the contradictory adult messages to which the young are continually subjected. Each double-page spread presents a different quandary, but all are meditations on the same underlying question (one of consuming interest to children): what does it mean to be good or bad? And still more puzzling: how is it possible for the same person at times to be bad and good? The examples Isol holds up for consideration are not the obvious, feel-good ones: “Petit takes very good care of his toys, and that is good. Is it bad not to want to share them?” In the left-hand illustration of another spread, a boy named Gregory wreaks havoc in class, hurling objects every which way. In the right-hand image, miscreant Gregory stands cowed in the corner. Once again, Isol’s comment is not the expected one: “There are things that he [Petit] wonders about. For example, why if Gregory is such a horrible boy did he feel so sorry for him the other day?” It is a deeply human moment, as Petit stands poised to realize that the power of empathy can sometimes trump more literal-minded interpretations of right and wrong.
Isol’s most frequent collaborator is the Argentinian-born poet Jorge Luján. Doggy Slippers (2010) is the only one of their books currently available in English. It is notable for the fact that its brief poems are partly derived from comments solicited from children about their pets — a collaborative experiment similar in spirit to the one that culminated more than sixty years ago in Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak’s A Hole Is to Dig. Nearly all the verses are lighthearted in tone, but none is trivial, and each delivers a small kernel of wisdom as an added payoff. The shortest poem reads: “Life is good. / Kitty makes it better / when things go wrong.” Isol elaborates on this observation in a spread depicting no fewer than a dozen paradigms of feline sociability. Pages like these are made for daydreamers.
Isol has created two picture books that toy with and stretch the format in notable ways. Designing a book for early preschoolers about, say, a small child and his rubber ducky as a foldout frieze is not a new idea. But repeating the same set of drawings on both sides of the frieze, and presenting them as the illustrations for two completely different (though related) narratives — the boy’s interpretation of events on one side and the ducky’s version on the other — is an inspired as well as richly entertaining choice. The frieze format of It’s Useful to Have a Duck (2009) becomes a physical demonstration of the old saying about every story having two sides. Put so concretely, the concept of point of view — a breakthrough insight for young children as they first become conscious of the world beyond the self — is easy to grasp.
At first glance, Isol’s other experiment in format looks to be a spiral-bound notebook of straightforward drawings and brief explanatory captions, each a nutshell description of a familiar kind of dream: “the dream of growing”; “the dream of being another”; “the cozy, warm dream.” Nocturne: Dream Recipes (2012) relies on special glow-in-the-dark ink to hide — and then give up — its secrets. When viewed in a darkened room, the drawings not only turn luminous but also reveal previously invisible characters and other details. One by one, the mundane scenes turn…dreamlike. Trust your own dreams to make life a more satisfying experience, Isol implicitly urges her readers. If you don’t like what you see, imagine something better.
From the November/December 2013 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.