The Mighty Lalouche is something of a late bloomer, showing up on best-of-the-year lists (including School Library Journal’s and this blog) and various libraries’ mock Caldecott ballots. A come-from-behind contender, as it were, which is quite appropriate given its subject: a modest, unassuming Parisian postman who becomes an unlikely champion of the sport of “la box francaise” (a late-nineteenth-century version of kick-boxing).
Matthew Olshan’s text is lively and engaging – no complaints from me about his deft use of dialogue, repetition, and just-enough sprinkling of French phrases. But it is Sophie Blackall’s art that is the star here, even more so than our small and bony yet strong, nimble, and fast hero, Lalouche.
I quote from the CIP page: “The illustrations in this book were made with Chinese ink and watercolor on Arches hot press paper. They were cut out, arranged in layers, and photographed.” And this painstaking process paid off in formidable fashion. Many of the pages have the feel of shadowboxes, so palpable is the sense of depth and immediacy. That cannot be easy to accomplish in 2D.
What I particularly appreciate is that although the art is spectacular, it’s not just spectacular: it’s used in service to the story. Take the spread where Lalouche vanquishes the Anaconda: forefronted are the three figures in the boxing ring (Lalouche, the Anaconda, and Lalouche’s manager), but in the background the composition leads the eye right to the heart of the story: Lalouche’s beloved finch, Geneviève. On the right-hand page, Lalouche trains his attention on the flying yellow bird (and we follow his gaze); on the left-hand page, the cameraman’s flash (a genius inclusion — it both sets the book in its time and provides needed illumination in the picture) and several waving white handkerchiefs in the crowd direct the eye to her.
Another illustration that lifts this book up for me is the page that features Lalouche vs. Ampère—where Ampère’s “speed was blazing…but Lalouche was even faster.” The speed of the two contestants is represented by a wild scribbling of pencil inside a boxing ring—again, genius.
I also just have to mention all the pink on the cover (pretty rad for a book about boxing!) and of course the endpapers, which, like those in Niño Wrestles the World, are composed of trading cards for various fighters.
Voilà — or, as the book translates the word, There you have it. A quiet book with a not-terribly-childlike ending but with undeniably accomplished and effective illustrations. A book that may, on the Caldecott committee table, be compared to Niño Wrestles the World because of the subject matter and perhaps also to other books, maybe Parrots over Puerto Rico, illustrated with some form of cut paper collage.
Can Lalouche once again surprise his opponents and emerge as la victoire in Philadelphia in January?