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2015 in Review: The Year in Pictures

mattick_finding winnie2015 was a striking, if fractious, year for picture books. At ALA, picture books were in the spotlight not just for their usual recognition — with Sophie Blackall receiving the 2016 Caldecott Medal for Finding Winnie — but also for winning top awards in many more categories: the Batchelder Award went to a picture book (Beatrice Alemagna’s The Wonderful Fluffy Little Squishy), as did the Sibert Award (Duncan Tonatiuh’s Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras, which was also a Pura Belpré Illustrator Honoree). The Laura Ingalls Wilder Award and the Coretta Scott King–Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement were each given to a picture book author — the same picture book author, Jerry Pinkney [read his speeches here and here]. Most unexpected of all, the Newbery winner, Matt de la Peña’s and Christian Robinson’s Last Stop on Market Street, is a picture book. (It was also a Caldecott Honoree, one of four this year; and a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honoree.) Certainly the Newbery Medal is awarded for distinguished writing, but it’s exciting that the two oldest and most prestigious of the ALSC awards — Caldecott and Newbery — both went to books with illustrations this year. Beyond the realm of ALA, the title of Ambassador for Young People’s Literature was awarded to someone who makes art, graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang. When I asked editor Neal Porter in an interview if he thinks we are living in a Golden Age of picture books, he noted that you don’t really know such a thing until you’ve passed through it. He makes a wise point, but all this attention to those who tell stories with art leads me to wonder if this isn’t a Golden Age after all.

andrew_trombone shortySo does the exceptional art in the award-winning books, quite a few of them biographies — even one of the ursine variety. In fact, the 2016 Caldecott winners were dominated by picture-book biographies. Sophie Blackall brought home Caldecott gold for her radiant, meticulously researched illustrations in Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear, written by Lindsay Mattick. The story of the real bear behind the character Winnie-the-Pooh, rescued in 1914 by World War I veterinarian Harry Colebourn, includes present-day moments with the author, Colebourn’s great-granddaughter, telling the family story to her own child — and Blackall seamlessly handles these jumps from present to past and back again. The Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award, as well as a Caldecott Honor, went to Bryan Collier for his dynamic illustrations in Trombone Shorty. Collier’s artwork sings, swoops, and swirls in this autobiographical picture book by musician Troy Andrews. The Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent Illustrator Award, as well as a Caldecott Honor and Sibert Honor, went to debut picture-book artist Ekua Holmes for her textured, patterned collages in Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement, Carole Boston Weatherford’s tribute to the life of the civil rights activist. A Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor went to Vaunda Micheaux Nelson’s and R. Gregory Christie’s The Book Itch: Freedom, Truth & Harlem’s Greatest Bookstore, a tribute to legendary bookseller Lewis Michaux and his National Memorial African Bookstore. And the Belpré Illustrator Award went to Rafael López for his sophisticated, vivid acrylic illustrations in Drum Dream Girl: How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music, a picture book inspired by the life of legendary drummer Millo Castro Zaldarriaga written by Margarita Engle.

henkes_waitingWhen we weren’t reading biographies, we were being reminded to slow down and take a look around. Kevin Henkes won a Caldecott Honor (and a Geisel Honor) for his illustrations in Waiting, with its delicate, pastel palette on uncluttered spreads. In Antoinette Portis’s horizontally oriented Wait, which was met with a host of starred reviews, readers take a walk with a curious, meandering boy, whose mother is in a hurry, and are treated in the end to a spectacular, “hurry”-busting rainbow. JonArno Lawson and Sydney Smith brought us Sidewalk Flowers, named a 2016 Outstanding International Book by USBBY and a New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Book, joining Portis in asking readers to decelerate so that we can spot beauty in unexpected places. Smith’s pen-and-ink and watercolor illustrations are eloquent, wondrous.

lawson_sidewalk flowersSidewalk Flowers incorporated elements of graphic novel art, such as the use of panels on many spreads to depict the progression of time and communicate abundant detail. We saw this with a number of 2015 books — Don Brown’s Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans, which won a Sibert Honor; Guojing’s wordless The Only Child, a New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Book; and Liniers’s Written and Drawn by Henrietta, a Batchelder Honor, to name a few. As graphic novels and comic books grow in popularity, we see more of their elements — such as speech bubbles and panels — appearing in picture books. This happens while we simultaneously continue to discuss how to differentiate between the genres, even after a graphic novel (This One Summer) won a Caldecott Honor last year.

jenkins_fine dessertAnother, even bigger, discussion in 2015 — a year once again dominated by conversations about diversity — was a fervent one about art depicting “smiling slaves.” It was a few months after the January release of A Fine Dessert, written by Emily Jenkins and illustrated by Sophie Blackall, that the accusation of sugarcoating slavery was made about this story of “four centuries, four families, one delicious treat.” There stands a young enslaved girl in the pages of the book, rendered in Chinese inks and watercolors, expressing pride in the cream she whipped up for the slave-owning family’s blackberry fool dessert. Later, she and her mother hide in a closet to lick the bowl clean, in the book’s most controversial spread. The book was vilified by some and passionately defended by others. While the author apologized (“I have come to understand that my book, while intended to be inclusive and truthful and hopeful, is racially insensitive. I own that and am very sorry”), the illustrator remained resolute in her position that she had approached her illustrations with “research, thoughtfulness, empathy, and imagination.” The conversation about intent versus impact raged on, especially after A Fine Dessert was named a New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Book, and the conversation continued into early 2016 with the publication — and subsequent withdrawal by its publisher, Scholastic — of the picture book A Birthday Cake for George Washington, written by Ramin Ganeshram and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton.

tate_poetA Fine Dessert’s daughter and mother, picking blackberries in a Charleston plantation garden, weren’t the only smiling enslaved persons picture-book readers saw in 2015. “If you flip through the book and count up his expressions,” Don Tate wrote on Facebook about his book Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton, “I’ve pictured Horton smiling more than any other expression.” Certainly, the book had more space to address Horton’s life, most of it lived as a slave, in ways appropriate to the young children at whom the book is aimed. The entire book was devoted to Horton’s struggles — not just one vignette out of four, as in A Fine Dessert — with more room for the art to flesh out the complexities of Horton’s life. And Poet attracted little, if any, of the negative criticism directed at A Fine Dessert, winning for Tate a 2016 Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Award.

These books, and the ongoing conversations about art showing smiling enslaved people, indicate that there is no consensus on how, and how intensely, to portray in picture book art the evils of slavery and the violence and emotional distress that result from racism. And while we were all busy discussing it in 2015, we also saw (if you blinked, you may have missed it) the removal, in picture book reissues, of illustrations now recognized to be offensive. The twenty-fifth anniversary edition of Mary Hoffman’s Amazing Grace, illustrated by Caroline Binch and originally published in 1991, arrived on shelves without the illustration of protagonist Grace pretending to be Hiawatha. Even more quietly, Dial removed from the endpapers an image of David Soman’s and Jacky Davis’s Ladybug Girl donning a feathered headdress in Ladybug Girl: The Super Fun Edition, released last year. (The original Ladybug Girl was released in 2008.) Will we see this year, and in years to come, more picture book reissues, erasing illustrations in the name of righting previous moments of racial and cultural insensitivities?

leo_ghoststoryAnother characteristic of picture book art in 2015 was an increase in “incidental diversity” — that is, the appearance of characters of color whose ethnicities are incidental to the story. In Christopher Myers’s 2013 Horn Book essay “Young Dreamers,” the illustrator wrote about the need to create books with African Americans who aren’t just “flag bearers for guilt or fractious history” and about the lack of a wide variety of stories featuring characters of color. And look: in 2015, there was Mo, the main character of the Geisel Award–winning Don’t Throw It to Mo!, written by David A. Adler and illustrated by Sam Ricks; Sophia and her family in One Word from Sophia, written by Jim Averbeck and illustrated by Yasmeen Ismail; Jane, Leo’s new best friend, in Mac Barnett’s and Christian Robinson’s Leo: A Ghost Story (a New York Times Best Illustrated Book); Leonard in Mark Pett’s Lizard from the Park; Phoebe and her dad in Bright Sky, Starry City, written by Uma Krishnaswami and illustrated by Aimée Sicuro; the young boy in Daniel Miyares’s Float; the children exploring nature in Miranda Paul’s and Jason Chin’s Water Is Water; the title character in What James Said, written by Liz Rosenberg and illustrated by Matt Myers; and the family of Phoebe Wahl’s Sonya’s Chickens, which won the 2015 Ezra Jack Keats New Illustrator Award. These are stories about, among other things, football, looking at the stars, friendships tested, ghosts, and wanting a new pet.

These books, not expressly about race, depict a wide range of skin tones. This is hardly a new request or phenomenon, but the demand was made louder in the years since the We Need Diverse Books movement began, and I think that in 2015 we saw the first fruits of this particular conversation; I know I saw more of this as I looked at picture books all throughout the year. Though we still have monumental strides ahead of us when it comes to diversity in children’s literature, picture book art in 2015 looked somewhat less like a sea of white faces than previously.

I can’t help but wonder what we will be discussing this time next year in the pages of The Horn Book, as we look back on 2016, but I think diversity in picture book art will continue to be a large part of the conversation. As for 2015, Golden Age or not, it was a whirlwind and thought-provoking year of storytelling by extraordinarily talented artists.

From the July/August 2016 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: Awards. For more speeches, profiles, and articles click the tag ALA 2016. Read the companion article “2015: The Year in Words” by Elizabeth Bird.

Julie Danielson About Julie Danielson

Julie Danielson writes about picture books at the blog Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. She also writes for Kirkus Reviews and BookPage and is a lecturer for the School of Information Sciences graduate program at the University of Tennessee. Her book Wild Things!: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature, written with Betsy Bird and Peter D. Sieruta, was published in 2014.

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