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Robinson

Peter Sís’s Robinson has been one of my 2017 favorites since the moment I first laid eyes on it. For one thing, on a personal (and superficial) level, I love that he captures on many of the book’s spreads my favorite shades of blue. Oh, the beautiful blues here! Blue ties with yellow for My Favorite Color, so I’ve stared at these illustrations a lot this year. But let’s delve further to see what this book, beyond its palette, does so well, since the Caldecott committee looks at much, much more.

This is the story of a dream, and it’s based on an incident from Sís’s childhood (a closing author’s note explains as much). Young Sís, therefore, is our narrator, telling the story in an immediate, present-tense voice: “My friends and I love adventure.” They especially like to play pirates. When their school holds a costume party, the boy’s friends dress as pirates, but his mother convinces him to go as Robinson Crusoe, the hero from his favorite story. When he shows up in a costume his mother has constructed for him, his friends laugh at him; he runs home, falling ill; and he has a fevered dream about escaping to a small island and surviving on his own, much like Crusoe.

The book has a trim size that makes a statement: it’s large, hinting at the grand adventure inside. On the exquisite cover (look at those blues!) we see the boy sailing a boat. The book’s sail is a book, open to a picture of an island. It is, after all, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe that inspires the boy’s journey. Later, in the spread where the boy’s fever dream begins (the spread where we first see the ocean and a glimpse of the island he’ll visit), we see a progression of three tiny illustrations — in the first, the boy is sitting up in bed, reading; in the second, his bed has begun to morph into a boat, with the same book-as-sail; and the third shows a full-fledged, three-masted ship with massive sails. (I love the nod here to Where the Wild Things Are: “I float in and out of hours, or maybe days, until I am cast upon an island.”) The notion that this is a journey of the imagination, guided by beloved stories, is reinforced by these book-as-sail images.

Much of the line work in this book communicates abundant meaning. When the boy shows up at the party and his friends mock him, the illustration is dissected by a spotlight from above that exposes the children in a white, triangular light, those angular lines conveying so much tension and drama. In two subsequent illustrations of the boy’s distress, we see more of these angular lines coming from open doors; in the one where he sleeps in his bedroom, the open entranceway foreshadows the exit he will take, a journey of the imagination to a new land.

Sís is an illustrator known for his detailed artwork. Here, he provides just the right amount of detail, never overwhelming the reader. He uses panels on the very first spread to break up the action and emphasize how much he and his friends enjoy imaginative play as pirates. A couple of illustrations are bordered by smaller panels of artwork. The one in which he dons the Robinson Crusoe costume, ready to head to the party, is bordered by 14 smaller illustrations, showing precisely how he becomes Crusoe. All of these smaller, paneled illustrations fall away and become expansive full-bleed spreads when the boy arrives on the tropical island, taking in this new world, learning autonomy, and finding his courage.

There is much to appreciate in the atmosphere Sís constructs throughout the book, primarily via that gorgeous palette and the emotions it facilitates. When the boy arrives on the island (unlike Robinson Crusoe, there are no humans on this island), lines fall away and the book explodes in dreamlike color. Sís also plays with styles here. One spread (“I find water and something to eat”) is reminiscent of botanical art of the 1800s. In other spreads, Sís seems to go full-on Gauguin (Gauguin himself spent time on the Caribbean island of Martinique). One spread even looks very Chagall-esque. What will committee members make of the Caldecott criterion that calls for “appropriateness of style of illustration to the story, theme or concept” in a book that plays so creatively with styles?

Just last week someone asked me what my top three picks would be if I were on the committee right now. Robinson has been a favorite for me since its publication, but there are so many other excellent books, many that have been covered at Calling Caldecott already and some that are to come. Would Robinson stay in my top three or get crowded out? It’s such a tough choice that I throw my hands up and walk away, but committee members aren’t afforded that option. Which is to say: it’s been a good year for picture books, huh? But it’s also to say: let’s take a moment to appreciate the gravity of the committee’s decision and how challenging the task assigned to them. In a little over nine weeks, they’ll gather on the isolated tropical island that is a closed-door ALA committee room and make those hard choices.

Read the Horn Book Magazine review of Robinson.

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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  1. Julie says: “Peter Sís’s Robinson has been one of my 2017 favorites since the moment I first laid eyes on it”

    I’ve also felt the same. Like you blue is my favorite color. This year we had three other books with sublime use of the color: Isabelle Simler’s “The Blue Hour,” Mordecai Gerstein’s “The Boy and the Whale” and Gaia Cornwall’s “Jabari Jumps” and in each case whether it was oceanic, aquamarine or the full gamut of the blue experience, the application was quite ravishing. I am also a huge fan of Daniel Dafoe’s “Robinson Crusoe” and Ang Lee’s magnificent 2012 film “The Life of Pi” both of which do come into play here, pictorially and thematically. Above all of course is Sis himself. He has always been such a remarkable talent, what with his painstaking work in miniature always a rather singular achievement.

    Mr. Sis will be appearing this coming Sunday at Manhattan’s Book of Wonders from 1 to 3 P.M. along with Raul Colon (“Miguel’s Brave Knight” and Charles Santore (“Alice in Wonderland”) in a presentation dubbed “Classics Re-imagined”, and though Sis is a regular at annual Film Festivals in places like Chappaqua, New York, this particular venue should yield some wonderful insights into the artistic process. I can’t blame you at all for initially placing the book in your Top 3, and there are at least some days in the week I am thinking in those terms as well.

    Your discussion of detailed art, gorgeous palettes, not to mention the connection to botanical art of the 1800’s is inspired, as are your intricate illuminations in the “trim size” paragraph. I have been gathering my own thoughts about this book for two months now and just earlier this week I e mailed someone, saying I thought it a masterpiece. So much more meaningful too how it all developed from Sis’ childhood and his school play involvement.

    Stunning. Absolutely Stunning. As is this passionate essay.

  2. “and though Sis is a regular at annual Film Festivals in places like Chappaqua, New York…”

    Geez. Sorry about that. Meant to say of course “book” festivals, not “film” festivals.

    Anyway: http://booksofwonder.com/sundaydecember10th1-3pmatour84thststore.aspx

  3. Allison Grover Khoury says:

    Brilliant review, Jules. This is a beautiful book, and I can’t seem to get it out of my top 5 either – not that I want to. The blues are so gorgeous. I’m hoping…

  4. Cindy Olson says:

    It’s definitely in my top three. I will be discussing this book Friday with my book club kiddos. Can’t wait to hear what they think. I’ll try to report back.

  5. Cindy Olson says:

    And, also, thanks for the great review! Gives me more stuff to think about. And, I thought the same thing about Chagall and Gauguin. I love those Chagall animals!! I’m dying to know what your top three are, Jules.

  6. Susan Dailey says:

    I really like the page you mentioned where the boy gets dressed as Crusoe. However, I’m a little puzzled by the fact that the first panel is in the bottom left-hand corner. Visually, I’d expect it to be in the top left-hand corner. Can anyone explain this choice to me?

    I’ve been puzzled by other choices this year, including at least two books that require the reader to turn the book counter-clockwise to see the illustration. The books I can think of with this trait are “Crown” by Derrick Barnes and “Mighty Moby” by Barbara DaCosta. This seems unnatural to me. Am I the only one?

  7. Oh, Cindy. So hard. Can I answer later? Insert big, guilty smile here. I can say, however, since I just commented as much elsewhere, that my favorite is McDonnell’s book.

    Susan, it didn’t bother me at all that the sequence started in the lower left-side corner. I suppose that, typically, it would start at the top, but it didn’t really cross my mind or distract me. Interesting.

    A sudden vertical orientation in a picture book is a common thing, but it’s not always done well, that’s for sure. There needs to be a reason for it. Crown will be covered later here at Calling Caldecott — possibly Mighty Moby, too.

  8. Becky McDonald says:

    Robinson is perfect. Bravo, Peter Sis!

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