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The Pilot and the Little Prince

sis_pilot and the little princeThis is a hard post to write. I love Peter Sis’s work, and his latest book, The Pilot and the Little Prince, is getting lots of starred reviews, but I’m having trouble jumping on that bandwagon.

Most of my issues with this book wouldn’t fly in a real Caldecott committee discussion. The art is gorgeous and thought-provoking, but I don’t love the text. As you know, the committee is only allowed to compare books to other titles published the same year. This one might stack up well against other 2014 picture book biographies, but I just don’t think it’s as good as Sis’s previous books.

Let me get the non-valid stuff over with in this paragraph so we can get on to what the committee would be talking about. The Pilot and the Little Prince follows a format very similar to The Tree of Life, Sis’s biography of Charles Darwin. But  Tree had a clear reason for its three distinct narrative threads and provided insight into what made Darwin tick. Pilot‘s structure is less clear and doesn’t go into much detail about who Saint-Exupery was on the inside. Given the title of this book, I was hoping to learn more about what led to his writing the extraordinary and mysterious Little Prince. Instead, I don’t feel as if I know Sis’s subject any better than I did after reading Saint-Exupery’s Wikipedia entry.

Phew, that’s done.

What the committee CAN discuss about this book is the art and how it works as a whole with the rest of the book’s elements. Sis never takes the easy path. His pointillist style allows him to include myriad small details and references. As a designer, I know how hard it is to put so many images and ideas together on one spread and end up with something balanced and harmonious rather than busy and dissonant.

For example, look at the first spread in the book. We see two small circles showing young Antoine: on the left he is in bed being read to by his mother and on the right he’s a bit older reading by himself. Surrounding these circles we see what he imagines as he absorbs these stories. How do we know that’s what we are seeing? The text doesn’t tell us that the central circles are fact and the surroundings are imagination. It reads, “It was an exciting time of discovery in the world. Things people had only dreamed about were being invented — including flying machines.”

There is a LOT going on in this spread, but the circles showing Antoine use cool colors surrounded with a nearly white background, egg-like. Everything else is warm: red, orange, yellow. There is so much to look at here. I see references to works by Jules Verne and early filmmaker George Melies, both active at the time of Saint-Exupery’s birth and likely to have fueled young Antoine’s interest in flying. There are lots of other references that undoubtedly mean something. I understand the elephant under the hat (from The Little Prince, of course), and Icarus, and the Pterodactyl. But what about the big face in the center that seems to be part of the land? It’s repeated later in a wordless spread after Antoine has started to fly. What does it mean? I like that this book is smarter than I am. There are so many reasons to keep looking and thinking.

I love nearly every visual choice Sis makes in this book. I would love to hear your theories about one choice that I don’t understand. Early in the book, Sis uses negative space to illustrate people in Saint-Exupery’s life who have died. We see his father, who died when he was four, as a white silhouette against a stark landscape and later see his brother and sister, who died in 1917 and 1926, the same way. So what does it mean when Saint-Exupery is shown as a large white silhouette against a map of Paris? Is this foreshadowing? But why on this particular spread? Or is it just a way of designing this spread that doesn’t have anything to do with the visual language he set up earlier?

I think the real committee is likely to spend a lot of time discussing this book. As it should. And as we should right now.

 

Lolly Robinson About Lolly Robinson

Lolly Robinson is the creative director for The Horn Book, Inc. She has degrees in studio art and children's literature and teaches children's literature at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education. She has served on the Caldecott and Boston Globe-Horn Book Award committees and blogs for Calling Caldecott and Lolly's Classroom on this site.

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  1. Susan Dailey says:

    I agree that the committee will have a LOT to talk about with this book. I’d love to hear what others think about the wordless double spread that follows the “war” illustration. I’m not sure I get what’s depicted. I, too, think the book is smarter than me.

    For me, the look and feel of the illustrations evokes the illustrations from “The Little Prince” (as I remember them). However, I’m not sure we get the feel of the excitement that was Saint-Exupery’s life.

    I love the wreckage that resembles a boy! The first time through when I was just looking at illustrations, I missed the “war” spread. When I went back to read the text, my reaction was “Wow! This is effective!” So much to see in this book! For me, maybe a little too much.

  2. “Pilot‘s structure is less clear and doesn’t go into much detail about who Saint-Exupery was on the inside. Given the title of this book, I was hoping to learn more about what led to his writing the extraordinary and mysterious Little Prince. Instead, I don’t feel as if I know Sis’s subject any better than I did after reading Saint-Exupery’s Wikipedia entry.”

    Lolly, I do see your point here, and I have the book right next to me here as I write this response. My kids and I had the fortune of getting it signed on Saturday by Mr. Sis at the Chappaqua, New York Children’s Book Festival, along with some of his other marvelous works, one of which is discussed here is favorably comparative terms. I am one who simply adores his work, and can never get enough of it. But I can well imagine how much time, research and painstaking application must go into every one of his books, so being especially prolific can never come to pass. I am not sure if I agree with you or disagree with you, but I understand what you are saying with these provocative constructive criticisms. Like all lit majors I adore the subject here. I will say this: Mr. Sis went for a much more basic route, and in this sense THE PILOT AND THE LITTLE PRINCE, as ravishing as it is, never reaches the heights of philosophical and illustrative complexity as TIBET THROUGH THE RED BOX, THE TREE OF LIFE or STARRY MESSENGER. Of course this is neither good or bad, just a decision he made when he planned the book. I agree with you when you conclude that the Caldecott committee may in the end be unfazed with the simpler design and focus, and like you I still adore the art. This book is one of my ten favorites of the year to this point I’d say.

    Extraordinary review.

  3. Lolly Robinson Lolly Robinson says:

    Thanks, Sam. I should also point out that my post doesn’t just break the Caldecott discussion rules but also breaks the reviewers’ rules: to review the book in front of you and not the book you wished it had been. But since blogs at this point aren’t beholden to many rules, I went ahead.

  4. I definitely had some issues with the text, too. Not only is it microscopic in certain places, which I would submit is part of the illustrative/design part of the book, the text itself is really flat compared to how the illustrations soar. I agree with the Wikipedia feel of it. There’s an assumption of familiarity with The Little Prince here that I don’t think is nearly as universal (especially among younger children) as Sis might think there is. And although the author has publicly stated that he didn’t have a lot of support from those who hold the rights to TLP, that book’s near-absence from this book is even more gaping considering how this one was titled.

  5. I also had issues with the text – not the writing style, necessarily, but the way it’s broken up. Which I think is relevant to the criteria – “Each book is to be considered as a picture book. The committee is to make its decision primarily on the illustration, but other components of a book are to be considered especially when they make a book less effective as a children’s picture book.” I found the book tricky to read. Do I start with the narrative running along the bottom of each page, telling the story of Antoine’s life? Do I read the tiny, often curving and upside down text in the illustrations before or after? The small text adds more detail (timelines, family tree, anecdotes that don’t fit smoothly into the larger narrative), but I found it so hard to switch back and forth (and annoying to keep turning the book to read the curving text) that I ditched the small text and only read the narrative. But then I felt like I was missing something. As a visual work of art, this is a success. As a picture book biography, I’m not as sure.

  6. Lolly Robinson Lolly Robinson says:

    Ah, yes — this always comes up in my classes. I think it’s a great example to use when you are talking about different kinds of learners being drawn to different kinds of books. Some people are frustrated by so many strings of narrative and others find this liberating. I think Sis’s books are meant for those people who are not driven crazy by this kind of thing. I have heard (anecdotally but I would love to see someone make a study of this) that kids with ADHD are drawn to this kind of book, especially if no one is telling them they have to be “responsible for” reading every single word. So I am happy to let the text formatting and multiple stands be what they are, but I do wish they contained more surprising nuggets of information. If they did, then all the hunting around for text would feel more worth it to me.

  7. Lolly Robinson Lolly Robinson says:

    FWIW, there is a discussion of this book going on at a more recent post about Draw by Raul Colon: http://www.hbook.com/2014/11/blogs/calling-caldecott/draw/

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