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Neighborhood Sharks

roy_neigborhood sharks

I didn’t look very carefully at Neighborhood Sharks when it first came in to the office, mostly because I’ve got such a soft spot for harbor seals (close relatives to elephant seals, the preferred prey for the great white sharks in this book). Also, I was kind of turned off by the limp dead seal and bloody red water on the cover.

Now that I’ve spent some quality time with this book, I still feel sad about the dead seal, but now I also admire the shark’s surprising configurations that allow it to be the perfect predator. And as much as I now admire sharks, I admire Katherine Roy’s artistry even more.

In the impressive and extensive back matter, Roy thanks David Macaulay for being her mentor. You can see his influence in several whimsical diagrams. Some of these provide visual analogies, like the one that explains the shark’s aerodynamic propulsion system and depicts a shark with wings and windows like an airplane. Another spread shows the food chain with a Macaulay-esque mix of scales: an enormous wooden spoon reaches into the ocean to stir a plankton “soup” while several gulls — each one smaller than the individual phytoplanktons and zooplanktons — perch on the handle and bowl of the spoon, eager for a taste.

So I have no doubt that Neighborhood Sharks is an exemplary information book and a good bet for a Sibert nod. But what about the Caldecott? Is this also an exemplary picture book with a narrative and forward momentum? I think it is, thanks especially to two elements.

First, all the bits of information about sharks’ anatomy and abilities are provided as digressions from a visual narrative that keeps moving forward in the illustrations even when the text does not refer to it. This progression begins on the title page and continues seamlessly to the end: a young elephant seal pursues and catches a fish; that seal is in turn pursued and caught by a great white shark; finally, that same shark is caught and tagged by a group of scientists in a boat. In my first reading, I was concentrating more on the information and didn’t notice this framing device, but it’s such a great idea. For one thing, it shows that the shark eating the seal is no worse than the seal eating its fish. That’s something I personally need to keep in mind. And by showing the scientists at the end, Roy is able to finish up with a wider view: the history of sharks and their future, including what we still need to learn about them. Besides providing a satisfying ending to the narrative, it also acts as a segue to the backmatter that describes, among other things, the days Roy spent on a boat with those same scientists.

The second aspect of this book that makes it potentially Caldecott-worthy is Roy’s skill as a watercolorist. Clearly these illustrations were done with the aid of photos and video (you can’t paint underwater scenes from life!), but there is a sense of motion and immediacy that one doesn’t often see in paintings based on photos. It’s clear the illustrator has spent plenty of time observing how water and fish move and how light is refracted underwater. Her changing points of view — sometimes below a shark, sometimes above — make us feel as if we are in there swimming alongside them.

But it’s her use of line and mass to show how the water moves that I find most impressive. Her brushwork is so assured, showing broad masses of various blues under the water, then breaking up the space with shorter brushstrokes to show motion and adding light pencil to outline shapes or indicate moving eddies of water. That blood fizzing and billowing out from the seal shows the direction the shark just swam in: not quite straight and probably shaking its head a bit. Roy’s style is realistic, but not slavishly so. Look at what she does when the shark breaches the surface of the water. Her pencil lines become darker and outline the ribbons of water. This is not something that one ever sees in a photo which either stops water in mid-drop (with a quick shutter speed) or blurs it (with a slower shutter). Instead, the ribbons of water are Roy’s method of indicating motion and the path of each splash. Outlining those brushstrokes in pencil makes the water look stylized, almost like a paisley pattern. It’s a bold choice and — to my eye at least — exactly right.

I want to mention two design decisions, one good and one problematic. Of course, the Caldecott committee should concentrate on illustration above design, but I think these are still worth mentioning. First, the lettering on the cover and title page are perfection. “Neighborhood” is in a friendly handlettered-looking typeface, while “Sharks” is sharp and glassy with little shark-tooth-shaped notches in some of the letters. The triangles in the top point of the “A” and the negative space below the “K” are echoed in the shark’s fins and its nose. My design quibble is with the interior typesetting. I kept getting distracted by the relatively small margin between the two columns of type. Since the leading (vertical space between lines of type) was quite generous, the horizontal space between columns seemed proportionally too small. There’s not really a rule about this, but I really really wanted to either nudge those columns farther apart or decrease the leading a little.

There seem to be many more information books to discuss this year than usual. Is this true, or has my perspective been narrowed because nearly all of my posts happen to be on nonfiction books?

Now it’s finally your turn. Do you think this has a chance at a Caldecott? Will it be compared to this year’s other information books, and, if so, how does it stand up to them?

 

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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Comments

  1. I didn’t notice the proximity of the columns of text until you mentioned it, so I’m going to guess this is a minor problem, if it’s one at all. It does seem like an unusually rich year for informational picture books, especially for science and biography. I’d like to think this one has a chance!

  2. This is unquestionably a spectacular picture book achievement. I would think it is practically a shoe-in for Sibert recognition, but by all rights it should be prominently in the Caldecott mix. I certainly can greatly appreciate this intricate and appreciable examination of this remarkable book. I had the great fortune to meet Ms. Roy in October at the Books of Wonder in Manhattan with my family, and was fascinated by the presentation she gave about how she traveled to many destinations on the water to conduct the exhaustive on-location research for her book. The prose and the illustration are equally magnificent, and the book is guaranteed to captivate the grade 3 to grade 4 students especially. But I can’t get enough of the art myself. 🙂

  3. Susan Dailey says:

    I enjoyed the review, but it makes me nervous. I didn’t put this on our consideration list because of how text heavy the book became after the first (few? several?) pages. (Wish I had the book to look at it again, but it’s checked out) When I started through the book, I agree that it was amazing! And then I got to those pages and thought “this isn’t a picture book.” Do you consider those pages back matter? Am I remembering incorrectly? Betsy Bird listed it as a wild card prediction on her final Caldecott predictions on the Fuse #8 blog, too.

    I have a totally unrelated question about another book I didn’t put on our consideration list, “The Scraps Book” by Lois Ehlert. I left this one off because of the criteria about original work. Several of the illustrations feature art from previous books she published. Of course, the art is original to her. It isn’t like the book reproduces someone else’s work. Does the fact that the illustrations show previously published work make it ineligible? Would the committee consider these illustrations part of a collage, which would make it eligible? (I believe that Selznick’s use of film stills in Hugo Cabret was acceptable because they were part of a collage.) Thoughts?

  4. Hi Lolly! I just wanted to thank you for this spectacularly close and critical read of NEIGHBORHOOD SHARKS. I’m honored that you took the time to so carefully review it, and it’s deeply satisfying to know that my first book has been both so well received and so well understood. I’m also delighted to see your mention of the seal hunting the fish; living takes life, and every predator, from shark to amoeba, is critically important to the bigger system. All the best to you! Thank you again for your review of my book!

  5. Lolly Robinson Lolly Robinson says:

    Hi, Susan —

    I’m coming back to this post very late. I agree that at first I wondered why Martha wanted this on our Calling Caldecott list, but clearly she had read it more closely than I. I do think this can be considered a picture book, as can a lot of other books of similar length that have small-print information on the last few pages. For example, Me…Jane by Patrick McDonnell was a close contender a few years back.

    I agree with you, though, about The Scraps Book. I’m a big fan of Lois Ehlert and this book is put together so well! But since at least half of what we see has already appeared in other books, I would say that puts it out of contention for the Committee.

  6. Lolly Robinson Lolly Robinson says:

    Wow, hello Katherine Roy! It’s an honor to hear from you. Are there more books to come from you? I hope so.

    I really was impressed by this one in so many ways. I’ve always been a mammal person and was never a fish fan (not to eat, not to look at) until a trip to the Monterey Bay Aquarium a few years back. Still won’t eat them, but I started to understand all the fuss. Neighborhood Sharks has continued to raise my appreciation level. (Quite a feat: the same week I wrote this post, I was listening to the audiobook of Unbroken!)

  7. I was much more of a mammal person too until I spent the spring after I graduated from college teaching environmental education on a tall ship, the schooner Adventuress, on the Puget Sound in Washington. Suddenly plankton and barnacles and sea anemones were absolutely fascinating, acting out incredible choreography to eat and fight and defend and reproduce. And the level of variation among marine critters is extreme; did you get to see the exhibit on sea horses while at the Aquarium? I love the incredible inversion of parental roles, and all in such a tiny, decorated, funny looking fish. 🙂

    There are more books to come! The next is called HOW TO BE AN ELEPHANT, on what a baby elephant needs to learn from its family to grow up. Much more friendly to your personal taste, I promise. And after that I’m doing a somewhat longer book about reproductive biology in the natural world. I’m very excited about both projects!

  8. Susan Dailey says:

    Hi Lolly,

    Thanks for your thoughts. I really need to look at “Neighborhood Sharks” again! Especially since it was recognized by the Sibert Committee.

    Thanks also for the fabulous blog!! I learn so much about illustrations and picture books from reading it.

    Susan

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