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Snow White

snow-whiteWhen I first heard Matt Phelan was working on a graphic novel that would transpose Snow White from her traditional fairy-tale locale to Depression-era New York City, I was more than a little excited. Phelan’s previous graphic novels (Storm in the BarnBluffton) are favorites of mine and have been a hit with my comics-obsessed students. When Snow White finally arrived in finished form, it exceeded my hopes. Phelan’s pencil, ink, and watercolor rendering of this classic tale is a stunning achievement in visual storytelling, one that is so individually distinct from this year’s class of picture books and graphic novels that I wouldn’t be surprised if it became the new benchmark when considering “literary graphic novels” during Caldecott season.

The Caldecott Medal terms and criteria ask committee members to consider:

  • Excellence of execution in the artistic technique employed;
  • Excellence of pictorial interpretation of story, theme, or concept;
  • Appropriateness of style of illustration to the story, theme or concept;
  • Delineation of plot, theme, characters, setting, mood or information through the pictures;
  • Excellence of presentation in recognition of a child audience.

Looking at these criteria in terms of the visual storytelling here, I see not just a home run but a grand slam. Phelan’s art renders both kinetic wordless sequences and carefully framed character interactions with equal aplomb. Of particular note is his use of color, which provides the reader with crucial information about story, character, theme, and mood. This is accomplished through the spot highlights that direct the reader’s glance across panels (and in the case of the red apple, heighten the sense of dread) and through the subtle variations of color wash that hint at both emotional and tonal shifts in the narrative. Sections backed in sepia have a warmth that contrasts dramatically with the gray-green coolness of the stepmother’s scenes and the loneliness of the steel-gray city (not to mention the hopefulness of the full-color coda).

The economy of Phelan’s dialogue allows his sequential panels to do most of the heavy lifting, delineating plot, theme, characters, setting, and mood with an expertise rarely seen in graphic novels. Chapter titles that remind us of the title cards of silent cinema (not coincidentally at its apex as an art form in the late 1920s) fill in narrative gaps and allow the story to unfold with minimal dialogue. We come to know the seven boys through the subtlest of gestures and glances. Snow’s father delivers his emotions almost entirely via his eyes. Techniques such as parallel editing, borrowed from the work of silent cinema masters Griffith and Eisenstein, heighten the tension, as can be seen in the climactic “Up in Lights” section.

Paging through the book again and again for this post, I was struck by the variety of panel layouts Phelan employs. Rarely does the same panel layout repeat itself from page to page, and in some sections there is a different layout on every page. From full-page and even double-page spreads that heighten the excitement to the somber eight-panel page where the boys whisper their names to the sleeping Snow, the layouts convey meaning and dictate the reader’s pace.

Here is a title that is entirely distinct from the rest of the 2016 slate of picture books. While its distinction in visual storytelling may be what most sets it apart from the field, the beauty and emotion conveyed by each panel can hold their own against any gorgeously illustrated spread from the other 2016 contenders.

There are two choices, however, that do not seem to totally work here. The field within the word balloons is a stark white that distracts from the scene’s watercolor-washed background, and the black Futura typeface, while historically appropriate, could have been replaced with hand-lettered dialogue to match the hand-lettering seen in the sound effects. Some may see this as a small concern, but anything can take a book out of consideration at the Caldecott table.

I hope this year’s committee can look past these minor critiques and consider both the distinguished visual storytelling and the beautiful artistry found in Snow White and consider allocating one of their precious votes to Phelan’s outstanding graphic novel.

 

Eric Carpenter About Eric Carpenter

Eric Carpenter is the school librarian at Fred A. Toomer Elementary School in Atlanta, Georgia.

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Comments

  1. This book was beautiful and stunning and all of the things you have said. But (there had to be a but, right?) I’m not entirely convinced that this book entirely succeeds without assuming the audience has a frame of reference of the Snow White story already. Now, granted, the assumption that the reader is familiar with the story is a pretty confident one, between the Disney movie and hundreds of retellings. Obviously I know the story. But as I was reading the book, I was trying to pretend I didn’t know it, to track whether I’d understand exactly what was going on if I’d never encountered it before, and I thinki the spare text would have left me confused in several places. The new takes, like the boys whispering their names, were clear, but the scene where the stoyr took a more traditional turn were sometimes confusing. For instance, the scenes where the stepmother convinces the hunter character to kill Snow White – it was clear to me why he was doing it (the new part), but what she was asking exactly seemed muddled.

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