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2016 in Review: The Year in Pictures: Somehow Still Beautiful

His drawings are not neat or clean, nor does he color inside the lines. They are sloppy, ugly, and sometimes weird, but somehow still beautiful.
—from Radiant Child by Javaka Steptoe

At the end of each year, I take a step back to reflect upon the latest crop of picture books to see if any themes or trends emerge. Sometimes these are broad (like how a year can be particularly strong for artist biographies), and sometimes they are oddly specific (like how 2015 featured a surprising number of yeti books). This year, whether it was the simple act of a cat going for a stroll or something historic such as the brave act of stepping up and marching for social justice, you could trace a loose theme of “walking” through many of 2016’s best books.

The most powerful example was also the most celebrated book of the year: March: Book Three. With this year’s ALA Midwinter Conference taking place in Atlanta against the tumultuous backdrop of the Trump inauguration and the subsequent protests that occurred all across the country, it was fitting that this book took the Coretta Scott King Author Award, the Printz, the Sibert, and the YALSA Nonfiction Award before virtually running out of sticker space on its cover.

Written by Congressman John Lewis and Andrew Aydin and illustrated by Nate Powell, March: Book Three is the final installment in a trilogy that chronicles Lewis’s childhood and life as an activist. It felt particularly timely because of the narrative’s framework, opening and closing on the day of President Obama’s first inauguration and told through flashbacks into the heart of the civil rights movement. Now, with the headlines constantly reminding us that the struggle for civil rights continues, Lewis’s story feels as necessary as ever. By revisiting a pivotal time in our nation’s history, March shows readers, in sometimes brutally honest fashion, both the dangers and the importance of uniting to take a stand against injustice.

Of course, a walkthrough of the year’s award winners has to begin with ALA’s other standout honoree, Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, for which Javaka Steptoe won both this year’s Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award and the Caldecott Medal. Through richly textured illustrations, Steptoe pays tribute to one of his artistic idols. He does so not by directly copying Basquiat’s art but by employing his own vibrant technique, using a combination of found objects and mixed media, that is infused with influences from the celebrated and complex artist.

The CSK Illustrator Honors went to a trio of outstanding books in a broad range of styles. R. Gregory Christie’s Freedom in Congo Square (written by the prolific Carole Boston Weatherford) — also a Caldecott Honoree and Charlotte Zolotow Award winner — uses an impressionistic touch that infuses each page with a raw energy to complement the painful, poetic narrative. Freedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life by Ashley Bryan is an achievement of the deepest empathy. Bryan imagines the lives of these individuals whose stories have been all but lost to history and the horrors of slavery, alternating between sobering portraits (which incorporate slavery-era documents) and joyously colorful dreamscapes of the fuller lives they were denied. And Jerry Pinkney, winner of last year’s Coretta Scott King–Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement (not to mention the Wilder), shows that he is not content to rest on his laurels, winning an honor for In Plain Sight (written by accomplished children’s book editor Richard Jackson), a loving portrait of the relationship between a grandfather and granddaughter that includes an impressive amount of detail on every page.

The rip-roaring graphic novel Lowriders to the Center of the Earth earned the Pura Belpré Illustrator Award for artist Raúl the Third, who somehow builds an expansive world using only ballpoint pen, an ingenious restraint that demonstrates how true creativity can be expressed through any medium. In this stylistic mash-up of time and culture (the second in the series written by Cathy Camper), our heroes have returned from outer space to turn their attentions inward, journeying to the center of the Earth. Along the way, the author and illustrator mine both lowrider lifestyle and traditional Aztec culture and religion to create a rollicking new mythology for the modern era.

The two Pura Belpré Illustrator Honors both went to Duncan Tonatiuh, who is establishing himself as one of the most distinctive forces in children’s literature. Continuing with his unique visual approach, which draws its influence from Mixtec codices, he won honors for the quirky biography Esquivel!: Space-Age Sound Artist (written by Susan Wood) and The Princess and the Warrior: A Tale of Two Volcanoes, which he wrote as well.

This year’s Geisel Award went to Laurie Keller, whose We Are Growing! is the second in the new Elephant & Piggie Like Reading! series. Keller, one of the few (again!) female winners/honorees to be recognized for illustration this year, effectively takes the baton from Elephant & Piggie creator Mo Willems, using a similarly “deceptively simple” illustration style that expresses a full range of drama and emotion in her characters. Those of us sad to see Elephant & Piggie make their curtain call last year in The Thank You Book will be relieved to know that this new series, along with the 2017 honorees (Good Night Owl by Greg Pizzoli; Oops, Pounce, Quick, Run! by Mike Twohy; Go, Otto, Go! by David Milgrim; and The Infamous Ratsos by Kara LaReau, illustrated by Matt Myers) ensures that the world of early readers remains in good hands.

Last year in this column, Julie Danielson thoughtfully pointed out that books with pictures were receiving recognition in a broader range of award categories (see also Jonathan Hunt’s “The Year in Words”). In my (totally biased) opinion, it was gratifying to see this trend continue, as many illustrated books were once again recognized prominently with awards that aren’t traditionally picture book terrain. The text for the graphic novel March, for example, is brought to stunning life by Powell, whose illustrations do the important work of pulling readers into the urgency of the moment. The Pura Belpré Author Award went to Juana Medina for the entertaining and thoughtful Juana & Lucas, a book whose every page is adorned with warm illustrations, some of which feel like they might have wandered out of a James Marshall book. Giant Squid by Candace Fleming, with its wonderfully murky and mysterious illustrations by Eric Rohmann, won a Sibert Honor for its cinematic exploration of the elusive creature of the deep. Perhaps most notably, for the second year in a row a picture book was honored by the Newbery committee. In 2016, Last Stop on Market Street surprised many in the children’s literature world by winning the Newbery Medal. This year, Ashley Bryan won a much-deserved Newbery Honor for Freedom Over Me, which featured lush illustrations alongside his evocative poetic text.

Before we turn to the Caldecott, an award reserved for illustrators who live in the United States, we should take a moment to recognize some of the year’s best that were not eligible because of the illustrator’s international residency…the so-called Caldenots or Caldeoughts. My personal favorites include the mischievous Little Red by Bethan Woollvin, which puts a bold visual spin on the classic folktale, and Francesca Sanna’s timely The Journey. With her beautiful, if sometimes nightmarish, imagery Sanna reminds readers of the important emotional element often missing from the dehumanizing political discussion of the refugee experience. Both of these titles (and many others) more than hold their own with the Caldecott winners.

Returning to the idea of a loose theme for this year’s books, many of the Caldecott contenders that didn’t make the final cut had some element of “walking” at their core. Philip C. Stead had two notable books out this year, both of which involve ambulatory movement: Samson in the Snow, about a long trudge in the cold to help a friend, and Ideas Are All Around, about an author going on a walk as part of the creative process. Another favorite was The Sound of Silence by Katrina Goldsaito, illustrated by Julia Kuo, about a young boy strolling through Tokyo in search of ma, the elusive silence between sounds. Deborah Freedman’s Shy features an introverted character who metafictively walks out from the middle of the book, lured out of hiding by the beautiful song of a passing bird. And then there was Maybe Something Beautiful by F. Isabel Campoy and Theresa Howell, with illustrations by Rafael López, about a young girl who walks through her neighborhood and inspires her community to come together around art.

As for the Caldecott honorees, in Brendan Wenzel’s They All Saw a Cat we follow along as the cat “walk[s] through the world, with its whiskers, ears, and paws,” giving readers a window into the fluid nature of perspective. Vera Brosgol’s hilariously grumpy Leave Me Alone! features a frustrated woman who walks out on her life in search of some peace and quiet—a quest that takes her to the ends of the universe and back. The out-of-this-world (but in its own unique way, nothing to do with walking) Du Iz Tak? by Carson Ellis is a humorous, illuminating foray into insect semiotics.

Radiant ChildAnd now to the captivating Radiant Child (which in winning the Caldecott made for an impressive three-peat for Little, Brown Books for Young Readers). Javaka Steptoe’s picture-book biography traces the artistic journey of young Jean-Michel Basquiat, from a trilingual middle-class Brooklyn household to New York City’s Lower East Side, where he forges an artistic reputation that takes him “from street corners to art gallery walls.” In his author’s note, Steptoe reveals that Basquiat played a pivotal role in his own artistic journey. “Basquiat’s success seemed to me to begin an era of inclusion and diversity in fine arts where there had been little to none. This meant as a young African American artist coming up that my chances of having my voice heard and achieving mainstream success were majorly expanded.” This is a timely sentiment, as the field of children’s literature has made some significant strides (with growing pains along the way) to address the inequities surrounding diversity and representation on children’s bookshelves. There is still a long way to go, but by winning the top Caldecott and Coretta Scott King awards, Steptoe not only ensures that Basquiat’s influence continues with younger readers but establishes himself as another formidable role model for the upcoming generation of artists.

This eye toward the future is an essential part of what makes the world of picture books relevant to society at large. People often think of children’s literature as a field steeped in nostalgia, but it is fundamentally forward-looking because its primary audience has most of its future before it. As a medium that is accessible to readers of all ages, picture books have the potential to help shape the creative, empathetic, and moral lenses with which children will engage in their world.

This is a heavy responsibility, and with the state of current affairs, the stakes feel particularly high. So, as we collectively search for footing in the shifting social and political climate, it’s still possible to find some measure of hope in the power of picture books. But if we are to rise to the challenge, it’s important for those of us in the field to step forward with purpose and clarity, understanding that progress will not always be neat or clean, and it will require thinking outside the lines. It will be sloppy, sometimes ugly, and (hopefully) weird…but with any luck, somehow still beautiful.

From the July/August 2017 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: Awards. For more speeches, profiles, and articles click the tag ALA 2017. Read Jonathan Hunt’s companion article “2016 in Review: The Year in Words.”

Minh Lê About Minh Lê

Minh Lê is the author of Drawn Together, illustrated by Dan Santat, and Let Me Finish!, illustrated by Isabel Roxas. He blogs about children's literature at Bottom Shelf Books and writes and reviews for a variety of publications, including the New York Times, the Huffington Post, and The Horn Book Magazine. He served on the 2018 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award committee.

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