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Dazzle Ships

A nonfiction picture book from a small publisher does not necessarily scream CALDECOTT, but even from across the room, one look at the cover of Chris Barton and Victo Ngai’s Dazzle Ships: World War I and the Art of Confusion would likely make you reconsider.

The story of these wildly patterned WWI battleships, camouflaged in order to protect them from German torpedo attacks, is just the sort of fascinating and little-known bit of history that makes for the best kind of nonfiction picture books. Sure, we need stories of important inventions and historical figures, but it is often the irreverent curios that inspire the most enthralling reads (Barton’s Day-Glo Brothers being another favorite example).

Let’s talk about this cover, a gorgeous image of a “dazzled” WWI-era battleship cutting through waves, backed by a sunset and a vivid orange sky. Light blue and turquoise waves contrast with the oranges of the sky to complete the cover image. The angle of the ship and its curved bow brings to mind French graphic designer Adolphe Mouron Cassandre’s 1930s poster work (see L’Atlantique). Ngai’s bold design work on this cover illustration perfectly prepares readers for what they can expect on the inside.

Upon opening the book, we encounter deep blue and black dazzle-patterned endpapers that sharply contrast with the orange of the cover. These contrasting colors (orange and blue) can be found again and again throughout the magnificent full-page spreads that make up Dazzle Ships. In fact, the cover and endpapers together prime the reader for how to look at the art found within the book’s pages.

Recurring graphic elements weave throughout the pages, from the gentle curves of the ocean waves to the zigzag dazzle patterns. Ngai’s deft use of scale allows the people — such as, painters, artists, and naval officers — to share the same spreads with the massive battleships. Particularly stunning is the spread of an awestruck King George V; he is staring, mouth agape, at a small dazzled model. The smoothness of the monarch’s face and uniform contrast sharply with the geometric edges of the model and its pattern.

I suspect that the real Caldecott committee will have a field day discussing how Ngai’s Art Nouveau-inspired art fits the appropriateness of style of illustration to the “story, theme, or concept” criteria. Not only does the WWI timeframe of the book match the period-style illustration, but the variety of patterns and contrasting pairs of colors employed throughout by Ngai can all be found later in the various dazzle patterns applied to the ships. Take a close look at the number and variety of patterns on the spread showing Commander Wilkinson fishing off a cliff, while watching a ship sail by in the distance. From the checkered pattern in Wilkinson’s vest, the horizontal swirls of the waves and clouds, the vertical swirls of the cliff face, and the polka dots created by the stones on the surface of the cliff — each of these stylized patterns found on this spread at the moment of Wilkinson’s dazzle-as-camouflage epiphany is repeated in the ships and models throughout the book. This book is a flawless example of an illustrator finding a style that perfectly matches the book’s concept.

I do wonder what the committee might think about the artist’s stamp appearing on every spread. Does this mark take something away from the book’s cohesiveness; is it a distraction? Dazzle Ships also includes notes, a timeline, and a bibliography (totaling four pages) that are lightly illustrated with tranquil ocean waves at the bottom of the page, which the committee will also have to consider (as well as the four period photographs included with the timeline).

As a package and as a work of art, I find Dazzle Ships to be a truly distinguished picture book from a strikingly talented debut illustrator, whose future works we will likely continue to gush over for many, many years. I hope that this year’s Caldecott committee will be similarly blown away by this dazzling work of nonfiction.

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 avant garde masterwork is a ravishing book indeed, and if the American Library Association had a separate category for Most Distinguished Picture Book Cover, I’d imagine this would be one of the finalists. Of course, with DAZZLE SHIPS as you note superlatively it is a package deal from end papers, through the initial double page spread (sneaky, stripy camouflage ship) and the arresting multi patterned and colored art, it is quite the visually captivating experience, and quite unlike First World War book yet published. Though I do personally adore 2017 non fiction picture book works by Katherine Roy, Molly Bang and Jason Chin, I have a hunch that if a non-fiction ends up on the winners circle this year it will probably be this one. Ngai’s art is original, unique, visionary, and frame-worthy. I do see the studied preparation to the source and a glowing future career for Ngai as you do. Boy that final Metropolis canvas (Times change; Technology changes) is really spectacular. I appreciated the sustained motifs and the mastery of scale. A book that certainly rewards repeated visits.

    Great , book and great, great qualification essay!

  2. Elisa Gall says:

    I agree with your assessments and I have my fingers crossed for this one this year. Nonfiction doesn’t ALWAYS scream Caldecott, but I think we’ve seen a lot of informational PBs getting committee recognition recently (RADIANT CHILD, FINDING WINNIE, THE RIGHT WORD, FREEDOM IN CONGO SQUARE, TROMBONE SHORTY, VOICE OF FREEDOM, NOISY PAINT BOX, VIVA FRIDA, etc.) and I hope this year is no different. I know that the REAL committee isn’t supposed to look at other books celebrated in previous years, but if we mockers are looking for precedent let’s not forget that Lathrop’s signatures are right there in the illustrations in ANIMALS OF THE BIBLE.

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