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The Antlered Ship

The Fan Brothers live in Canada. Are they eligible for the Caldecott? That question has come up on many discussion boards about Caldecott contenders. And the answer is yes. According to the Caldecott criteria, “The award is restricted to artists who are citizens or residents of the United States.” Although they reside in Toronto, Terry Fan was born in Illinois; Eric, in Hawaii. So they are United States citizens and are thus eligible.

That means the members of the 2018 Caldecott committee can examine the rich and evocative illustrations in The Antlered Ship and determine whether the Fans should take home gold or silver. This whimsical and philosophical adventure, written with wit and heart by Dashka Slater, walks a tightrope in terms of tone. The tale mixes humor with melancholy existential loneliness and fanciful, absurd touches with moments of peril. And the Fan Brothers, with their digitally colored graphite and ballpoint pen drawings, capture this mix of moods.

The Antlered Ship tells of a curious fox named Marco who has many questions his vulpine peers are too chicken-stew-obsessed to answer. On a striking double-page spread, Marco sees a ship arrive with an epic-sized antlered figurehead. He, along with a flock of pigeons, agrees to help the hapless deer crew, hoping the journey will lead to foxes who can answer his queries. And so begins a wild sea adventure with storms, jagged rocks, and a dastardly pirate crew, causing chaos.

Although they are illustrating a fantastical tale, the Fan Brothers choose to depict their animal characters in a mostly realistic manner. The animals are not anthropomorphized — although, yes, one pigeon wears a bandana, and some of the pirates wear hats and other articles of clothing. And yet the Fans give the animals a wide range of expressions that add humor to some scenes and poignancy to others; the body language, particularly the eyes, is expressive. For example, the Fans bring a deadpan hilarity to their double-page spread of the sword-wielding pirates, including, among others, a bear, a crocodile, a raccoon, and perhaps the fiercest mouse in the history of children’s literature. In contrast, earlier in the book when the characters suffer due to lack of food, the Fans show a deer barely able to stand up, the pigeons looking downcast, and Marco looking worried (he is fighting the urge to eat them). The artists bring out the various emotions in the story, making the characters’ plight relatable to a child audience as a result. (And the textured illustrations are invitingly palpable. I can imagine a reader touching the page in hopes of feeling a real bird, particularly the pigeons’ feathers.)

Visually, The Antlered Ship comes to life in the panoramic exterior shots that show the ship at sea. That double-page spread of the ship being tossed about on turbulent waves is quite visceral, with sideways rain and the artists’ use of stormy grays and greens. Later, there is a calmer moment that bathes the ship in bluish twilight. The Fans are adept at creating memorable nocturnal images, such as in this spread with the lights in the ship’s windows, warm lights that pop off the page. On the next spread, they struggle to get through the Maze of Sharp Rocks, and the reader takes a deep breath, fearing that the jagged edges will destroy the ship. And then there’s the startling battle between the antlered ship and the pirate ship, with the antlers smashing into the tusks of the enemy’s elephant-shaped figurehead. All of these spreads show what the Fans do best, creating images that feel cinematic — and, at times, intriguingly mysterious.

There are other striking elements in The Antlered Ship that make it a viable Caldecott contender. The endpapers show a sepia-toned map that prepares readers for the journey. Lift the cover and there are hidden drawings of an antlered anchor and antlered ship’s wheel. What is striking (and haunting) is how the book carries young readers to a serene ending after offering such adventure. When the animals spot an island toward the end, the Fans create another gorgeous, blue-dominated night-time scene with a full moon floating above the safe haven. A page-turn finds them frolicking on the island, with greens dominating the scene. However, even in this paradise, Marco becomes depressed, because he does not find any wise foxes there. It all leads to a serene double-page spread that shows a silhouette of Marco from the back, looking at sky pink from a sunset. A deer and pigeon join him, and Marco realizes he has been with friends all along. The journey will continue.

Thanks to the enormously talented Terry and Eric Fan, who fully realize Slater’s text, The Antlered Ship takes young readers on an unforgettable adventure.

Read the Horn Book Magazine review of The Antlered Ship.

Brian Wilson About Brian Wilson

Brian E. Wilson works as a children’s librarian at the Evanston Public Library in Evanston, IL. He served on the 2015 Odyssey Committee and the 2017 Caldecott Committee. He blogs at Mr. Brian’s Picture Book Picks at mrbrianspicturebookpicks.wordpress.com.

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  1. JM Almond says:

    I have never known a book that has taken so much care in attention to detail , including the exquisite illustrations of Terry and Eric Fan.
    I have , with excitement given the book away on several occasions. This past Christmas ,my grand-nephew Blake , and his Mother Jennifer were enthralled by the book, particularly its illustrations. I took a series of black and white photos to capture the moment. His Mom’s face and Blake’s body language said it all! My favourite photograph was when Blake reached out his tiny finger to The Antlered Ship. He was captivated by Marco’s Adventure and by The Fan Brothers’ Illustrations. I predict not only will The Antlered Ship remain a part of my own collection , and my grand-nephews, but that countless others will embrace the book for years to come.

  2. Brian, the matter of the Fans’ eligibility has been broached so many times on different boards that when I now see it I just read on. I knew well they were legally in the running in 2016 for their exquisite “The Night Gardener”, which was the best thing of its kind since Tim Burton’s “Edward Scissorhands.” With the Youth Media Awards only a little over a month away, I am seeing this book as a major contender for many of the reasons you brilliantly pose in your comprehensive review. I must say I particular love this passage:

    “This whimsical and philosophical adventure, written with wit and heart by Dashka Slater, walks a tightrope in terms of tone. The tale mixes humor with melancholy existential loneliness and fanciful, absurd touches with moments of peril.”

    The feel of the dust jacket for starters is unique, like sand paper, setting the stage for this fantastical encounter with the wooden ship and protruding antlers. As you note the animals here do not equate to anthropomorphism as other books do, as the book is enigmatic and mystical in the tradition of Van Allsburg, not to mention the humor that is part of the presentation. Your delineation of color, end papers, inside jacket, sepia-toned map, nocturnal images, and that final bittersweet denouement, are masterful. You’ve left very little to add. I personally count this as formidable an artistic achievement as “The Night Gardener” though thematically it seems to have gone even further.

    My own favorite spreads in the books are the pirate captain line-up on the ship, the moon-lit night and the deer grazing the grass which affectionately recalls “The Night Gardener.” Ha, just looking at this book again in hand to offer a comment to you I ask myself, “This book absolutely deserves one of the medals, be it gold or silver!” Funny, in view of all of similarly voiced thoughts, but heck that is the kind of year it has been. It does seem like a no-brainer. Again, this is quite a demonstration of word economy and rich and engaging analysis. Thank you!

  3. Susan Dailey says:

    Thank you for reviewing this book, Brian. I make brief notes on the illustrations of books that I think are contenders. Looking back at my notes (the book is at work) I see the words “gorgeous” and “texture” a few times so that’s what struck me about the book.

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