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The Field

When I was about four years old, my parents signed me up for a kids’ soccer program. All I remember is feeling terrified when it was my turn to be goalie — and somehow convincing the coach to let my best friend stay in the goal with me. Suffice it to say: soccer was not really my thing, so I was surprised and delighted by my response to The Field, the picture-book debut of both author Baptiste Paul and illustrator Jacqueline Alcántara.

Alcántara was the inaugural winner of the We Need Diverse Books Illustration Mentorship award in 2016, and her work in this book suggests we can continue to expect great things from her. All aspects of The Field — from the landscape orientation to the vibrant pops of red-orange contrasting against shades of green, from the muddy splatters extending beyond the edges of illustrations to the deliberate use of both panels and full-bleed spreads — create a book bursting with joyful energy. The story is presented in lushly realized multimedia illustrations (pencil, marker, gouache, and Photoshop) that capture the immediacy and energy of the game, the players themselves, and their surroundings. Turns out you don’t need to know much about (or even like) soccer to love this book, which follows a group of children on a Caribbean island over the course of a day.

I particularly appreciate the book’s title, which has a kind of monolithic symbolism that transcends this particular game, players, and location. The front endpapers lead us onto a field, our eyes tracking the simultaneous succession across the verso of a young figure in a white jersey, who dribbles a soccer ball through trees and across the gutter toward a field of grazing cattle. Yet, while the book is verbally focalized through the child in the white jersey, the field is the reason he or she speaks. “Vini! Come! The field calls,” the child says; the field itself is a character to which all other characters respond. In fact, the field is the only named “character” that is ever identified as an individual. We encounter groups of friends and of “mamas,” with teammates chosen by pointing to “Ou. Ou. Ou. You. You. You” rather than calling out players’ names.

The child’s recruits are of varying ages, genders, skin tones, skill levels, and gear; a girl wearing a dress and rainboots plays alongside others wearing jerseys and cleats. The titular field, technically a pasture, requires some players to bring goalposts from home to heave into position, while others shoo bemused livestock toward the sidelines. There’s a gentleness to their repurposing of the field — temporary goal structures, balls from home, and an acceptance of the nearby animals — that suggests an awareness of the interconnectedness of all life. In his author’s note, Baptiste Paul describes growing up in an island community similar to that in the book, in which he “did not have electricity, running water, or many toys.” While these children may be aware of, and choosing to minimize, their impact on the natural world, they may do it more out of necessity than choice. How wonderful to see children enjoying a low-impact relationship to the environment, and how frustrating that they don’t have access to dedicated facilities to pursue their passion — yet how important that their experience is represented, and in a format accessible to other children.

Alcántara’s technique, especially her use of perspective, is extremely successful overall, beginning with the front cover: the full-bleed illustration pulls the reader onto the field, watching the ball speed past as other players chase it. Throughout the book, subtle highlighting indicates the path the ball has just taken across the field, and the soft, at times blurred, colors suggest the players’ rapid movements. Other particularly noteworthy tidbits: the uncertain expressions on some players’ faces when the storm hits, even as another sticks out his tongue to feel a raindrop, while still more players cheer, “No way! / Play on!” The dramatic view from behind a goal as “Rain stops. / Sun peeks” and the pearly glow of that peeking sun illuminates a path directly into the goal, scored on the next page in a flurry of paint (mud) splatters and triumphant, outstretched arms and smiles. Then the reader, positioned alongside the mamas and homes on the verso, watches the children play on the recto before, in the next spread, the group returns across the gutter to those mamas and homes as the sun sets.

The soccer ball also takes on particular significance throughout the book. It is elevated  to the same level of importance as the sun or moon by its position in the air on the front endpapers. In the final spread before the back endpapers, a luminescent moon occupies that same position on the page, shining through a gap in the trees over the houses. The back endpapers themselves return us to the field at night while, in the distance, windows glow. One of my few complaints about this book is that this final image is overlaid with text — the author’s note and glossary/pronunciation guide of the Creole words and phrases used in the story — but, all things considered, it’s not a deal-breaker for me.

While the Caldecott is, of course, awarded for distinguished illustration, I can’t not also acknowledge Paul’s multilingual text, which, in its pared-down, action-based, deceptively simple lines, really allows Alcántara’s illustrations to shine. That brings me to my other sticking point: the italicized Creole words and phrases. The conversation about the rationale behind, and impact of, this design choice resurfaced in the children’s lit community recently, and I think it’s worth drawing attention to here. What do you all think? While it may not be within the purview of the author or illustrator, design is an integral part of a book, so I wonder if/how the committee will consider this in their deliberations. I’d love to hear from past committee members about any instances in which typographic choices for non-English words had an impact on a contender’s chances.

Finally, with pleasing circularity, the book closes as it opened, with the repetition of the word “vini!” (“come!”). I’m so grateful for the invitation, and I think you will be, too.

[And the Horn Book Magazine review of The Field can be read here.]

Sabrina Montenigro About Sabrina Montenigro

Sabrina Montenigro’s background in art and education informs her work as a reviewer for Kirkus and as a bookseller at The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. She recently completed an M.A. in Children’s Literature at Simmons College and remains active in the field of children’s literature scholarship.

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Comments

  1. Susan Dailey says:

    Excellent review, Sabrina! I didn’t catch that none of the characters had names, but that is an important point that makes the book representative of many places & many times. I agree that a great strength of this book is the sense of energy and movement. The expressions of the cows’ faces made me chuckle. I’m also not a soccer (futbool) fan, but the joy of the book captured my heart. A great debut book for the illustrator.

  2. Sabrina, When I first read your post I had not yet seen The Field. After reading your post, I called my local indie and asked them to order it for me. I’m so impressed with the way that the color and energy of the illustrations communicate both the energy of the game as well as the culture of the island. In your words, the book is indeed filled with “joyful energy”. Thanks too for pointing out the position of the soccer ball…I can’t wait to discuss this with my students!

    In regards to the italicized words…I too would love to hear from a past Caldecott committee member. Very intriguing!

  3. Like Emmie (above) I had not seen this book up front, though I well remember a remarkable lengthy review by Elizabeth Bird over the summer, so knew of the work’s pre-eminence. This is really the dogs’ bollocks for my own classes who are around 85% Hispanic in a community where soccer has resoundingly ousted baseball as the primary sport. As a result, though I have hardly given up my New York Yankees credentials (though as of today the Bosox, beloved in the offices here no doubt understandably have us on the ropes) I have come to love soccer, and get all pumped up for the World Cup. What I love about Alcantara’s art is the weathered naturalism, bright and vivid colors and affectionately exaggerated character sketches I like the Creole words and phrases addition and the splendid cover is one of my favorites of the year in that department. Again the language clicks, and the book generates soulful energy. Fantastic review!

  4. Loved your suggestion that the soccer ball takes on a level of importance comparable to the sun and moon. Nice.

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