2017 in Review: The Year in Pictures

Travis: I feel like we should begin with a great quote about children’s book illustration. Got one handy?

Jules: Well, it’s not about illustration, but given this year’s Caldecott winner, I choose: “Hooooooooowwlll!”

On that note, Travis, what are some of the things that stood out for you about the 2018 ALA Youth Media Award winners?

Travis: For the Caldecott, the range of styles. You’ve got Matthew Cordell’s scratchy pen-and-ink illustrations in Wolf in the Snow rubbing elbows with Jason Chin’s epic realism in Grand Canyon (which was also the recipient of a Sibert Honor). Then Elisha Cooper shows up and goes monochromatic and rather abstract in Big Cat, Little Cat. Thi Bui brings comics-style panels and moody brushstrokes to A Different Pond. And Gordon C. James is almost impressionistic in the art for Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut.

Jules: It was also fascinating to see these artists switch up their styles, such as Cooper’s change, as you mentioned, to a bolder line, a bigger scale, and a limited palette, though he’s known for his warm, sketchlike watercolor drawings, as in Farm (2010) and Train (2013). And it’s not like James E. Ransome, who won a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor for Lesa Cline-Ransome’s Before She Was Harriet, is brand-new to the watercolors he used to render that book’s expressive illustrations. But for over a decade he has worked pretty much exclusively in oils, and his two previous CSK nods (1995 Illustrator Award for James Weldon Johnson’s The Creation and 1994 Illustrator Honor for Margaree King Mitchell’s Uncle Jed’s Barbershop) were for illustrations in oil. It’s wonderful to see him win for watercolors.

I’m curious, Travis: is it harder for you these days to identify which picture-book art is rendered digitally?

Travis: It’s become impossible! Computers, man. I can remember when they couldn’t beat us at tic-tac-toe, and now they’re allowing artists to do things that are completely indistinguishable from hand-crafted art. If the use of digital tools isn’t included in the illustration note, I have no idea.

Jules: Right! And digital art is being incorporated in such innovative ways. For the illustrations in Margarita Engle’s All the Way to Havana, Mike Curato used pencil, paint, and photographed/scanned textures, and he took those photographs in Cuba, where the story is set. The textures on building walls all throughout the book, for example, are taken from his photos of walls in Havana, and he overlaid those via Photoshop. Dan Santat incorporates digital tools as well, including in 2017’s After the Fall, a book that resonated on an emotional level with many readers.

Travis: And The Antlered Ship, written by Dashka Slater and illustrated by brothers Terry and Eric Fan. That’s another book that merged hand-crafted and digital tools in a completely seamless way, imbuing the illustrations with a dreamlike quality.

One thing I noticed in 2017: so many picture books seemed to depict Big Issues. Take, for example, Dave Eggers’s Her Right Foot, illustrated by Shawn Harris.

Jules: That one could surely be read as a response to the current administration’s immigration policies. Harris’s cut-paper image of Lady Liberty striding through the sea to greet immigrants still gives me chills.

Travis: Same here. We also saw some characters embodying the idea of political resistance in Carmen Agra Deedy’s and Eugene Yelchin’s The Rooster Who Would Not Be Quiet! and in Andrew Joyner’s The Pink Hat.

Jules: Yes, Yelchin’s vivid, saturated illustrations of the fictional town of La Paz and the tyrannical Don Pepe in Rooster appeared right on the heels of Trump’s inauguration. Those of us wanting to resist found solace in that one. Given our country’s polarized politics, I also heard hopeful discussions about Caldecott and 2017 Boston Globe–Horn Book Award winner Wolf in the Snow being seen as a story about two “others” (a human and a wolf) coming together. Maybe there’s hope for our country yet.

Travis: We are also seeing more picture books reflecting the racial justice movement. Every spread in Crown is filled with richly colored, textured oil paintings of proud black males. It was also reflected in Bryan Collier’s illustrations for Useni Eugene Perkins’s Hey Black Child and in Carole Boston Weatherford’s prayer of a picture book, In Your Hands, containing Brian Pinkney’s tender, gestural drawings of the black son the author directly addresses in the text.

Jules: Yes, the final spread in Weatherford’s and Pinkney’s book is so powerful, explicitly and poignantly declaring, “Black lives matter,” in a large font.

On a related note, I think that the #OwnVoices movement made a significant impact on picture books and illustration this year. The movement asks publishers to make room for more diverse voices, and this year we saw that in the art of Thi Bui, who won Caldecott and 2018 Boston Globe–Horn Book Award Honors for A Different Pond. Bui was born in Vietnam but raised in America, and in her illustrations for Bao Phi’s semi-autobiographical story, she captures the struggles of a refugee family in the United States. Juana Martinez-Neal’s illustrations for Susan Middleton Elya’s La Princesa and the Pea — the winner of the Pura Belpré Medal for Illustration — were inspired by the culture of Peru, where Martinez-Neal was born. And Julie Flett illustrated David A. Robertson’s When We Were Alone, in which a woman of Cree heritage tells her granddaughter about her difficult life in residential schools as a child. Flett herself is Cree-Metis, and she captured that story so beautifully.

Then there was the art that made a lot of people swoon: Sydney Smith, who won a 2017 Boston Globe–Horn Book Award Honor and a New York Times Best Illustrated Award (his third) for Town Is by the Sea, was born in rural Nova Scotia and captures with such knock-you-to-the-floor eloquence the Cape Breton coal-mining town in which author Joanne Schwartz sets her story.

Travis, have you noticed that this conversation has been dominated by male illustrators? You even mentioned The Pink Hat, which was met with some controversy (as some people questioned a man writing a book about a movement meant to amplify women’s voices). Men have dominated the Caldecott awards, the most recent winners included; in fact, men dominate most illustration awards. What do you make of that?

Travis: As you know, this issue is not new, but the fact that it keeps popping up goes to show that ain’t much changed.

The numbers are the numbers: women have only won four of the last twenty Caldecott Medals. I repeat — women: four; men: sixteen! I’ve heard a few different explanations for this disparity, but these conversations always result in more questions than answers. Questions like “What the heck?” and “It’s the twenty-first century, right?” One thing is clear: until Caldecott becomes less gender-lopsided, this conversation will continue.

There’s one question I want to ask you before we go. What’s your Double-Page Spread of the Year? The one where you turned the page and froze, because it was so perfect? Because I’m guessing we might have the same one. You go first and then I’ll tell you mine.

Jules: Do I have to pick just one? Let’s pretend I can have many favorites. I love E. B. Goodale’s tin-can-telephone spread in Windows (written by Julia Denos). I’m pretty fond of that moment in Lane Smith’s A Perfect Day where Bear has stolen Squirrel’s corncob, and Bear is dominating the spread with that bright-yellow cob filling its mouth. That double-page spread in Mac Barnett’s and Jon Klassen’s The Wolf, the Duck, and the Mouse — the one where the duck and mouse go flying from the wolf’s mouth with kitchen pots and colanders on their heads — makes me laugh every time I see it. And I love the dozens-of-mushrooms spread in Beatrice Alemagna’s On a Magical Do-Nothing Day, which was a New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Book of 2017.

I have yet another favorite, Travis, which I bet is also yours.

Travis: You know it. That sun-on-the-water spread in Town Is by the Sea. That’s how I want to remember the year in pictures.

From the July/August 2018 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: ALA Awards. For more speeches, profiles, and articles click the tag ALA 2018.
Julie Danielson and Travis Jonker
Julie Danielson writes about picture books at the blog Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast and at the Horn Book’s Calling Caldecott and is a lecturer in the School of Information Sciences graduate program at the University of Tennessee. Travis Jonker is an elementary school librarian in Michigan. He reviews and writes the 100 Scope Notes blog for School Library Journal and was a member of the 2014 Caldecott committee.

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