"Judged purely on artistic merit": The 2016 New York Times Best Illustrated Books

Editor’s note: Cathryn M. Mercier, director of the Center for the Study of Children's Literature at Simmons College and a judge on the 2012 New York Times Best Illustrated Children's Books panel, generously took us up on a request to look at the picture books on this year’s list, in one bang-up, round-up post. Of the ten books the NYT panel recognized this year, seven are eligible for the Caldecott — so, yep, she set herself quite the task. For the record, the seven eligible titles are:


  • A Voyage in the Clouds, illus. by Sophie Blackall
  • Freedom in Congo Square, illus. by R. Gregory Christie
  • The Tree in the Courtyard: Looking Through Anne Frank’s Window, illus. by Peter McCarty
  • The Princess and the Warrior: A Tale of Two Volcanoes, illus. by Duncan Tonatiuh
  • The Dead Bird, illus. by Christian Robinson
  • The Cat from Hunger Mountain, illus. by Ed Young
  • Preaching to the Chickens: The Story of Young John Lewis, illus. by E. B. Lewis

And now, without further ado, here's Cathie:

Given the discussion about popularity generated by Martha’s post back in December on The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles, a post about the seven Caldecott-eligible titles named as part of the ten New York Times Best Illustrated Children's Books of 2016 seems a little sideways. The NYT Best Illustrated list makes no gesture toward child audience appeal and none toward popularity with librarians or teachers. In fact, the NYT boasts that “since 1952, the Book Review has convened an independent panel of judges to select the New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Books. Judged purely on artistic merit.”

In print, the NYT presents its Best Illustrated books in a dynamic layout of 10 illustrations that invites us to see how these visual images converse with each other. Their presentation leads us to consider each illustration as art in and of itself and as art within the context of other pieces of art hung on the gallery walls of this newspaper pull-out. There’s no discussion of how art and text work together, there’s no intrusion when a particular narrative doesn’t measure up to the art that accompanies it; there’s no confusion when a visual counterpoint suggests an alternative reading of the text; there’s no concern that the art is too sophisticated for an imagined reader or that the verbal-visual narrative is elusive or inappropriate. Instead, presentation of the NYT Best Illustrated offers anyone considering the contenders for the 2016 Caldecott a long, deliberative immersion in the picture itself.

The NYT panel of judges includes an illustrator of picture books and invites immersion in the picture itself through an artist’s perspective. (I was lucky enough to serve as a judge on the NYT panel with illustrator Chris Raschka.) As I look at the 2016 NYT Best Illustrated list, I try to look at the gallery of images as an artist might. I raise the strengths of the three non-eligible books as a way to channel what I see in the seven Caldecott-eligible books on the list.

voyage-in-the-cloudsBeth Woollvin’s bold use of perspective, design, and limited color palette in (the Caldecott ineligible) Little Red enhances my understanding of Sophie Blackall's old-fashioned colors, use of open space in the page composition, and the thin — even faint — lines that create lift and airy flight in A Voyage in the Clouds. Woollvin’s flat digital images and squat, weatherford_freedom in congo squarerounded character gives me a new enjoyment of R. Gregory Christie’s expressionism and dynamic, elongated figures in Freedom in Congo Square. Little Red’s lipstick red, deepest black, and opaque gray on a bright white paper highlight the spiritedness of Christie’s vibrant yellow, dark turquoise, and warm orange to describe the exuberant independence of movement once Sunday comes to the oppressed men and women dance in Congo Square.

The Tree in the CourtyardAn adopted artist’s view directs me to notice Sydney Smith’s framing of interiors in The White Cat and the Monk, an attention that helps me to appreciate the constrictive framing that characterizes The Tree in the Courtyard: Looking Through Anne Frank’s Window, illustrated by Peter McCarty. Both books use color to invoke soft silence: for Smith, it’s the translucent beiges of the monk’s solitary quest; McCarty uses sepia as the tone of notonatiuh_princess-and-the-warriorstalgia and yearning as the tree watches Anne Frank writing in the attic. Similarly, Smith’s calligraphic brushstrokes and beckoning toward the ninth-century illuminated manuscript give me incisive admiration for Duncan Tonatiuh’s stylized use of sharp edges and confident lines that invoke ancient Mixtec codices in The Princess and the Warrior: A Tale of Two The Dead BirdVolcanoes. Tonatuih’s applications of white on toenails and fingernails, on the lovers’ clothing, and on their mountain forms accent the metaphoric power of color as it indicates Popoca and Izta’s undying loyalty.

The changing perspectives, diverse textures created in a mixed media (pencil, crayon, paint — things found in a kid’s art box), and depth of color realized by Jenni Desmond in The Polar Bear draws my attention to the altering perspectives offered up by Christian Robinson’s The Cat from Hunger Mountainminimalistic style and exuberant palette in the re-illustration of Margaret Wise Brown’s The Dead Bird. In turn, Robinson’s concentrated paints, bulky brushstrokes, and childlike color palette increase awareness of the sophisticated landscapes and tactile sensuality Ed Young (The Cat From Hunger Mountain) achieves in the Lord Cat’s brocaded clothing, the smooth feathers of his avian attendants, or the plush fur of the panda. The density of color and flattening effect of digitization make one appreciate anew E. B. Lewis’s rippled, shimmering watercolors in Preaching to the Chickens: Theasim_preaching-to-the-chickens Story of Young John Lewis. Dazzling bright light captures the inner luminescence and spiritual conviction the civil rights activist felt as a child.

As I tried to see as an artist does and to engage in the visual conversations between these pictures, I found new individual and collective visual experiences within each book. What “visual experiences” do you see in A Voyage in the Clouds? The Cat from Hunger Mountain? The Princess and the Warrior? Where do you see “a collective unity of storyline, theme, or concept, developed through the series of pictures” in The Dead Bird, The Tree in the Courtyard, Preaching to the Chickens, and Freedom in Congo Square?

Cathryn M. Mercier
Cathryn M. Mercier

Cathryn M. Mercier directs the graduate degree programs in Children's Literature at Simmons University, where she teaches a graduate course in The Picturebook. She has served on two Caldecott committees. 

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