I love nonfiction picture books. I love books that educate our children and inspire them to social action and justice. And I love seeing the responses of children when I read these kinds of books aloud to them and they are moved to make changes in themselves, their community, and our world. I am hoping that Oil will be this kind of book. It is heartbreaking and grim to see the extent and impact of eleven million gallons of oil on ocean, wildlife, and humans. But this is a book written with transformation and action in mind.

The text of Oil, written by illustrator Jeanette Winter's son, Jonah Winter, is a piercing, rhythmic piece, commemorating the thirtieth anniversary of the horrific 1989 Exxon Valdez oil tanker crash that spilled eleven million gallons of crude oil into the pristine Alaskan ocean and onto the coastline. Eventually, 11,000 square miles of ocean were contaminated. The oil killed hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of birds, orca, sea otters, and whales, and had a severe impact on the traditional way of life of Indigenous Alaskans at the coast. Incomprehensible at the time, it is still a tragedy thirty years later.

The book's beautiful illustrations don't disappoint. Muted shades contrast with deeper colors to yield a deceptive and engaging visual minimalism, Jeanette Winter's widely recognized style.

The dust-jacket and book-cover art is all black. Round shiny black blobs of oil immediately create feelings of unease, especially after the reader realizes that a camouflaged bird, covered with oil, is standing on one of the blobs. The title, Oil, is gold-lettered. ("Black gold"—oil's nickname—I thought the first time I saw the book.) And here the endpapers, one of my favorite parts of any picture book, are a warm, earthy brick brown, which I took to be a reminder of what color rich, healthy soil is supposed to be.

The book begins by introducing young readers to the language and, more importantly, the images of the process of oil extraction. On the first page of the story, we see layers of the earth down to the oil with a pipe leading up to the pump at the surface. A brown bear studies the odd-looking pump. 

For several pages, we read that the oil is pumped from the ground—"day after day, year after year," around the clock—and sent through the huge pipeline, hundreds of miles across pristine wilderness, to a processing plant by the sea. As the story unfolds, we are treated to stunning double-page spreads of the glorious Alaskan wilderness, jarringly divided by the pipeline. It cuts through land that should not be divided, keeping humans and animals from their natural migration paths. We see snowcapped mountain ranges, rich green tundra, yellow fall leaves, and brown-red earth. The pumps, pipelines, and processing facilities look so incongruous and intrusive in the gorgeously rendered Alaskan wilderness.

[Read the Horn Book Magazine review of Oil here]

Jeanette Winter often employs pages of small-framed paintings enclosed in wide borders of white space, as in My Name Is Georgia (1998) and Nasreen's Secret School (2009)Here, her full-bleed double-page spreads have a broader impact and beauty. They are well chosen and heighten the impact of what we are seeing.

The first illustration of the Valdez crashing into rocks on the sea is a single page close-up of oil bursting through gaping holes in the ship. Turning the page, we see a bird’s eye view of the crash, and we see the oil pouring out of the ship into the ocean. Fish flit among underwater plants. An orca, unaware, swims directly towards a long river of oil. 

Page after page, we see from higher and higher vantage points until we can begin to grasp how huge the spill and spread of oil was. The sea is black, and then gray, and then purple with oil slicks glistening rainbow reflections of mauve and yellow and green. The sight is sickening and heartbreaking.

Next, we are brought to the shore where an oily sea washes over shiny, oil-slicked rocks on the shore. But, as Jonah Winter writes, "some of the rocks aren’t rocks at all." They are birds and animals covered with oil. Framed smaller illustrations for several pages reveal rescued creatures in the arms of yellow-overall-covered humans trying to save as many animals as they can. The oil is gunky, sticking to everything it touches—black splotches on animals and birds and rescuers’ gloves, overalls, faces, and boots. The text reports that most animals died, even when they were captured and cleaned.

Fast-forward thirty years, and we are back at the beach where everything looks clean again. Sea otters happily float with their babies on their bellies among fish in blue waters. An eagle sits on a mountaintop. Gulls soar through the air. But the text tells a truer story: Exxon cleaned up just 14% of the oil. Despite the return of some animals and birds, other populations were decimated and did not recover. For Native Alaskans, the recovery is incomplete, and ways of life and traditions continue to be profoundly affected. 

In the last illustration, a beach walker lifts a clean rock off a gray sandy beach to find a pool of black oil underneath. The oil seeps out of the earth and streams down the beach like tears rolling down a cheek.

Thinking about the Caldecott Award criteria, it becomes increasingly clear that there are many ways that Winter’s illustrations bring much more to the telling than the words alone can, as wrenching and effective as the text is. The most obvious Caldecott award criteria are so well met here: excellence of artistic technique and excellence of presentation in recognition of a child audience. The criteria that stands out most for Oil is "delineation of plot, theme, characters, setting, mood or information through the pictures." While Winter’s illustrations are well-matched with the narration, as one would expect of any good book, her illustrations demand emotional investment in the spill and its aftermath. I hope the committee sees this, too.

This year is demanding a lot of the world's children. Oil is another rallying cry for energy and environmental responsibility for our very life on this planet. I find this book a most beautiful and welcome addition to that canon of children’s literature.


Allison Grover Khoury
Allison Grover Khoury

Allison Grover Khoury is a librarian at Wish Charter School in Los Angeles. 

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Jules Danielson

Thank you for this post, Allison. I didn't get to spend a lot of time with this book earlier this year, but I hope to soon.

Posted : Oct 18, 2020 09:42



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