The Indestructible Tom Crean

I've long been fascinated by the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration (thanks to Jennifer Armstrong's edge-of-your-seat 1998 read Shipwreck at the Bottom of the World: The Extraordinary True Story of Shackleton and the Endurance), so I was predisposed toward Jennifer Thermes's The Indestructible Tom Crean: Heroic Explorer of the Antarctic. But this picture book will appeal to a wide variety of readers; no obsession required. The life of the little-known Tom Crean, who went on three separate Antarctic expeditions, surviving grueling conditions, terrible ordeals, and death-defying adventures, makes for a cracking good story.

But we are here to talk about the book as a visual experience; about the book's art — and to try to talk about it in terms of Caldecott criteria.

Thermes uses the picture-book form to great advantage — from mixing panels and double-page spreads to set the pace, to using the page-turn to enhance the drama. Her panel game is strong. Take the page early in the book where two panels on the left side depict men pulling a sled over ice floes and men huddling in a tight group to warm themselves. Those two horizontal panels — necessarily horizontal by reason of their content — are balanced by the vertical panel on the right side of the page, showing one man almost falling into a deep crevasse. Again, that panel NEEDS to be vertical. Then, the page-turn. A double-page spread showing the majesty of the polar landscape — all blues and whites, and absolutely stunning. We have just started Tom Crean's story and we already see some of the challenges and the rewards of Antarctic exploration. 

Another remarkable use of panels comes when Ernest Shackleton, Frank Worsley, and Tom Crean must cross a glacial range (with its "knife-sharp mountains") to reach a whaling station on the other side in order to rescue the Endurance's stranded men once the ship has been crushed by ice. Four vertical panels simultaneously capture the landscape, the journey up and down the mountains, and the passing of time — one panel lit by the moon, the second a daytime view with clouds, the third panel a snowy night, and the fourth redemptive panel arriving at the whaling station at daybreak. 

The colors in the book never fail to astound me. They are (necessarily) muted to reflect historical accuracy, but always varied; never boring. Touches of peach, pink, and yellow and a good deal of brown and dark green contrast with the blue and white of the Antarctic landscape. The look of the book could have been so monochromatic and dull — it's anything but.

A few last quick mentions of this book's strengths: note the slightly oversized trim size — just right for telling the story of Crean's oversize life. Take the paper jacket off to note the book's cover, done as salt art — an evocation of the frigid seas Tom Crean sailed through.

I hope the Real Committee goes on an expedition of its own to explore The Indestructible Tom Crean. It came out very early in the year, and those books sometimes get lost in the rush of books released later; closer to decision time. But this book really deserves consideration. It achieves excellence in all the Caldecott's definitions of "distinguished": "Excellence of execution in the artistic technique employed; Excellence of pictorial interpretation of story, theme, or concept; Appropriateness of style of illustration to the story, theme or concept; Delineation of plot, theme, characters, setting, mood or information through the pictures; Excellence of presentation in recognition of a child audience."

And I hope you all spend some time with this book as well. I'd love to hear your thoughts about all the other things I don't have room to mention: such as the presence of the expedition dogs; the ubiquitous and clearly-meant-to-be-cute penguins; the book's excellent organization; the helpfulness of the maps. Well, I guess I have mentioned them now! But there is so much more to say — please drop a comment below.

[Read the Horn Book Magazine review of The Indestructible Tom Crean]

Martha V. Parravano

Martha V. Parravano is a contributing editor to The Horn Book, Inc., and co-author of the Calling Caldecott blog.

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Susan Dailey

I appreciate that no important information on the endpapers are lost under the jacket flaps. Nice design choice.

Posted : Oct 10, 2023 02:38



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