Photography and Fiction
Back in November I speculated as to whether or not a book containing photography, and just photography, could ever win a Caldecott Award. Today my thoughts turn elsewhere.
Just yesterday I sat in on the Penguin Young Readers Group librarian preview for the May-August 2011 season (round-up to come). The folks there had to go over a wide variety of books and in the course of the discussion we came upon an adorable picture book by the author of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Yup. John Berendt himself. Normally I don’t truck with adult authors who try to weasel their way into the lucrative children’s market, but that’s usually because all their books sound the same. Either they’re doing a younger version of what they usually write or they place a slight twist on Alice in Wonderland/The Wizard of Oz. Nine times out of ten this is the case. Berendt . . . he’s different. First off, it’s hard to accuse him of the flaws of his fellows when the title of his book is something as innocuous as My Baby Blue Jays.
(By the way, during the last Simon & Schuster preview I took one look at Liz Scanlon’s Noodle & Lou and proclaimed that, “It is my personal opinion, as it has been for years, that blue jays are a seriously unappreciated species of bird. Seriously, name me all the famous blue jay picture book characters you can.” The universe, which has a twisted sense of humor, has now handed me a whole new blue jay product just to watch me squirm under my own words.)
What does any of this have to do with today’s topic of Photography & Fiction? Well, outside Mr. Berendt’s window sat a nest of blue jays, so he figured he’d photograph them and add in his own, as the catalog calls it, “narrative skill”. Skill aside, this book is considered nonfiction. Staring at the book in the catalog got me to thinking. Nonfiction. Most photography in children’s books could be classified as nonfiction in a way. We see a lot of them appear each season. They do not lack. But what about picture books that use photography and are fictional? How common are they? How often does one run across them? Children love photos, after all. So why are they so often relegated to the informative Tana Hoban / baby board book areas of the library?
This question doesn’t come entirely out of the blue. Recently I met for lunch with an author/illustrator who told me that he was seeking out fictional picture books of this sort. They are rare. Sometimes it seems as though Nina Crews is the only person who’ll touch the genre with so much as a ten foot pole these days. Didn’t used to be that way. Back in the day a person could find books like J.T. by Jane Wagner with photographs by Gordon Parks. NOTE: Periodically professional photographers will try their hand at the format, but the results tend to be along the lines of Cindy Sherman’s Fitcher’s Bird. Which is to say, originally for magazines like Vanity Fair, and then swiftly forgotten post-publication.
You might say there are lots of fictional books of photography out there, but these tend to have novelty elements. Saxton Freymann, for example, has written fictional picture books (Gus and Button) with photographer Joost Elffers but the little worlds are entirely veggie and fruit-based. Books like last year’s spectacular Here Comes the Garbage Barge or My Abuelita wouldn’t be anywhere if it weren’t for the models conjured up by Red Nose Studio and Yuyi Morales respectively. But Who Will Bell the Cats? by Cynthia von Buhler was a lush combination of photography and modeling/illustration, but which does one remember more? Of course the mother of all photography of this sort would have to be The Lonely Doll. And I will maintain that no matter how odd you find the storytelling, the photography itself is rather stunning. Just the same, if you’re going to tell a fictional story with photos, you it is very rare to find live children in front of the lens.
Where does that put William Wegman? He doesn’t do hand-crafted models per se, but he does do hand-crafted dog models. They count, though he hasn’t produced many such books lately (his last was produced seven years ago).
In an era where photographs are practically ubiquitous on the cover of teen and many middle grade novels, it’s all the more interesting to me that storytelling for the picture book set eschews this medium. Either few folks are attempting to produce quality books with real kids and storylines, or they’re simply too difficult to do well. Thoughts?
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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