Too Fun to Be True?: The Amusing Side of Nonfiction Illustration
In the six or so years I’ve held NYPL’s Children’s Literary Salon (a monthly gathering of children’s book enthusiasts) I’ve seen it all. Epileptic fits. Audience members whose questions after a talk consisted entirely of just a series of insults aimed at my panelists. But the thing that gets under the skin the most is when I feel an attendee walked away with a mistaken impression.
For the record, this is something I have zippo control over. To give you a recent example, I spoke a week or two ago to the parents of a school in lower Manhattan about selecting the best books for their kids. In the course of the talk I brought up a recommendation site and my unease with using it since it will sometimes view gay parents in books as a kind of “trigger warning”. That evening I received a livid response from a gay parent in the audience saying she couldn’t believe that I would consider gay parents something to warn kids against. So you see, we all hear things differently. Sometimes grossly so.
Case in point this past Saturday’s Literary Salon. The topic was research and facts in the illustrations of nonfiction or historical works for kids. And the panel was exquisite: Brian Floca. Sophie Blackall. Mara Rockliff and her editor Nicole Raymond of Candlewick.
Mara was a great and necessary inclusion since as an author she produced all kinds of nonfiction books with all kinds of illustrators. Why this year alone she has out Gingerbread for Liberty, illustrated by Vincent X. Kirsch and Mesmerized: How Ben Franklin Solved a Mystery That Baffled All of France, illustrated by Iacopo Bruno. Two very good books with very different texts and illustrations. We all got a huge kick out of seeing Mara compare and contrast the duo.
Well. Almost all of us. I later learned that an audience member walked away under the impression that we had praised the highly the realistic illustrations of Mesmerized while giving short shrift to Gingerbread.
Now my Salons are not generally recorded but I’m hoping that perhaps this incident will highlight for many why they should be. After talking with a large number of the folks in attendance I was reassured that this interpretation of the talk was held by very few. In point of fact, our concentration was in part on how fun the Gingerbread art was and how multiple types of illustration styles of nonfiction make for a richer pool from which to draw. However, I think this leads to an interesting question. I’ve actually not heard a lot of people discuss the role of creative interpretation of nonfiction illustration at any length. So let’s do it now! It’s a different subject than the talk I held at the library and, as this audience member’s interpretation shows, one fraught with high emotion.
Because, you see, for many people children’s nonfiction is almost solely about the text. What was said. What happened precisely according to the best possible sources. But as Mara pointed out on Saturday, all illustration is going to be less factual than words due to the mere fact that it IS illustration. Unless you are working off of photographs, an artist really doesn’t know if someone stood exactly this way or leaned precisely that way. They’re culling together elements that have a basis in truth, but to a certain extent their interpretation can’t strictly be called 100% real because it is their interpretation.
So where does that leave illustration? It gives it some freedom to play. Since we’re already talking about Gingerbread I’ll use it as my example, though honestly there are loads of other books I could cite.
In Gingerbread, the artist, Vincent X. Kirsch did some amazing things. In his own words he was “translating fact into cookies”. Mara’s text in this book is bouncy and fun. Reading it, the humor and amusing dialogue make it infinitely clear that this is not a strict interpretation of past events. As such you need art that fits. Frankly speaking, the artistic style of Mesmerized, so beautiful on the page, would have been a woeful accompaniment to this story, even though both books are by the same author and set against a Revolutionary War backdrop. Kirsch’s art bounces and hops and leaps gleefully from scene to scene. And where Mesmerized urges young readers to enjoy and employee the scientific method, Gingerbread is all about building a young person’s enthusiasm for learning about history. You cannot read the book and not have a good time and that is largely because of the art.
But where does the librarian put it? Many of my panelists mentioned that they don’t think about library catalog records when they create their books. But I do. I have to figure out where everything goes. After all, the patron who walks into the library and wants either a fun historical story or a nonfiction work to use in a report needs to be directed to the right shelf. So Mesmerized ended up in nonfiction and Gingerbread in picture books. Was it because of the art? Nope. It was because of their texts. In fact, in almost all cases I determine whether or not to put a book in picture books or nonfiction due entirely to the way in which it was written.
So here’s the million dollar question then: Do nonfiction books with fun art win big nonfiction awards? Or is there a kind of prejudice against creativity? Due to the fact that we have so few nonfiction awards for kids at this time, this should be pretty easy to assess.
Let’s look at the Sibert Award for our answer. The Sibert, you will recall, “is awarded annually to the author(s) and illustrator(s) of the most distinguished informational book published in the United States in English during the preceding year.” Brian Floca mentioned during our talk how happy he was with the wording “informational” rather than “nonfiction” in this description. I cannot help but agree.
So do fun illustrations win awards? Heck, to determine that we don’t even have to go beyond this year. What won the medal proper? The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus by Jen Bryant, illustrated by Melissa Sweet. Cut paper and sliced words fill the collaged pages. If you’re going to do a picture book bio of the creator of the thesaurus, you need to have fun squarely at the front of your mind.
The honors aren’t too shabby either. Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker by Patricia Hruby Powell takes Christian Robinson’s energy filled art and gives it new life. The book romps and dances and glides and cavorts. Neighborhood Sharks by Katherine Roy is a bit more realistic, but even she can’t resist the occasional Hitchcock worthy set-up from time to time. And I think it was the traditional Mixtec codex art of Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez & Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation by Duncan Tonatiuh that really set it apart.
Aside from the sharks, none of these winners could be called realistic, though you can tell that like Gingerbread for Liberty loads of research went into their art.
Conclusion: Happy, bouncy, fun art in nonfiction often receives its given due. From Look Up! Bird-Watching in Your Own Backyard by Annette LeBlanc Cate to To Dance: A Ballerina’s Graphic Novel, written by Siena Cherson Siegel, artwork by Mark Siegel, librarians know perfectly well how important it is for nonfiction to have a little fun.
And we completely approve.
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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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