Review of the Day: The Field by Baptiste Paul, ill. Jacqueline Alcántara
Here’s an interesting conundrum for you. Rattle it about in your brain for a while. It is an uncontestable fact that the majority of picture books published in America in a given year feature either white kids or animals. Now this is just talking about the bulk of the publishing industry, and there are always exceptions. So while the big publishers take baby steps in the right direction, it’s the small presses that go for the gold, bringing us books we’ve never seen or, even better, never known we should miss. Years ago in New York I remember receiving a request to pull together a collection of picture books set in the Caribbean. It took a lot of searching, and probably the inclusion of more than one out-of-print title, but eventually my colleagues and I were able to pull something together that we were proud of. That was about ten years ago, and I’d love to tell you that if someone were to ask me to name my top ten Caribbean children’s books off the top of my head, I’d be able to do it. I can’t though. We still see too few islander stories. It is worth noting, however, that once in a while you get a book that is not just an exception to the rule, filling a need, but is just a killer original title as well. I’ve never been to Saint Lucia, and maybe I never will, but when I read The Field by Baptiste Paul and Jacqueline Alcántara I at least catch the barest whiff of the place in as eclectic, exciting, and downright fun a format as possible.
In the beginning there is just one boy, already in his soccer uniform, kicking a ball through the trees. When his brother joins him they set about putting together a team from the kids in their village. The local fruit seller agrees to play the role of ref and the next thing you know the cows have been shooed off the field and there are eight kids on the muddy grass, shooting, passing, running, and diving. “This way!” “Isi!” “Pass!” author Baptiste Paul fills his book with Creole words and phrases. When rain threatens to end the fun the kids declare “No way” and keep on playing. Rain won’t stop them. Wet dirt won’t stop them. Only after the mamas call and everyone has to go in for the night does the excitement finally stop . . until everyone sleeps and dreams of games to come.
This book is important to me, and in multiple ways. It’s not just that it provides a glimpse into island life that a lot of kids in the U.S. would certainly never see otherwise. It’s also a sports book. As kooky as it sounds, we don’t really see a lot of sport-related picture books in a given year. Because 2018 was a World Cup year we did see a teeny tiny uptick in soccer titles. Books like Kick It, Mo by David Adler and Sam Ricks, for example, were a tiny drop in a bottomless need. I don’t know why sports books don’t get more love, what with their built in drama and storytelling potential, but it’s all the more reason to jump up and sing when a book like The Field comes along. And as strange as it sounds, when I realized that this was that rare sports book, I began to pay closer attention to the degree to which the artist working on the story was able to bring that sport to life.
While reading this book I had a real sense of how adeptly Alcántara is able to convey movement. From the endpapers onward this book is riding on its ability to make its players move. It got me to thinking. When we talk about the art and skill of one illustrator or another, do we ever talk about how skilled they are at making their characters move? Out of curiosity I decided to take a peek at the Caldecott Honor and Award winners (for the most distinguished picture books published in a given year). When was the last time a book won where characters were moving, preferably in some kind of a sport? Well, if you count dance then there was R. Gregory Christie’s work on 2017’s Freedom in Congo Square. Journey by Aaron Becker had a lot of falling, running, flying, and boating in 2014. But for a straight sport you actually have to go back as far as Christopher Bing’s 2001 Honor winning work on Casey at the Bat. Now the lack of sports books on the award listings has as much to do with the fact that they’re hardly ever published as anything. Even so, I think it’s high time we gave some proper credit to artists that know how to convey speed, movement, and the inherent drama of the field.
Alcántara’s work makes for a particularly nice complement to Paul’s text. It isn’t just how well she can make a soccer game understandable on the page (something not easy to do in real life, let alone in fiction). Look at how she brings liquid and mud and rain into this magnificent spattered, splattered, mess. The drops of paint on the page never obfuscate, even as they compete with the non-splattered images for dominance. There will be those for whom Alcántara’s rough characterizations don’t appeal, but if you stop and look at what she’s doing it’s impressive. Every single character playing soccer is an individual. Did you notice the girl that plays half the game in blue rain boots? Can you make out the teams (and did you notice that the twins are on opposite sides)? And look at the light. How the sky melts from blue to gray, ominous and foreboding. Or how the field is lit at night, when the mamas call in their filthy mud-splattered kids. My favorite picture in the book is probably of the kids running back home as the sun sinks red into the horizon, lighting the whole world with that same pre-twilit umber glow.
Bilingual children’s books are a pickle. If you want to convey the tenor and tone of a place, it makes sense to include text in the native language. But how precisely do you do that? I’ll be blunt with you. If you do a straight up bilingual translation of the English text, that fills a very precise need of a segment of the buying public. Over the years I’ve come around to books that integrate two languages together. Mr. Paul does a lot of that here. Sure he includes a glossary of Creole words and phrases (complete with pronunciations) at the back of the book for easy translation, but it’s almost unnecessary when you consider how often he includes them with their English equivalents in the story. Take, for example, when one kid slips in the mud. “Ou byen? You okay? Mwen byen. I’m good.” In his Author’s Note, Paul notes that Creole is mostly a spoken rather than written language, and that it is put together from a range of different languages, including French, English, Hindi and others. I should note that there has been a push in recent years to no longer italicize words in a language other than English in a book’s text. This book does italicize, but it’s a subtle difference and not one I think I would have noticed if I hadn’t gone looking for it.
Let’s talk titles now. They say not to judge a book by its cover. They may as well say not to judge a book by its title. And in the case of this particular book I’d implore you to follow that advice. The Field sounds like a serious work of adult fiction by a dead white author, does it not? There is gravitas to it. Seriousness. This is probably why one of my fellow children’s librarians started to refer to this book by an entirely new and made up name. And let me tell you, once he started calling this book “Futbol Mud Match” I could never really go back to that dry and distant title The Field. Look me in the eye and tell me that “Futbol Mud Match” wouldn’t be a better, more exciting, and downright perfect name for this book. It would integrate the Creole of the text with the promise of muddy, sporty fun. Many times an author doesn’t have final say on the title of their book, but if this was the dream title Mr. Paul always wanted then so be it. It’ll always be “Futbol Mud Match” to me.
Do you have to love soccer to love this book? Not hardly. As I mentioned before, sports are perfect children’s book companions because each game is rife with excitement, drama, and potential humiliation. All the best ingredients for a rousing tale! You could just as well ask if you have to love rain to love this book, or the Caribbean, or cows. The only thing you have to bring to this story is a love of good books, and a capacity to be wowed when a debut team pulls out a book as cool as this. A story so good you’ll be half tempted to pull your own soccer ball out of the shed and take it to the nearest muddy park for a spin. A true original.
On shelves now.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
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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