Tuesday, November 20

The NYT "Best Illustrated Books" List, In a Word (or Three)


Perhaps it's even obvious to point out the the New York Times would pick the most obvious titles for its list, but what makes a book an obvious choice for its list might not actually be so obvious. I would say a good portion of the list includes books that for a number of reasons could be seen as obligatory, books either they couldn't ignore or in some other way felt obligated to include.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret
, for example. Could they really afford to keep this book off the list if they wanted to? Nominated for the National Book Award (I thought it should have taken the award, but I'm telling myself it came in a close second) this book is one of those that demands attention and deserves it, so throwing it on the list makes sense. It's also either Caldecott or Newbery bound if it doesn't cancel itself out like an actor nominated for two different movies at the Academy awards. Wouldn't want to get caught not mentioning a book that could win something from the ALA, would they?

Also in the "can't ignore" category is Shaun Tan's The Arrival, that crazy picture book that thinks its a graphic novel. The story of the immigrant experience in a parallel Earth is one of those books many people might not "get" at first blush and will set it aside. A superb piece of storytelling my guess is that many who faithfully buy whatever the NYT tells them will get this and set it out on their coffee tables and wait until the movie is made to finally "read" it. "Oh, it's like Jumanmji"? a woman said to me when I tried to show it to her. Uh, no. Another piece of award bait if ever there was one and the NYT says its great so you should get it.

I'm going to put Not A Box in this category as well because once seen it becomes obvious that this is a wonderful book. The illustrations are simple and simply perfect. I think the book gets most of its points for executing a concept everyone instantly recognizes -- a box is whatever children imagine it to be -- and I know everyone whose seen it instantly wonders why it took so long for someone to execute it. From a standpoint of text this is an easy book to mess up, a horse made by committee if an editor had married the writer with the wrong artist. Without the text is this really one of the best illustrated books? It's hard to say once you've seen it. But I like it so I won't begrudge its place on the list.


Here's another word for the NYT list, and here we have many things that make the list because they are, for lack of a better way of putting it, New York-centric. If you are a good New Yorker you will own these books, and if you kowtow to all things New York then these are clearly "best illustrated" and don't you dare question it.

Every Friday felt, to me, a little empty. It celebrates that uniquely Big City idea of a father and son hanging out at a diner on Friday mornings before dad hops off to work and junior bops off to school. It also flogs a certain nostalgia for a time past (that might not have ever really existed) in New York's past when big city living was a romantic middle class notion. Does it hurt that author Yaccarino occasionally does illustrations for the New York Times? Absolutely not.

Guy Billout is another illustrator who's no stranger to New Yorkers, or readers of The New Yorker at the very least. This credential alone was probably enough to get him a book deal for a collection of very nice illustrations about a frog who decides to seek bluer waters called The Frog Who Wanted to See the Sea. Just rolls off the tongue doesn't it? The illustrations are, indeed, fine but they're the kind of sterile illustrations only a childless New Yorker would think a child could love. The story is as dead in the water as a red tide, rendering those cold, hard illustrations meaningless. But then, this is a list of best illustrated books, not best illustrated good books.

Another bit of New Yorker obligatory is Old Penn Station by William Low. Here we have the life and death of a beloved New York landmark, so beloved it no longer exists. Low uses his trademark nostalgic "warmth" to give the old rail station a second life, and in turn tells of a building whose lasting achievement may be that it forced New Yorkers to create a landmark preservation society. Nice message for the kids. Okay, there are books about landmarks, buildings and whatnot that no longer exist -- Brian Floca's excellent Lightship, a book that easily could have made this list but didn't -- but do they have to feel this stodgy? With it's steely blues, red-gold highlights and umber shadows this book resembles little more than an afternoon in an Old Gentleman's Cigar Club.

We also have a new sort of obligation that's taken over the list the last couple of years and that's the obligatory pop-up book. This year is no exception, though I take exception to a book that asks the "reader" to marvel at it's spectacle and count to 600. Yes, it's David A. Carter's 600 Black Dots and that's as much as it's about. If you're feeling obliged to include a pop-up book on the list -- and I suspect the NYT does so they can keep a chair warm for crap like Mommy? when the need for such obligations arise -- could it be a book with something actually going for it? Just last night a co-worker pointed out the new pop-up edition of Moby Dick retold and engineered by Sam Ita that clearly makes the precious emptiness of 600 Black Dots seem... uh, empty. Part of me wonders if pop-ups haven't developed to the point where they're no longer really for children, which would disqualify it from this category, but another part of me has serious questions about what constitutes illustration in this case. Comparing a book like 600 Black Dots to more traditional books is like comparing kinetic sculpture to painting. Best engineered, perhaps, but illustrated?

Peter Sis, much as I like his work and really like his latest book which has landed on the list, is another illustrator who has done editorial illustration for the NYT which I feel may bend things in his favor. The Wall is his story in picture book format, a retelling of growing up behind the Iron Curtain in the Czech Republic. With a couple of exceptions (the opening and closing image of young and old Peter Sis) the book is a fantastically accessible story of both one person and many as they struggled to come of age during an age (the 1960's) when the whole world was opening up to various forms of artistic expression. In mostly black and white line drawings with red accents Sis and his illustrations reflect an infectious optimism of spirit, quite a thing to do with little drawings in a book ostensibly for children.


If I get a lot of shit for this, so be it, but I feel like the only reason Christopher Myers' Jaberwocky made the list is because Jerry Pinkney didn't have a noteworthy title this year. Am I saying what you think I'm saying? Yes. It's the 21st century and the publishing industry is still predominantly white and that's reflected in what gets published. It's a thorny issue that I'm not really looking to open up here except to say that Jaberwocky isn't that great of a book but it's what the NYT judges must have felt was the best they could put forth and not have the entire list look so damn white.

Personally, I don't happen to think the book is that good: it takes Lewis Carroll's verse and re-imagines the beast as a monster basketball player to be vanquished from the playground. I think what bothers me most are the textual assumptions Myers makes based on his research from Carroll's notes, suggesting that Carroll may have been incorporating Aztec words into his nonsense vocabulary and thus, tangentially, was using the poem to suggest more of a game than a combat. Carroll and Lear were both lovers of language, pure and nonsensical, and were not above appropriating words from other cultures that would sound like nonsense to the Victorian ear. I believe this passage from Carroll's own book makes the point
'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.'
The Jabberwock is not a basketball player. Sorry, that's Carroll's story and I'm sticking with it.

Okay, so does the race of the illustrator, or writer, or any artist matter? Should it? Absolutely not. But when a newspaper like the NYT prints out a list of the best illustrated books it might be just a tad wary of not being inclusive or of being accused of being the paper of record for only a certain segment of the population.

* * * * *

The only title I haven't addressed is First the Egg because I haven't had a chance to see it yet. It could end up being either and obvious or an obligatory, or it might just deserve to be on the list, I don't know.

So, if I were to make any substitutions to this list what would they be?

Instead of The Frog Who Wanted to Sea the Sea I propose that Close to the Wind by Peter Malone be considered. Here's a book that cruised under the radar earlier this year, a fictitious recreation of a young sailor's diary that explains the Beaufort Scale for grading wind conditions at sea, with some of the best illustrations of open water and sailing vessels I've seen in a spell. The perspectives alone easily beat out most of the books on this list, even the books I think deserve to be here.

While I do love Not a Box I'd much rather see Kevin Sherry's I'm the Biggest Thing in the Ocean get a nod. It takes childlike boasting to its logical conclusions in the sea as a squid discovers that perhaps it isn't what it thinks it is. The simple line drawings are equally cute and, honestly, it's funnier and has a better twist at the end.

I've already suggested a replacement for the pop-up book and Old Penn Station, but what about Every Friday? May I suggest Leaves by David Ezra Stein? Instead of father and son in the big city we get a yearling bear as she comes to terms with her first fall season. Stein's breezy watercolor illustrations have more warmth in them than any of Yaccarino's shades of yellow.

I think there's a danger involved anytime one puts together a list of anything "best." Perhaps the solution is as simple as changing the name of the list into something a little less elite. The Times reviews and recommends books all the time, so there has to be some way to separate out the creme de la creme. Perhaps they could use some bracketology with their monthly reviews and come down to a final 16 titles that readers could vote on. I'd like to see what sort of results came out of that compared to what The New York Times came up with.

Although, sadly, if people can't tell the difference between Jumanji and The Arrival than I guess it doesn't make much of a difference.


Tricia said...

Thank you, David, for this thoughtful recap and response. In the substitution category, I would replace Every Friday with What Happens on Wednesdays, written by Emily Jenkins and illustrated by Lauren Castillo.

Anonymous said...

What a great Tuesday morning read. I'm still pondering . . .

I love Leaves, too. It's a perfect little poem of a book.

Anonymous said...

I found you via Tricia at The Miss Rumphius Effect, and echo her thanks for this post. I just posted about First the Egg myself (in another context entirely, but you can page through the book and see what you think); I prefer Lemons are Not Red. Must think about the substitution category. Thanks again!

Anonymous said...

Amen to LEAVES, double amen to LIGHTSHIP. As usual, I'm both baffled and bored by the Times choices.

Anonymous said...

I have just seen First the Egg and find it completely worthy of this list. Upon reading it a few times, I noticed that there are hidden treasures and words throughout. Beautifully illustrated and truly brilliant,... I also think that The Arrival is completely worthy as is The Wall.

david elzey said...

I finally took a look at The Egg today and I have to say... eh. It isn't much different than A Lemon is Not Red in style or format, but if you want comfort in you "best of" list why not give people more of what they know.

Just to be clear, I do think The Arrival and The Wall belong on a list like this. My point was that the NYT really couldn't ignore them if they wanted to, the former being the most sought after book this season (it's currently gone back to the printer, not available until January) and the latter being one of the their contributor's books. I think Sis is one of the great graphic artists of our time; I just don't think he can release a book without it ending up on a list.