Joanna Carey appraises the shortlist for the UK’s most prestigious award for illustration in children’s books.
A good shortlist is like an anthology,an end in itself, offering excellence and diversity,and that’s what we get here. Many previous winners of this award have been both illustrator and author – Quentin Blake, John Burningham, Shirley Hughes, Lauren Child, Raymond Briggs – to name but a few. The majority of artists on this shortlist have worked in collaboration with an author,but the purpose of the Greenaway medal is to honour the work of the illustrator.
The collaborative element is particularly evident in Where My Wellies Take Me. Here Michael Morpurgo has written a story based on his wife Clare’s memories of her rural childhood. It includes a running commentary on wildlife observation, and a wealth of poetry. It is designed and illustrated with tremendous panache by Olivia Lomenech Gill who has brilliantly stage-managed the whole thing as a sort of rambling, handwritten journal /sketchbook with masses of observational drawings, paintings and collages. Using pen, pencil, charcoal, watercolour and collage, these exquisitely handled atmospheric images offer a real sense of the countryside, recalling a time when children could happily be allowed to roam free. Pressed flowers and nature notes mingle with vigorous drawings of lovingly remembered expeditions on horseback, of birds, bees, tadpoles freshly ploughed fields, cowpats, pigs, puddles, clogs, gum boots and muddy footprints, this is what you might call a youthful case of nostalgie de la boue. This very engaging, beautifully bound book has a sturdy tactile feel, with approachable artwork that will inspire many a child to explore the romance and the reality of the natural world, and to celebrate the joy of seeing and drawing.
The Paper Dolls has a jaunty text by Julia Donaldson, while Rebecca Cobb’s scribbly crayon illustrations create a strangely wide eyed child, the faux naif style works perfectly for the paper dolls the child loves, and gives them the necessary ephemeral feel. And as she plays with them, you can feel the child’s imagination taking off, and giving a reality to the little landscapes that appear as a backdrop to the dolls’ adventures as they flit about, escaping with ease from a dinosaur, a tiger and a crocodile. But there’s no escaping the boy with the scissors, and although they all get chopped up into a fluttering mosaic (Cobb handles this very sensitively), we know these dolls will live on in the little girl’s memory, and be drawn again when she grows up and has a child of her own.
Oliver Jeffers also finds himself having to draw like a child in The Day the Crayons Quit, a very funny tale about a box of resentful crayons who have written angry letters with drawings complaining about their plight. Red Crayon is fed up with having to do fire engines, apples and strawberries the whole time. Grey Crayon is worn out colouring elephants, rhinos and hippos ,and Blue Crayon has been so over worked on oceans, lakes, rivers and skies that he is worn down to a mere stump. This is indeed a wonderfully funny story, beautifully produced, and Jeffers tackles the crayons’ own artwork with good humour, modestly resisting the temptation to upstage them with too much of his own very distinctive work.
Mouse Bird Snake Wolf by David Almond and illustrator Dave McKean is weird and wonderful. It’s a graphic novel that explores the act of creation – while the gods portrayed in monochrome loll about lazily in the heavens, enjoying tea and cakes, three earthly children recklessly attempt to breathe life into creatures of their own imagination. Mckean’s angular line has a powerful cubist energy. Brilliant sequential drawings, carry you way beyond the confines of the page across gorgeous landscapes, and with his graphic imaginings of feverish brain activity a truly horrific wolf is conjured up. Because of the astonishing artwork, it’s tempting to imagine this book in a larger format, on art paper, but actually it’s perfect as a slim paperback you can slip in your pocket and read it under a tree in the countryside, with those monochrome gods looking down from above.
With a text by Lemony Snicket The Dark is illustrated by Jon Klassen. Here a small child is alone in a large house, full of steeply angled stairs, bare boards and shadows. When the electric light fails a voice calls Laszlo to the basement, where a chest of drawers holds the answer to his problem. The beauty and the power of this book is in the design, the precision of the drawing, the angles created in the turn of the staircase, the unrelenting fathomless dark, and the fearful symmetry of the shapes, the shadows and the black, black end papers. But when the light is restored the room is transformed – once more a warm glow suffuses the room and Laszlo, no longer afraid of the dark, goes to sleep.
Birgitta Sif is the author /illustrator of Oliver. A bit of a misfit, Oliver does things differently. Surrounded by other children but unable to join in, he ploughs a lonely furrow at school, at home, at the swimming pool. The drawing is swift and sensitive, full of meaningful glances and eloquent gestures and each page offers a host of visual details to linger over .Observant, funny, and always affectionate. A permanently overcast sky seems to reflect the fact that Oliver has no real friends, so what a joy when his ball bounces away and leads him to a like minded companion! But it’s a shame that Sif doesn’t allow a little sunlight to peep through the gloom when Oliver finally finds a friend.
This is not my Hat is by Jon Klassen, the other solo artist/illustrator here, and this glorious book is an object lesson in subtle story-telling that leaves the reader to find out what’s going on from the pictures. A small fish has stolen a hat from a big fish, and he swims off to hide in the aquatic undergrowth. He’s confident he’s going to get away with it, but little by little we can see that he’s not going to. It’s a hauntingly beautiful experience, gliding through several double page spreads in this crepuscular underwater world where tall aquatic plants form a mesmerizing forest of fish shaped leaves whose beautiful muted colours suggest that the artist had access to a stash of Farrow and Ball sample pots. It’s presumably in the interest of graphic economy that apart from pectorals and caudals, neither fish has any fins,and so wouldn’t be able to swim, but nothing can detract from the feeling I’m left with, that I saw this happen, I was there. And I know where the hat is now.
Joanna Carey is a former Children’s Books Editor of The Guardian.
Where My Wellies Take Me by Olivia Lomenech Gill (illustrator) and Clare and Michael Morpurgo, Templar, 978 1848775442, £17.99 hbk
The Paper Dolls by Rebecca Cobb (illustrator) and Julia Donaldson, Macmillan Children’s Books, 978 1447267928, £6.99 pbk
The Day the Crayons Quit by Oliver Jeffers (illustrator) and Drew Daywalt, HarperCollins Children’s Books, 978 0007513758, £12.99 hbk
Mouse Bird Snake Wolf by David McKean (illustrator) and David Almond, Walker Books, 978-1406322897, £9.99 hbk
The Dark by Jon Klassen (illustrator) and Lemony Snicket, Orchard Books, 978-1408330029, £11.99 hbk
Oliver by Birgitta Sif, Walker Books, 978-1406345360, £6.99 pbk
This is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen, Walker Books, 978-1406343939, £11.99 hbk