How do judging panels reach their decisions? Surely the only way to avoid personal preferences based on sentiments or agendas, is to set clear and unambiguous criteria, the judges performing their balancing act somewhere on a line between personal preference and uncompromising adherence to clear criteria. Piet Grobler’s critique of this year’s Kate Greenaway Medal shortlist is an attempt to understand that place on the line but reflects his own preferences and interpretation of the criteria.
The shortlist of the 2016 Greenaway Medal would struggle to compete with that of 2015. William Grill was a brilliant winner, but Laura Carlin, Alexis Deacon and Shaun Tan would have been worthy winners too. I do beg to differ from Dawn Finch, President of CILIP, who says of the 2016 list: ‘Each and every one of the books on the shortlists could be a worthy winner.’ All of the short-listed books are without doubt very good books. But they are not all potential winners.
The 2016 jury seems to have aimed to address the interests of several stakeholders in the promotion or study of illustrated books for children. Something About a Bear serves a didactic purpose: it is informative and there is a nod towards the conservation agenda. This is however packaged subtly in a vague narrative. Jackie Morris’s water-colouring skills are undisputed, but the book as a whole does not offer new perspectives or fresh approaches and could have been created in the 1980’s. Animalium, non-fiction superbly illustrated by Katie Scott, beautifully and skillfully presented, did not make the list. Pity.
Footpath Flowers might also seem at a quick glance to be a book from yesteryear. In this case however, a visual language reminiscent of comics from the mid-20th century – limited colour, bold line and dark shadows – is conscious of its retrospective tone. The comic and picture book codes meet in an animated hybrid formed by the illustrator’s careful pacing of the frames and the sequence of small incidents from a girl’s walk with her father. The silent nature of this picture book and the open end invites the reader to co-create the narrative. This book has to be a strong contender for the prize.
The press release for the Kate Greenaway award makes extensive mention of the three celebrated heavy weights who were previous award winners. That they are still, after decades, counted amongst the best, is a demonstration of their status and talent. In the case of Helen Oxenbury and Anthony Browne, I would like to argue that these books are however not as strong as those that earned them acclaim in previous years. Oxenbury is almost always the perfect and rigorous draughtsperson. In terms of perspective and form and depth, realistic depiction is unforgiving and inconsistency becomes amplified. This is the case with the double page close-up of the pirates on the deck in Captain Jack and the Pirates.
The introductory paragraph of the Greenaway medal’s criteria, becomes significant in this case: ‘The whole work should provide pleasure from a stimulating and satisfying visual experience which leaves a lasting impression.’ The whole work (image and text in synergy) is challenged somewhat by Peter Bently’s rhyme. While the illustrations are, despite their classical and conventional nature, convincing as representative of the viewpoint of the contemporary child reader (based on the age-group in which the main characters are depicted), the written text rather reflects the mindset of a performing adult. Phrases like ‘They ran down the hill/ and Jack cried “Oho!/ Brave little Caspar / has seen off the foe!”’ and ‘The pirates have fled lads, and … treasure ahoy!’ come across as dated, as if the book was created in the previous century. The publisher’s blurb which refers to ‘this timeless and classic picture book’ seems opportunistic. Classical status can only be earned over time and the terms ‘timeless’ and ‘dated’ should not be confused. But this is a very good book. It is perhaps just not winning material this time around.
Willy’s Stories is certainly any librarian’s delight, as it introduces readers to several proven classics and promotes the adventure of reading by stringing together episodes of Willy’s imagined participation in well-known stories. Anthony Browne’s inter-textuality and self-referencing is always interesting and adds additional layers of meaning to the text (Into the Forest is a brilliant example of this). I found Willy’s Stories, despite its referencing of other texts and the effort to engage readers by asking them questions, underwhelming. The absence of a storyline and inconsistent portrayal of Willy throughout the book (eg the profile versus frontal shape of his face and the size and shape of his mouth) does not convince me of its ‘overall impact’.
Chris Riddell, the third celebrated illustrator shortlisted again, joined forces with Neil Gaiman to revisit/reinterpret/revitalise an old fairy tale. It is not easy to judge an illustrated novel for children alongside ‘true’ picture books. They are so different. Riddell manages to remain relevant and to create an interesting image-text relationship by using visual devices associated with contemporary graphic novels and other renderings of narratives of the fantasy genre. The beautiful presentation and design and some illustrations, are certainly memorable.
Jon Klassen delivers yet again. Sam and Dave Dig a Hole is subtle, skillfully designed and very funny. His personal visual language in appropriate media demonstrates an understanding of contemporary story-telling and an ability to characterize through minimal intervention. This is a good example of a ‘writerly’ text that requires the reader to help to make sense of events like the elusive treasures and the open end.
Ross Collins’s There’s a Bear on my Chair is even sparser in terms of information on the page. The narrative is happy and funny and illustrations are very professional and ‘polished’. It therefore results in a book that is likeable and enjoyable and likely to be the choice of publishers and librarians alike, as it will enjoy wide and mainstream appeal at the till as well as the lending desk. Democracy and accessibility are of course to be appreciated in the picture book environment, but I do wonder if this book demonstrates enough innovation or individuality to be shortlisted and am perplexed that it was chosen instead of Grandad’s Island by Benji Davies – a book equally likely to appeal to a wide audience, but very original and very beautiful. This book adds much to the contemporary picture book scene: confident and sensitive mastering of the digital medium without compromising warmth and texture; excellently composed pages; the delicate subject matter of death dealt with in a very subtle, light and sensitive manner and a fusion of fantasy and reality that convinces much more than some other shortlisted cases. Equally, Emily Gravett with The Imaginary and Lili by Wen Dee Tan would have been very worthy considerations for the shortlist as they meet so many of the criteria. I fear the criterion regarding the visual experience – ‘How well does the book either offer the reader new experiences, or reflect their pre-existing experiences?’ – might have been neglected this year.
Yet there is always the letter O for Oliver Jeffers and for Outstanding and for Once upon an Alphabet. It is fresh, ridiculous, hilarious, silly, elegant, sophisticated, clever, more silly, simplistic, complex, intelligent, accessible and fun. This one gets my vote.
Piet Grobler is joint course leader in Illustration at the University of Worcester and co-founder of the International Centre for the Picture Book in Society. He has received several international picture book awards amongst others a Golden Apple at the Biennale for Illustration in Bratislava (BIB). He and served as jury member in the Chen Bochui Literature Awards (China 2015), BIB awards 2015 (Slovakia) and the Lemniscaat International Picture Book Illustration Competition (Netherlands) in 2014 and 2015.
Willy’s Stories, Anthony Browne, Walker Books, 978-1-4063-6089-9, £6.99 pbk
There’s a Bear on My Chair, Ross Collins, Nosy Crow, 978-0-8576-3393-4, £9.99 hbk
Once Upon an Alphabet, Oliver Jeffers, HarperCollins, 978-0-0075-1427-4, £20.00 hbk
Sam & Dave Dig a Hole illustrated by Jon Klassen,written by Mac Barnett, Walker Books,978-1406360981
Something About a Bear, Jackie Morris, Frances Lincoln, 978-1-8478-0516-4, £12.99 hbk
Captain Jack and the Pirates illustrated by Helen Oxenbury, written by Peter Bently, Puffin, 978-0-7232-6928-1, £12.99
The Sleeper and the Spindle illustrated by Chris Riddell, written by Neil Gaiman, Bloomsbury, 978-1-4088-5964-3, £12.99 hbk
Footpath Flowers illustrated by Sydney Smith, written by JonArno Lawson, Walker Books, 978-1-4063-6567-2, £6.99 pbk