This beautiful book had me smiling the whole way through with surprise after surprise. Of course a book about the man who loved books and children enough to change the publishing world forever would appeal to me from the get go. But this one went above and beyond with both the author and the illustrator finding brilliantly creative ways to deliver information.
Contrary to what some may think the illustrator and author are very rarely collaborators on the project. In theory, the author has developed and honed their side of the story and the editor then hands it over to the illustrator for their take on the visual for the book. I know this is often very hard for the writer, but this step is what turns a picture book into a true art form of picture and word working together to make something more substantive than just pretty pictures next to nice words. So, when I hold a book like Balderdash, John Newbery and the Boisterous Birth of Children’s Books I really appreciate all the layers of creative brilliance that both Michelle Markel and Nancy Carpenter bring to the table to make this book so much more than just a biography.
It begins with word choice. Even in the subtitle, adding the word ‘boisterous’ is perfect. The point of this book is not only about the man who published children’s books, but Michelle Markel has taken this opportunity to teach us how things were during his time. To explain ‘why’ someone would care enough to try to elicit change in the world of kids books. The first page addresses the reader,
“Welcome! This book’s for you.
Every page, every picture, every word, and even its letters are designed for your pleasure.
Lucky, lucky reader. Be glad it’s not 1726.”
Ha! She has in those four sentences told us that something is very, very different than it used to be. But what exactly? Why? How? Who? Leaving us to really want to know more.
She then goes on to describe how life was for kids of that day. That there were wonderful books full of exciting adventures, but these were not for children. Throughout the text Markel chooses words and phrases of the time period. Walking us through John Newbery’s journey to write and publish magical books for children. The author has done her job beautifully. All the information is wrapped up and handed to the reader in a fun, whimsical, entertaining way without us ever feeling that we are being fed facts and information. The word choice is often unexpected– sometimes contemporary, sometimes Olde English— and is always spot on.
Now, cue the illustrator…
I often find myself overwhelmed by the options presented when given a book to illustrate. Ideas, ideas, ideas, can we do this? What if one did this? How best to convey this or that? And to see Nancy Carpenter address and execute all these in such a clever design is exceptional. The end pages have swirls of of color as would be seen in an antique paper marbled book. The pages are not bright white, but are printed with an antique looking wash. On the edges of each page is an actual ‘photo’ of a real antique page. All chipped and crumbly and we just feel this is an old and classic book we’re holding.
Carpenter’s style is a perfect fit. Her artwork is nostalgic and reminiscent of the illustrations from early picture books. Many of the characters are literally familiar, and others just feel that way. Giving the whole book a cohesive feel of being back in the day.
The type is set in various antique fonts, again, beautifully designed and the perfect nod to the art of typesetting.
Lots to look at, read, and learn over and over with this stunning picture book!
Cheers to John Newbery, Michelle Markel, and Nancy Carpenter for loving, championing, and creating beautiful books for children!