This April, thousands of book lovers and international publishing professionals will travel to Bologna, Italy, to admire the best of children’s books and book art. The annual Bologna Children’s Book Fair is the place where publishing rights are bought and sold, and authors and illustrators display their work along densely-packed tables and walls. You could call it a kid lit love fest.
It’s also home to some of the biggest and best respected awards in the children’s book industry. One of these, the BolognaRagazzi prize, was announced earlier this week. Judges choosing among 1,354 books from over forty countries picked the best published children’s book in several categories. In the fiction category, the winner was A Child of Books, an innovative picture book by Brooklyn-based artist Oliver Jeffers and London-based artist Sam Winston. The nonfiction prize was awarded to a remarkably young Englishman, William Grill, for The Wolves of Currumpaw, his graphic-novel-like rendition of a real-life adventure written by a founder of the Boy Scouts of America.
If you haven’t read A Child of Books, you may recognize Jeffers’s illustration style from The Day the Crayons Quit and The Hueys, his series about the comic adventures of identical, egg-shaped creatures. Jeffers’s work is always inventive, and here it’s the integration of Winston’s typography that makes A Child of Books stand out. Jeffers, who was born in Northern Ireland, told me by phone that the book had been “about five years in the making.” He and Winston were introduced by a mutual friend in London and almost immediately began talking about doing a project together, one that would draw on their shared love of literature and storytelling.
“I have sailed across a sea of words to ask if you will come away with me,” says the book’s intrepid heroine, inviting a slightly worried-looking boy her age to accompany her on an imaginative adventure. “We will travel over mountains of make-believe,” she says, “discover treasure in the darkness. We can lose ourselves in forests of fairy tales, and escape monsters in haunted castles.” The children, drawn by Jeffers in simple pen and ink, move through landscapes made of printed words—specifically, snippets of classic children’s books, and even lullabies.
The texts swirl and swoop into towering seas, fluffy clouds, tree branches, shadows, and even a massive monster, composed of such thickly overlapping words that in places the page looks almost black. “It was a matter of layering text over text until you couldn’t actually read it,” Jeffers says of the monster, acknowledging that this was one of the trickiest parts of the book to get right.
It’s tempting, when reading the book for a second or third time, to focus on the bits of legible text Winston used for these landscape elements. Alice in Wonderland is there, as well as Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, and Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. Jeffers said that this last book meant the most to him. “Swift was in Belfast, the town that I’m from,” he said. There is a street called Lilliput there, and a mountain that resembles a giant lying on its side, much like Gulliver’s Brobdignag. As a child, realizing that Swift’s story came out of these Belfast landmarks “gave me the sense that anything was possible.”
William Grill also felt a deep affinity for the subjects of his nonfiction award-winner, The Wolves of Currumpaw. Set in New Mexico when it was still really the Wild West, the story is based on an experience Ernest Thompson Seton, a 19th century illustrator and avid outdoorsman, first jotted down in his diary. Seton had travelled to New Mexico to kill wolves threatening farmers’ livestock. One of these wolves, Old Lobo, was the stuff of legend: a brave, seemingly invincible leader who allowed his beautiful mate, Blanca, and their cubs to run ahead of him in the pack. Seton trapped Blanca, intending to use her to lure Old Lobo to his death, but when the time came, he could not bring himself to kill the majestic wolf.
It’s a tale with a brutal outline, yet Grill’s illustrations are soft-hued, sketchy, and sensitive, in tones ranging from oxblood to mouse brown and a gorgeous celestial blue. “All the work is just in coloring pencils, very simple with no real digital effects,” Grill told me by phone from England. Before he began drawing, he spent two months travelling around New Mexico, drawing wolves at a sanctuary, “to see how they moved,” and walking in the Currumpaw Valley where the hunt took place. Grill tried to tell the story through pictures, using as little text as possible. He struggled with dyslexia as a child, and wanted to create a book “that would appeal to a visual reader like me.”
Grill is only 26, so it’s surprising that this is his second brush with the BolognaRagazzi prize. His 2014 book, Shackleton’s Journey, was shortlisted for the award. Asked why he thinks The Wolves of Currumpaw won, Gil says that this story “has an emotional impact. I feel more strongly attached to it. There’s more you can read into Seton’s story. Part of what drew me to it was that I see a few similarities in our lives. He was an illustrator who loved hunting. So did I, when I was younger, though now I’m a vegetarian.”
Ultimately, this isn’t just a story about the Wild West, or an ambitious hunt. The interaction with Old Lobo changed Seton forever and “brought out the good side in him. He ended up trying to redeem himself,” Grill says. “He completely changed his life,” becoming a conservationist and an early advocate for getting kids out into nature though scouting. Grill is himself scouting around, for his next project. Though he’s “looking to do something quite different,” he says, “I suppose I have an interest in all stories outdoor and adventurous.”