by Sam Juliano
The 2014 picture book Draw! by Raul Colon is one of my all-time favorites. The sumptuous safari expedition book landed on the New York Times Top Ten list and won praise from virtually every children’s book site. The wordless title’s wide popularity with teachers and their students and the ravishing beauty of its art emboldened the pre-Caldecott prognosticators to forecast it would soon be wearing a shiny gold or silver sticker after the early February announcement by the American Library Association’s Youth Media Awards. Alas, in a very competitive year the committee bypassed the book, leaving many in disbelief. To be sure there were several others that were MIA when the record-breaking lineup of seven books were announced, but Draw! was in poll position on so many lists, that it wasn’t easy to reconcile the omission. At the end of the day awards are contingent on a number of factors – timing, competition, consensus and of course taste. The committee actually did a fine job that year, but the absence of Draw! was truly unfortunate. I am tempted to frame Draw! as Colon’s picture book piece de resistance, as it is possesses a purity of theme, an emotional core and the matter of a singular vision exclusive to books crafted by one person. But in a prolific career marked by remarkable uniformity in style and polychromatic splendor Colon is all about consistency whether he is working solo or for a writer seeking the services of an illustrator. Some years he has even treated the book community to multiple books as illustrator, leaving fans to assume the unenviable task of choosing. In 2016, Colon crafted sumptuous art for Jonah Winter’s Hillary, a biography of the Democratic nominee for President that commenced from her student years. He also brought pictorial elegance to Fearless Flyers: Ruth Law and Her Flying Machine written by Heather Lang, which is the subject of this Caldecott Medal Contender review. Both of Colon’s books this year are about women who achieved fame in contrasting venues, and both are exquisite, but Fearless Flyer: Ruth Law and Her Flying Machine in particular is especially Caldecott worthy.
Ruth Law was undaunted by failure and the danger that came with it. Even with the most careful preparation and mechanical expertise disaster could strike down a flyer in the early days of aviation if the weather did not cooperate. The early planes were flimsily constructed with bamboo, wire and cloth – meaning the most talented aviator could easily enough be undermined by matters out of their control. A modern day parallel is the famed French born tightrope walker Phillipe Petit, who defied the feasibility of turbulent wind currents when crossing between the two World Trade Center towers in the early 70’s. All the talent in the world couldn’t insure success if meteorological conditions grew hostile. Yet Petit like Law persevered as a result of dedication, resilience and a fair degree of luck. Ms. Lang’s soulful and exciting prose pares down an epic flight to the most heart-stopping episodes, which keeping acute focus on the renowned aviator’s state of mind. Some of Law’s most integral feelings are presented by way of enlarged cursive script.
Colon’s exquisite aerial illustrations in Fearless Flyer were achieved with the artist’s trademark prismacolor pencils which for this book were negotiated on Canson paper and lithograph crayon. The impressionist art created here -via an etching instrument integral to the scratch board – and in previous books – evokes the design pattern of the human fingerprint, but most significantly the etched lines allow for richer and more artistically intricate color to emerge. The book is rightly dominated by yellow which accentuates the triumphant mood of a record breaking venture though historically it did take place under sunny skies, albeit in mid-November cold. Green of course, the staple of outdoor rural tapestries, is seen in the all-year conifers and combined with blue brings the stunning turquoise background on the cover and without ostentation on the solid end papers. Speaking of the cover, which features Law navigating her primitive flying machine over a Midwest cornfield is one of the year’s most arresting for any picture book, and is wisely carried over to the dust jacket.
Like the aforementioned tight rope walker, Law was initially an entertainer who performed daredevil tricks by way of a loop and a spiral dive, and again like her acrobatic counterpart the higher altitude she brokered, the greater freedom and liberty she felt. Colon juxtaposes seven illustrations of the flying machine in the opening double page spread to display her virtuoso skills and daring bravado with lightly applied yellow-green flight paths that establish immediately a sense of reckless abandon, though much to the delight of a turn of the century assemblage fashioned multi-colored silhouettes.
Law, inherently adventurous and indomitable of spirit, soon realizes she needs to do something monumental. In short order Colon frames her in a more daunting pose, looking up into the sky alongside her biplane realizing her machine only carries a sixteen gallon tank, and that she has never flown more than twenty-five miles. Like all aviators she also is well aware that in the event of engine trouble there might be no landing options. The big equalizer for her was that she knew every nut and bolt and could ascertain the trouble by the sound of the motor. Colon’s lovely close-up of the woman who thought in expansive terms reveals one not easily dissuaded by initial disappointment, and after an offer to acquire a much larger plane is refused she adds two gas tanks and a metal guard to protect against chilling winds and charts her course. The nocturnal leaf-swept tableau that denotes a four A.M. departure is one her mechanics tried to talk her out of, but Law understands that the turbulent night will actually work in her favor in this impossible to fathom Chicago to New York City flight that has never been attempted, much less achieved. The atmospheric disorder is strikingly envisioned in a scene exhibiting a sense of foreboding with the darker hues and ghostly mise en scene, but for Colon fans it is quite a melancholic visual treat.
As related by Lang, our intrepid flyer admits that “the scare is part of the thrill” after she dispenses with her skirt, pulls down her goggles and assumes a defiantly masculine role. It was still seventeen years before Franklin D. Roosevelt was to famously declare in his first inaugural speech that “the only thing to fear is fear itself” but Lang paraphrases Law when she highlights “To become an aviator one has to dismiss all fear.” Feeling power and exhilaration Law perches above hilly farmlands but ascends further as she dips under clouds and in full view of small towns and lakes, places she readily recognized. Colon weaves his nebulous magic in his captivating aerial tableaus that document Law’s quandary as she passed over Cleveland. Should she land after noticing there was zero pressure on the oil gauge? She decides to stay the course and after steering east of Erie, Pennsylvania she breaks Victor Carlstrom’s distance record. Colon’s dazzling sketch illustrations documenting another record-breaking feat – one that has her touching down in Hornell, New York – project a cinematic sense of movement, and the autumnal tapestry when the plane barely escapes a crippling accident as it scrapes up against some trees as she resumes her flight to the Big Apple is a tour de force illustration. The stirring glide past the Statue of Liberty and the final landing as the band with their red and blu caps supply a celebratory welcome are among Colon’s most breathtaking canvasses in the book.
An engaging afterward from Lang includes Law’s encounter with Orville Wright, and the bevy of records she broke and set, but nothing matched her Chicago to New York City flight, a remarkable achievement that led to dinners with President Wilson and an invitation to light the Stature of Liberty for the first time. Fearless Flyer: Ruth Law and Her Flying Machine is a masterful introduction to this comparatively unrecognized female pioneer, and the inspiring story gave Colon a chance to bring unlimited splendor and breathtaking vistas to a story that greatly benefits from his unique artistry. The Caldecott committee should confer on it their most intense scrutiny, as befitting a book as aesthetically beautiful as it is historically awe-inspiring.
Note: This is the sixth entry in the 2016 Caldecott Medal Contender series. The series does not purport to predict what the committee will choose, rather it attempts to gauge what the writer feels should be in the running. In most instances the books that are featured in the series have been touted as contenders in various online round-ups, but for the ones that are not, the inclusions are a humble plea to the committee for consideration. It is anticipated the series will include at least 30 titles; the order which they are being presented in is arbitrary, as every book in this series is a contender. Some of my top favorites of the lot will be done near the end. The awards will be announced on January 22nd, hence the reviews will continue till two days before that date.