Thursday, December 6, 2012

2013 Contenders: Face Book, by Chuck Close

First things first: Face Book has no shot at the Newbery, given that without the illustrations, the whole thing falls apart. But I wanted to talk about it anyway, because it's a kind of book that I think often slips through the awards cracks, despite its value.

As is fitting, given its subject, Face Book is heavily illustrated, not only with photographs of Close's artwork, but also with pictures of him in his studio, as well as personal photos. The book's centerpiece is actually a set of fourteen of Close's self-portraits, cut into thirds so that they can be mixed up, sort of like those old playground toys that let you put the head of a giraffe on a lion's body and an ostrich's feet. (The front cover shows one possible combination.) It's an excellent tool that lets children see how different art media can be used.

It's also, however, the sort of tool that often gets considered "gimmicky." Nonfiction books that test the boundaries of what a book can do don't tend to be recognized for the major awards. Often, that's a wise choice, but sometimes, I think it lets something genuinely useful go unrecognized.

Face Book is structured as an interview with Close, and the acknowledgments state that the book is based on an actual interview in which several 5th-graders were able to ask Close some questions. As such, most of the words are Close's, and he's listed as the author, but it's clear that the book was compiled and put together by someone else (the names Joan Sommers, Amanda Freymann, and Ascha Drake show up in the fine print of the copyright notice). Literary awards selectors don't generally like authorship by committee, so that's a second strike against Face Book being recognized right there.

Nonetheless, Face Book does a great job of getting inside an artist's head, explaining how Close chooses his subjects, discussing why he uses so many different media, and even giving readers an inside look into the process of overcoming his disability (Close suffered a spinal artery collapse in 1988, and lost much of the use of his legs and arms). I think the interview format and the liberal use of Close's art will make this a highly accessible book for young readers. Of all the children's biographies of artists that I've read, it's certainly the one that gets the closest (no pun intended!) to its subject.

So, despite the fact that it's constructed in a way that essentially precludes it from awards consideration, Face Book is a highly successful work. I'd recommend it in a trice to anyone with an interest in modern art.

Published in April by Abrams Books for Young Readers


  1. My students love "gimmicky" books. I do too and am sorry that the term is such a pejorative one. For the age group I teach, there is something really significant about the tactile aspect of books like this. About the freshness and different-ness of it.

    I am a big fan of the Ology books and, in fact, wanted the book I have coming out next year to have some of the flaps and such they have. It has ended up differently which is completely fine, but I do still think such books are incredibly valuable and should be under consideration more consistently for awards rather than dismissed.

    Thanks for posting about this one. I was actually especially curious too about the authorship.

    1. I had much the same experience with the Ology books -- back when I worked as a school librarian, and later as a children's librarian, kids adored the look and feel of those books.

      Sometimes, I wish ALA had awards specifically for book ~design~. I thought about that back when I was reviewing HOPE AND TEARS -- it's possibly the best-looking traditional book that I read this year -- and in the context of FACE BOOK and the Ology books, that seems more than ever to me like something that would be beneficial.

    2. Oh, I agree re: an award for book design. I wanted to say when we were talking about this one the other day that I love to see books about artists that have impeccable design. Like Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Through the Gates and Beyond.

    3. I'm not sure about the Sibert. In a year that's also given us BOMB, MOONBIRD, TITANIC: VOICES FROM THE DISASTER, and WE'VE GOT A JOB, I don't know that FACE BOOK quite has enough to put it over the top, especially since the Sibert hasn't been real keen on recognizing books that push these kinds of boundaries either. It'll be interesting to see though.