Monday, May 12, 2014

2015 Contenders: The Pilot and the Little Prince, by Peter Sís

I really don't like writing reviews that involve me disliking something that everyone else loves. Not that that's stopped me from writing such reviews repeatedly, but I get nervous every time I have to do it. It requires me to marshal my facts, and to be extremely conscious of my biases as a reader -- and even then, I usually wind up wondering if I've just missed the point.

As you've probably guessed by now, that brings me to The Pilot and the Little Prince, the newest book by Peter Sís. It's nominally a biography of the French aviator and author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, but I think my main failing as a reviewer is my insistence on reading it like a biography.

The book's layout is complicated and busy. The simple main text runs along the bottom of each page, with the vast majority of each leaf devoted to illustrations, timelines, maps, and further facts. The textual information in these larger sections is integrated into the pictures, and reading the words often requires rotating the book and carefully scanning the illustrations.

What this means is that reading The Pilot and the Little Prince like a traditional nonfiction book is almost impossible. There are no standard sidebars, no index, and no source notes. My ability to follow the text was constantly interrupted by my having to scrutinize the illustrations, and trying to go back and find a particular factoid was an exercise in frustration. "Presentation of Information!" I kept saying to myself. (Because yes, I'm the kind of person who recites the Newbery criteria in his private self-conversations.)

And yet, The Pilot and the Little Prince is getting excellent reviews, which I think can be ascribed to the greater willingness of many readers to appreciate it, not as a biography, but as a singular work of art. If you consider the book as an artistic tribute to Saint-Exupéry first, and as a biography a distant second, it starts to look a whole lot better. The detailed illustrations yield more and more surprises with each examination, and the whole thing comes across as a labor of deep, genuine love. If it didn't really "work" for me, that doesn't mean it wouldn't work for a reader more willing to spend that kind of time with it.

Does that make it a Newbery contender? I don't think so, no. It's too hard to separate the text from the illustrations, and I'm not sure the words are anywhere near as effective without the pictures in any case. I also don't think it's a good Sibert contender, especially given the complete lack of back matter. However, before you accept my opinion, I'd encourage you to look at The Pilot and the Little Prince for yourself.

Publication in May by Frances Foster Books / Farrar Straus Girous / Macmillan

1 comment:

  1. I absolutely don't see it as either a Newbery or Sibert contender for the reasons you state. I see it absolutely as a work of art and so a Caldecott contender. I think it does need to be experienced not necessarily in an linear way, but perhaps all over the place. (I've only got the F&G so am waiting for a finished copy to take a much closer look at it.)