June 7, 2010
I first saw the art of Nicoletta Ceccoli in a book given to my older son when he was about three, a tale of what cats do at night called Oscar and the Mooncats, by Lynda Gene Rymond. The story was cute and spot-on for both the age group and Dash in particular (who loves cats), but what struck me immediately was the illustrations: gorgeously textured, slightly surreal paintings whose human and animal faces all had a particular stylized roundness. Ceccoli’s fingerprint was one I knew I’d always recognize.
I kept an eye out for more work by Ceccoli in the American market. (In the meantime, I learned she’s long been well regarded in her native Italy, having won the Anderson Prize there as best illustrator of the year in 2001.) Last year, I ran across How Robin Saved Spring, by Debbie Ouellet, an old-fashioned fable about various animals’ attempts to awaken Sister Spring and prevent Lady Winter from maintaining eternal frost. The story is lovely, but the art again takes it even further; once you’ve read it, you really can’t imagine it being accompanied by anyone else’s illustrations.
Then last month, I got my hands on Ceccoli’s latest work, A Dignity of Dragons: Collective Nouns for Magical Beasts, by Jacqueline K. Ogburn, a list book for early-graders inspired by the question “What do you call a group of unicorns?” Ogburn decided to come up with answers not just for that particular mythological creature, but for a bookful of them from around the world: a grapple of griffins, a flurry of yetis, etc. (It ends with a glossary explaining the background on each.) Every spread features a few of the creatures, grouped by habitat (yetis, abominable snowmen, and Bigfoots get one to themselves) or by region of origin (there’s a Greek page for centaurs, fauns, and minotaurs).
Again, it’s a cute idea for a short picture book—but one that relies heavily, even more than most picture books, on the art. But loosing this master illustrator on creatures of legend is one of those obvious ideas that turned out even better than expected. Untethered to the limits of a narrative, Ceccoli is free to let her imagination run loose, and the stunning results, like all her work, have a look all their own—like stills from a stop-motion animated film by Botticelli. Her human (or, here, partly human) figures have a pensive expressiveness right out of early Renaissance art, and as you study each image you notice that it’s presenting a little diorama. (The helmeted figure—presumably Oedipus outside Thebes—regarding the skeletons at the feet of a sphinx as he prepares to hear her riddle has a particularly wonderful raised eyebrow.) In essence, Ceccoli bestows her own subtle storytelling on a picture book whose inherent structure is without any—which means kids can lose themselves in these images for extended periods, as my five-year-old certainly has. (Click on the image below for a close-up look.)
Even at a more macro level, the art speaks for itself. Open to any page and you’ll see something I don’t think any other children’s-book illustrator could accomplish in the same way. She’s shown in just the three books I’ve read that she can take a good picture-book concept and elevate it to the greatest heights. What higher praise is there for someone in this line of work?
While I await Ceccoli’s next picture book for the U.S. market, I think I’m going to start trying to dig up some of her Italian work.
[Photos: Whitney Webster]