Shackleton’s Journey, a visual masterpiece

I was very excited this week at work.

A very generous parent of one of last year’s school leavers donated £100 to the school library for us to buy new books and they arrived on Monday.

We’re concentrating on boosting good quality non-fiction at present and one book I’ve had my eye on for a long time was Shackleton’s Journey, by William Grill.

Unsurprisingly, this won the 2015 CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal for children’s illustration and William Grill – at a tender 25 years old – became the youngest winner in 25 years.

This has been called a picture book because it’s aimed at children and tells a story in a mixture of words and pictures. But, oh… this is so much more. It’s heaven to the senses – visually, it’s a treat, and the thick paper gives a solidity to the story (I know that sounds odd but I can’t think of any other way to phrase it).

The Daily Telegraph said that this book “may herald a shift in values at the heart of children’s publishing. For a long time it has been thought that publishers serve fiction well, while non-fiction has been dominated by glossy reference books. But we are currently seeing a boom in beautifully illustrated narrative non-fiction” (click here to read more). This is certainly the case, as seen by Jenny Broom’s Animalium and Aleksandra Mizielinska and Daniel Mizielinski’s Maps and a trip to the bookshop will show plenty of new titles, beautifully illustrated and presented, that wouldn’t look out of place on a coffee table. It did make me wonder who they were aimed at, initially at least – parents or children?  

That said, Shackleton’s Journey met every need I have in a non-fiction book. I found it fascinating to discover that William Grill is dyslexic and that his interest in narrative non-fiction stems from this condition. He told the Telegraph that: “Me being such a bad reader shaped the look of the book: I had to draw everything out and explain it through pictures, to make it as clear as I could.” I learn better visually – a strange fact for a writer and editor and reader! – and this book balances pictures and words so well. And the information it includes is all relevant and digestible. I came away from reading it feeling like I had been on that expedition (complete with a nasty cold – but I cannot blame the book for that!).

I loved the little details such as the 99 dogs (why not 100?) that were sent from Canada and the 69 (why not 70?) that were eventually selected to be taken on the journey. Each were individual drawn and named in the book:

And the vast expanse of ice (and danger) that the men faced when heading into the Weddell Sea is brilliantly captured in this illustration and its amazing perspective:

Would you want to sail into this? (Spot the boat in the bottom left corner.)

I was blown away by the ominous and Gothic beauty in this illustration, which sends shivers into me at the sense of utter isolation Shackleton and his men faced:

In terms of readership, children in the littler age range (say, 3-6 years) might not benefit as much from this as those aged 7+. In fact, the older you are, arguably, the more you can get from this as its strengths are multi-layered. The text gives you the basic info you need on the journey, on Shackleton, and on his men. Yet the pictures (such as the one above) convey more than a factual, more-encyclopaedic book would. Yes, we all know that any journey such as Shackleton’s involves danger, probably life-threatening at times, yet being told it somehow weakens the reality. Grill’s illustrations impart the cold beauty of the expedition, and the fierce reality of man versus nature, as seen in this spread, where Shackleton and two crew members cross South Georgia to seek help:

I loved this book. I will be buying a copy for my home library as it’s not just a book but a work of art. Not just non-fiction but a tapestry of courage, adventure, hardship and success despite the odds.

Please do read this book. I cannot recommend it highly enough.



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