The Picture Book Art of Isol

Photo: Stefan Tell

Photo: Stefan Tell

Journalist Leonard S. Marcus writes about Isol in the latest edition of the American The Horn Book Magazine:

The Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award in children’s and young adult literature was presented this year to a writer/illustrator whose work is just becoming known in the United States, the Argentinian picture book artist Marisol Misenta, or Isol.

The Lindgren prize, or ALMA, was established in 2002 to honor the memory of the author of Pippi Longstocking and recognize the achievements of writers, illustrators, and others working in her spirit on behalf of children. Funded by the Swedish government, ALMA is administered by the Swedish Arts Council, which appoints a standing committee of twelve jurors to choose winners from a roster of nominees submitted by some four hundred accredited organizations from around the world. With a cash purse worth close to one million dollars, ALMA inevitably prompts comparisons to the Nobel Prize in Literature (notwithstanding the Hans Christian Andersen Award’s prior claim to being the juvenile book world’s counterpart to that loftiest of honors). According to Larry Lempert, director of Stockholm’s International Library and chair of the ALMA selection committee, “In Sweden, many people wonder why Astrid Lindgren did not win the Nobel Prize.” Memorializing Lindgren in such grand style by naming an award after her has perhaps proven to be the next best thing.

Two of the children’s book world’s iconic figures, Maurice Sendak and Austrian writer Christine Nöstlinger, shared the inaugural 2003 award. Subsequent laureates have included artists and writers from four continents, some of whom (Katherine Paterson, Philip Pullman, Shaun Tan) were already household names to American readers, while others (the Brazilian fiction writer Lygia Bojunga, for instance) were not. ALMA jurors have twice given their nod to institutions rather than individuals, awarding the 2007 prize to the Venezuelan literacy organization Banco del Libro and the 2009 ALMA to the Tamer Institute for Community Education in Ramallah, Palestine.

Isol, who was born in 1972 in Buenos Aires, is the illustrator of over twenty-five books, eleven of which she also wrote. She has worked as a commercial artist and editorial cartoonist and maintains a flourishing second career as a singer and recording artist of both pop and classical music. Her picture books have been published in twenty countries. At present, five are available in English, all from Canada’s Groundwood Books. She is the first ALMA winner not to have had any books in print in Swedish at the time of the announcement this past March, though by the day of the award ceremony two months later, that situation had been rectified.

The two most celebrated Argentinian writers of the twentieth century — Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar — share with Isol what the artist, in a conversation I had with her in Stockholm this May, spoke of as an Argentinian obsession with the role of chance in every aspect of life. Borges’s great short story “The Library of Babel” envisions a universe stocked with books generated from every possible letter and word combination — wisdom and nonsense shelved side-by-side in no discernible order. Cortázar’s best-known novel, Hopscotch, unfolds along multiple narrative pathways from which readers are free to choose, each one leading to a different ending. For Isol, childhood is itself just such a labyrinth. In her open-ended, slyly playful picture books, she presents young readers with a distilled version of the chaos they confront daily, the better to prepare them to live in a world largely woven from riddles.

Full interview available here.

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