What's that coming through the water? Struck by the sun and reflections off the waves - what part of it is wake and what part ship? Which direction is it headed? Dazzle camouflage - the stripey, blocky, high-contrast brightly colored patterns designed to disrupt the visual processing of submarine crews - is one of the most improbable developments in the history of naval warfare. I mean, just look at this stuff:
Naturally, it caught the eye of author Chris Barton, about whom more later. But since we're talking about perception, let's appreciate this book from first impression to last, and what you'll probably notice first about this book is THIS ILLUSTRATOR. Sophisticated wavy lines weave and undulate like ribbons across the page, mimicking light on water, cloud shadows, wood grain, and billowing smoke. Colors have the startling power of a red sunset, a turquoise sky, but are never ever jarring.
Then the story kicks in, and you may be blown away by the audacity of dazzle as an innovation. Instead of painting these ships with camouflage that duplicates natural colors and patterns, dazzle ships were high-contrast and largely geometric. Like giant floating carousel horses painted by Mondrian. Avant-garde drag queens of the sea. Warfare as imagined by Man Ray. And it's only after you've been distracted and dizzied by the art (which, don't let me out of here without performing some kind of obesiance to Victo Ngai - this is her first picture book but her editorial, product, cover, and advertising work demonstrates a breathtaking breadth of skill. I'm thinking of getting a new tattoo) and charmed by the improbable story of dazzle's inspiration and execution that you notice the confident and subtly playful writing.
So this is our Texas pal Chris Barton, whose zeal for primary research has brought us such original nonfiction as The Day-Glo Brothers and the award-winning Whoosh! Lonnie Johnson's Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions. Usually, children's nonfiction builds on or is inspired by nonfiction written for adults. Not here. If you wanted to write a paper about the invention of Day-Glo colors, Chris's book would be one of your best sources.
One thing you'll notice in truly true stories - and kids DEFINITELY notice this - is that they don't always follow the expected path. Chris is adept at riding the twists and turns of real stories rather than trying to force them into a happy-ending shape. When he encountered inconclusive evidence as to whether dazzle actually worked, it thwarted his ability to end the book on a predictable high note. "I admit that I was initially flummoxed when I realized that 'AND DAZZLE SHIPS WON THE WAR!!!' wasn't going to fly for the conclusion," he told me. Instead, in a passage that echoes the contradictory, mysterious nature of dazzle, he leaves it open-ended. Did dazzle make a difference? Maybe? But the sailors riding these giant floating cans across vast oceans, exposed to the sky and vulnerable to attack from below, must have been comforted by the effort that was taken to hide them in plain sight. It may have been handwavium, but by god it was EMPHATIC handwavium. Why would they do this weird thing if it doesn't work?
Dazzle Ships is a rare and perfect example of a nonfiction picture book that informs and entertains and beguiles and enchants. Every facet of it reflects the audacious sleight-of-hand that characterized dazzle camouflage itself.
Coming August 1 from Millbrook Press.