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Picture Books in the news
Illustrated by Karen Clarkson
Cinco Puntos Press
When Indian storytellers and writers get together, we often ask, "How much can we tell them?"
I'd love to be a fly on the wall at one of those get-togethers. It turns out, Tim Tingle has quite a bit to say in this book, put out by good ol' Cinco Puntos. The story goes to a lot of places. Beginning with a rousing bee sting on the bottom, feeding chickens and doing chores, to a stone thrown in anger and fear, a cut across the face, and a really beautiful image of Tim's grandmother as a young woman, holding her hands to her face with blood seeping between her fingers, her son's tiny hands reaching up with curiosity. It reminded him of sweet cherry pie filling, bubbling up from the criss-cross crust of Mawmaw's pies.
This is 'saltypie,' the taste of the blood, the sting of the bee. "It's a way of dealing with trouble, son. Sometimes you don't know where the trouble comes from. You just kinda shrug it off, say saltypie. It helps you carry on."
All of these stories come from Tim Tingle's familial recollections. He's working through these feelings of anger, hostility, which he had as a child, trying to understand why the universe wasn't fair.
The identity of the stone-thrower was never discovered, and it's interesting how it's not a central part of this story. It's just something that happened, and soon makes way for the story of Tim's grandmother recovering her sight decades later. "Maybe it was a stone of misunderstanding, thrown by a boy who simply didn't know," writes Tim. "...let us forgive him. Let us teach his grandchildren, so they will pocket their stones and extend a hand in friendship."
There's quite a bit going on in the afterward to the book, I found it to be as interesting, if not more interesting, than the story itself. In response to the question, "How much can we tell them?" he writes:
Can we tell them that the vast majority of children's books written about Indians in America were not written by Indians? Can we somehow convince them that this matters?
Illustrated by Christopher Cardinale
Cinco Puntos Press
Phew, this one is great, great, great. A great book and an important book. This is only the second Cinco Puntos Press book I've reviewed (the other being the amazing Crossing the Bok Chitto), and I am extremely impressed. They know what's up.
My wife bought me a Pete Seeger album a couple of years ago, containing two CDs. The first had all of Pete's kid's songs and stories - Abiyoyo and the Foolish Frog and the like. But the second disc was filled with old union and labor songs. I'm happy to say, my 5-year old son Arlo took to the union songs just as well as the others, especially the rousing, "Solidarity Forever!"
It was written by Florence Reece in 1931, the wife of a coal miner and the mother of seven, and this story is told in the voice of one of those seven children, talking about her pa working in the mines, blasting and loading coal, putting food on the table, how they live in a coal company house on coal company land, and how their Pa gets paid in money that can only be redeemed at the coal company store.
"He says the company owns us sure as sunrise. That's why we've got to have a union. Pa says if miners get together and say what they want and refuse to dig coal till they get it our lives will get better," she tells us, adding, "They ain't better yet."
From there, the book takes a startling turn. Without explanation, the next page finds the children peeking out from under their bed while their mom hides behind a beam. Their pa is a union organizer and the thugs are after him. Should they call the sheriff? No. The sheriff is the man who hired the thugs in the first place. The book even calls him by name: Sheriff Blair, as does the song:
"When the thugs finally quit shooting and we crawl out of hiding, we're sore and hungry, and our house is busted up, but Ma has written us a song."
I felt pretty swept up in the telling, but the author's note brought me down a bit, as she writes that there are "many accounts of how Florence Reece wrote the song and they won't all agree."
This version, however, comes only twice removed. A woman named Bev Futrell heard this version from Reece herself at her 85th birthday celebration. The story changes and grows, the song changes and grows. Verses have been added to the original song to reflect struggles through the years.
Illustrated by Jeanne Rorex Bridges
Cinco Puntos Press
There is a river called Bok Chitto that cuts through Mississippi. In the days before the War Between the States, in the days before the Trail of Tears, Bok Chitto was a boundary. On one side of the river lived the Choctaws, a nation of Indian people. On the other side lived the plantation owners and their slaves. If a slave escaped and made his way across Bok Chitto, the slave was free. The slave owner could not follow. That was the law.
This opening paragraph sets up the time period, the environment and the tone of this tale. This is a downbeat, yet elegant story and quite a contrast to Tingle's previous book which I had just discussed, When Turtle Grew Feathers. There's no jaunty talking animals this time, though there is a fantasy-device running through the narrative, the ability for African Americans to render themselves invisible.
That's the father of Little Mo, giving his son advice on sneaking past the white plantation owners in order to help a young Choctaw girl named Martha Tom back across the river. This is a story about their friendship, and takes place over several years, as the two grow and age within their respective cultures, separated by the Bok Chitto.
|Maybe the white people tell it best. They talk about the night their|
forefathers witnessed seven black spirits, walking on the water
- to their freedom!
Jeanne Bridges' art is wonderful. We begin very naturally, very downbeat, figures cast very plainly, but with just a subtle variation in tone, and the artwork takes on mystical tones. The Choctaw women, dressed in long white robes, holding candles out before them under the full moon, seemingly gliding across the surface of the river. "When they reached the Choctaw side of the river, they blew the candles out and disappeared into the fog, never to be seen on the slave side again." I felt it, I felt all the mystery and the beauty and the elegant mysticism of it.