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Showing posts with label Dial Books. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Dial Books. Show all posts


The Great Ball Game: A Muskogee Story (1994)

Retold by Jospeh Bruchac

Illustrated by Susan L. Roth

Cut paper

("Cut paper?" you ask. "Is that really the best description you can give for the interior artwork? You can't even tell us what kind of paper?" Okay fine. According to the book: The illustrations are rendered in collage using paper collected from all over the world: red umbrella paper from Thailand, a cranberry colored envelope from Tibet, a blue from Japan, a dark green from Italy, and many other places. Several kinds of paper were handmade, including the mottled white of the rabbit, made by Sheila Swan Laufer, and the gray of the squirrel, marbled by the artist. So there.)

Dial Books

This is a fun book which, for me, went in a surprising direction. What would you have supposed the story to be about, judging from the title and from the cover? A great ball game? Indeed, but that's only the backdrop to the more pertinent tale of how it is that bats are considered mammals and not birds.

This story has apparently been told in Native American tribes all over, but Bruchac writes in the introduction that this particular version is based on a story told to him by an Oklahoma Muskogee elder, Louis Littlecoon Oliver, who died a few years before this book was published. Here is the argument which is central, which type of animal is better? Those with teeth or those with wings? The argument rises in intensity throughout the animal kingdom, until finally Bear and Crane decide to settle things through a friendly little bout of lacrosse.

This is apparently how real conflicts were resolved, quarreling tribes, rather than going to war, would instead play the game. Would that out present-day international conflicts could be decided as easily. We already have the perfect platform for it - the Olympics! If there is ever need to encourage public interest in the Olympics, why not say that in addition to watching athletes compete, actual foreign policy will be decided and rests on the outcome?

Anyway, the lines are drawn and the game is about to commence, when suddenly Bat swoops down, trying to determine which side he belongs on, for he has both teeth and wings. Grudgingly, the toothy-animals accept him on their team.

The game then commences, and takes place over the course of a full day. I really like the way Susan Roth is able to imitate darkness settling in using only her cut paper collages. And lest you think that there is some larger moral emergent, as the animals realize that both teeth and wings are equally important, not so. The story ends with clear winners and clear losers, and the repercussions help to explain some puzzling present-day animal behavior.


John Henry (1994)

Retold by Julius Lester

Illustrated by Jerry Pinkney

Pencil, colored pencils and watercolor

Typography by Jane Byers Bierhorst

Dial Books

Another gorgeous book by Pinkney and written by the great Julius Lester, who took great pains to find a new way of telling this story. He writes in his introduction that he found a great resonance between the characters of John Henry and Martin Luther King, Jr. He's uncertain as to what the connection is, precisely, but doing this book helped him explore the issue.

Lester went through several old stories and songs and lifted ideas and stanzas to fill in the details of John Henry's life. We begin with a birth sequence reminiscent of another famous birth in a stable in Bethlehem. In fact, the very first image is that of a shooting star.

Pinkney is an obvious lover of animals, and he fills the opening sequence with moose, bears, birds, mountain critters and forest dwellers of all size and shape and variety - even a unicorn I just now noticed - who have come to the home of the Henry family as they welcome into the world their uncommonly strong baby boy, lifting his cradle above his head.

"You have probably never heard of John Henry. Or maybe you heard about him but don't know the ins and out of his comings and goings. Well, that's why I'm going to tell you about him."

John Henry as a child
John Henry as a child.
John Henry grows into an adolescent almost instantaneously, and is seen the very next day out chopping trees and piling up lumber. He "helped his papa rebuild the porch he had busted through, added a wing onto the house with an indoor swimming pool and one of them jacutzis (sic). After lunch he chopped down an acre of trees and split them into fireplace logs and still had time for a nap before supper."

The day after that, John challenges Ferret-Faced Freddy to a race: Freddy on horseback, John on foot. I'm sure you can guess who the winner is.

Its as though John doesn't know what to do with his strength, and becomes a trickster of a kind. It's not until he meets the road crew that he finds his calling. With his two twenty-pound sledgehammers with four-foot handles made of whale bone, he breaks through a boulder which remained untouched after a dynamite explosion. As he swings his mighty hammers, he sings out:

I got a rainbow
Tied round my shoulder
It ain't gon' rain,
No, it ain't gon' rain.

John Henry stell driving man
"Let's have a contest!"
There seem to be a thousand variations to the John Henry legend, in terms of these early adventures. However, the climax is always the same. The steam drill.

"It can hammer faster and harder than ten men and it never has to stop and rest!"

"Let's have a contest. Your steam drill against me and my hammers."

Pinkney shows John towering over the boss man, his hammer slung across his shoulders. All the other workers look on in intense curiosity and admiration. What wonderful detail Pinkney has paid to their clothing: The boss man's derby and checkered pants, John's red kerchief and black vest. He clearly spent a great deal of time considering their clothing options of the day, and everything about it comes across as absolutely authentic.

The next day, the contest begins. The narrative relies more on the illustrations here than the text. All day and all night, the steam drill and John Henry attempt to finish first. Finally, the contest is over. "The boss of the steam drill was flabbergasted. John Henry had come a mile and a quarter. The steam drill had only come a quarter."

The victory is short-lived, however, as anyone who has ever heard the song will know. John Henry had hammered so hard and so fast and so long that his big heart had burst.

"Some say he was buried on the White House lawn late one night while the President and the Mrs. President was asleep."

More picture books based on American Folktales!

Shooting star above the White House
An omen above the White House.

Woody Guthrie sings the ballad of John Henry, recorded in 1944.

Julius Lester (1939 - )

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