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- Jose Lucio, self-published author of Heave Ho!
Showing posts with label Illustrated Revolution. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Illustrated Revolution. Show all posts


The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage (2015)

Written by Selina Alko

Illustrated by Sean Qualls and Selina Alko

Typeset in Adobe Garamond Bold Pro

Mixed media: paint (gouache and acrylic), collage and colored pencil on bristol board

Arthur A. Levine Books

First comes love, then comes marriage...

This book is a retelling of the true story of Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter, a Virginian couple who first met in 1958. Specifically, they lived in Central Point, Virginia, "where people every shade from the color of chamomile tea to summer midnight made their homes." Richard was white. Mildred was black.

I was aware of Loving Day, celebrated on June 12th, but did not know the specifics of the case, or the personalities of the people involved. I't s a pretty crazy intense story. When they were not allowed to get married in Virginia, they went to D.C. to exchange their vows. They then return to their home to begin their life together, but one night, the police raid their home. The actually raided their home!

"What are you doing with that woman?"

Richard proudly pointed to their marriage certificate hanging on the wall.

"That's not good here!"

Unlawful Cohabitation is the crime thy're charged with, large words, and I like how Selina draws them out, brings them from out of the text, and into the illustrations.

They served jail time - jail time! - and told if they wanted to live together, they'd have to leave Virginia.

From their, fast-forward to 1967 - a time of changing social politics - and the Loving Case comes before the Supreme Court.

"Purity of the white race!" seems to be the strongest argument against them. Nonetheless, the case was won, their marriage was legalized, and today all interracial couples in a state of cohabitation owe them a debt of gratitude, and owe it to themselves to learn their story.

On the day that I first wrote these words, Kim Davis was found guilty of contempt of court and sentenced to prison. I realize sexuality and race are not one-to-one direct analogues, but I can't help but feel echoes of it whenever the topic of interracial marriage comes up.

I wasn't alone in this. In her Author's Note, Selina Alko writes, "Today every state legalizes interracial marriage, bit the fight form equality continues. When I first wrote this manuscript in 2011, only five states legalized same-sex marriage. As of today in early 2014, there are 17 states wherein gay marriage is legal.

"It is our hope that there will soon come a time when all people who love each other have the same rights as Sean and I have."

The Sean she refers to is Sean Qualls, the co-illustrator. They are also a married couple, and are an interracial one at that.

About the artwork, she writes, "We both use paint and collage, which gave us a foundation for blending our styles together. But where Sean tends to be more introspective and emotional (taking his time to create subtle layers of color and texture), I am more spontaneous and burst forth with bold color. Just like a marriage in the joining of two people, the illustrations for this book cold not be achieved individually."


The Negro Speaks of Rivers (2009)

Written by Langston Hughes

Illustrated by E.B. Lewis

Text set in Esta


Disney Jump at the Sun Books

Picture book writing sometimes seems like an exercise in brevity. Perfectly suited, in that case, for this illumination of Langston Hughes' powerful poem.

I sometimes think I have trouble appreciating poetry, maybe because I read through it too quickly, looking for an emergent narrative instead of slowing down to mull over every word choice and phrasing.

I had no such trouble with this book. I'm sure I've read The Negro Speaks of Rivers a hundred times, but I can honestly say that it never struck me as much as it did with this volume.

E.B. Lewis is a true artists. His watercolors evoke other times and places, but at the same time support a continuity, one generation flowing into another.

I looked upon the Nile and raised pyramids above it
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down from New Orleans

Those two lines, juxtaposed may seem jarring, but here they appear seamless, a reminder that everything is connected.

I noted that the river water was never the same in any two images. In some it is muddy, then green, then deep blue, then the golden hue which graces the cover.

In his Illustrator's Note, Lewis writes:

Water has played a powerful role in the lives of black people. It has been the boon and bane of our existence. We have been born out of water, baptized by water, carried by, and even killed by water. After nearly drowning as a child, I have grown to acknowledge and respect this awesome element. I still feel drawn to it - in fact, it's what I most enjoy painting. In many ways, my life is like this poem: water almost ended my life; but now, through my watercolors, it has cultivated the spring of it. 


New Baby Train (2004)

Written by Woody Guthrie

Illustrated by Marla Frazee

Gouache on French recycled Speckletone

Text set in Opti Powell Old Style

Little, Brown and Company

I love it when interests intersect, but with a medium as wide-ranging and far-reaching as picture books, I shouldn't be at all surprised when they do. Case in point: Woody Guthrie, whom I righteously love, and is one of those artists who seemingly just keeps giving, not even letting something as shitty as death get in the way.

New Baby Train was only recorded for the first time in 1999 by Kim Wilson on the album Daddy O Daddy, and then, five years after that, given the illustrative treatment by Ms. Frazee.

This book was our first experience of Marla Frazee, but we've always looked for her books since. She seems like she really gets it. The book jacket tells that she "visited train museums, studied photographs of the Dust Bowl, and listened to a lot of Woody's music while working on this book."

It really shows. I feel that every page is filled with comical body language and fun movement, but is also filled with wonderful details.... the oversized hand-me-downs on the barefoot children, the epic swaths of empty, dusty plains, the great twisting, geometric steel of the locomotive. Lots of texture. I can feel everything with just my eyes, feel the granular dust between my teeth.

If the setting for a Woody Guthrie song is desolate, the language is anything but, and this is no exception. It's tempting to just write out the whole thing, as it's hard to stop once you start.

You know, a lot of people ask me
I bet you'd like to know,
How do brand-new babies
get into the house?

The flowers bring some.
the trees bring some,
the birds bring some,
the cars bring some,
and everything else brings some.
I guess maybe the trains bring some.

And so the story-song begins, and so it goes, following our pint-sized Guthrie stand-in as he infiltrates said Baby Train to observe first-hand this extraordinary engine and report back. The babies are all wearin' their diapers, got their makeshift hobo sticks in hand.

All the little babies are lookin out the windows
wonderin' which house they're
gonna get off at, you know?

It occurs to me now that the whole thing kind of reads like a folksy antithesis to The Polar Express. Regardless, my beautiful wife bought this book when my son - Arlo - was just a few years old, and it has served as a great way to introduce him to the world of Woody Guthrie.


Heather Has Two Mommies (2015)

Written by LesleĆ” Newman

Illustrated by Laura Cornell

Watercolor and gouache

Typeset in Godlike (seriously, the typeset is called Godlike)

Candlewick Press

25 is a magic number, it seems. Nietzsche was right on the money with his theory of eternal recurrence. In television, David Lynch and Mark Frost have recently announced that Twin Peaks will be returning after a 25-year hiatus. In comics, Berkeley Breathed has just returned to the world of Bloom County, in time for its 25th anniversary. And now, speaking of silver anniversaries,
Candlewick Press has republished LesleĆ” Newman's groundbreaking picture book, Heather Has Two Mommies.

It was originally published in 1989 by Alyson Books, which specializes in LGBTQ books - and also published Dykes to Watch Out For by the great Alison Bechdel and many, many others. They've been on the frontlines since 1980. In gay-equality years, that makes them over 300 years old! Wow!

"Heather's favorite number is two."

I'm not sure what the whole behind-the-scenes story is, but from my point of view, this reissue seems like a metaphor in of itself for mainstream acceptance of same-sex parents. I mean, Candlewick Press? They publish books like Cutie Pie Looks for the Easter Bunny and Guinea Pig Party. No, I don't mean to pick on them, I know they publish lots of great picture books. Scanning through their online catalog, I see books about racism and civil rights and other important topics. But my point is, they're pretty darn mainstream.

All of the illustrations have a nice lived-in look. Lots of texture... lots of stuff!

Laura Cornell's illustrations are bright and colorful, full of fun details. 'Deceptively simple' is a phrase I probably use too much, but it sure counts here. Heather's house is far from neat and tidy... every page is filled things laying around. Character's clothes change from picture to picture to show the passage of days. The park is filled with families engaged in various activities, and even in the classroom scenes, all of the nameless children have their own personalities.

Heather and her two moms don't exist in a vacuum. They are a part of the busy, fun, chaotic world around them and they clearly fit right in.

I hope there will always be a place for Alyson Books, for publishers daring enough to keep pushing at the culture and taking chances with emerging artists, but I'm also grateful for Candlewick Press for putting this book in the hands of a new generation of children - children who would probably find it funny that something so sweet was at one time one of the most controversial picture books ever written.

This is the last page of the book, and I just realized right now, as I'm writing this,
that this is the same picture as the book cover, but from behind! Scroll up and see
for yourself! Pretty cool!


The Araboolies of Liberty Street (1989)

Written by Sam Swope

Illustrated by Barry Root

Thanks so much to Cynthia McDermott, Professor at Antioch University in Los Angeles, for providing this review! I was not familiar with this book before she contacted me, but I'm glad that has been corrected!

Only General Pinch would have the nerve to stop every child from having any fun in the neighborhood. Always on guard at his window, he uses his bullhorn to stop whatever he does not like, all the while threatening to “call in the Army.”

"I'll call in the army!"
His world changes when the Araboolies move in next door. They have strange animals who live in the house, they have a huge bed that the entire multicolored family sleeps in outside and they play and laugh. Unfortunately for General Pinch and his wife, the Araboolies do not speak English (actually we do not know what they speak).


Separate is Never Equal (2014)

Written and Illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh

"My hope is that this book will help children and young people learn about this important yet little known event in American history," writes Duncan in the afterword. "I also hope that they will see themselves reflected in Sylvia's story and realise that their voices are valuable and that they too can make meaningful contributions to this country."

This true story – subtitled "Sylvia Mendez & Her Family's Fight for Desegregation" – takes place in the town of Westminster, California in the 1940's, though it's significance is lasting and growing – from a recent commemorative stamp celebrating the civil rights victory, to Sylvia Mendez being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama in 2011. And, most pertinently, that great barometer of social consciousness – a picture book.

I've read one other book by Duncan, which I haven't yet reviewed here, and he has a very distinctive style. There's no mistaking one of his books. The characters are flat and appear only at full profile, lips identically pursed, fingers extended, figure-eights for ears. He is nonetheless able to eke quite a bit of expression from those faces. I think my favorite were the children eating their sandwiches in the grounds of Hoover Elementary – "the Mexican school" – each with a halo of five flies above their heads.  Behind them is the school building, the electric fence ("…if you touched it, you received a shock!") and two cows with full udders.

The story concerns the efforts of Sylvia's father – Gonzalo Mendez – to ensure his children receive the best possible education for his children. When enrolling in the public school system, he is told that Sylvia's cousins – who have light skin and long auburn hair and a Mexican father of French descent – are to attend the white school. Sylvia, though she was born in America, is told she must attend the Mexican school, based only on the color of her skin.

The trial sequence is especially well wrought, though maddening when I discovered that the absurd banter between the superintendent and the lawyer was based on actual transcripts of the case.

"How many of the two hundred ninety-two children at the Mexican school are inferior to whites in personal hygiene?

"At least seventy-five percent."

"In what other aspects are they inferior?"

The book does not treat the desegregation as a final victory. Indeed, the story begins with Sylvia – now attending the desegregated school – having a hard time adjusting to the children telling her she should go back to the Mexican school.

"I don't want to go to that school anymore. The kids are mean."

"No sabes que por eso luchamos? Don't you know that is why we fought?"

"According to a 2012 study by the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angles, across the United States segregation has increased significantly in  recent years," Duncan continues in his afterword. "It reported that 43 percent of Latino students and 38 percent of black students attend schools where fewer than 10 percent of their classmates are white."

Sylvia Mendez, then and now.


Forever Young (2008)

By Bob Dylan

Illustrated by Paul Rogers

Text set in Clarendon

Ink, acrylic, and Adobe Illustrator

Atheneum Books for Young Readers

I am very pleased to say that my son liked this one very much. I wasn't sure, since it seemed on first glance like it would have more appeal for older Dylan enthusiasts and completists. I like the song, "Forever Young," of course, but its not one of my favorite Dylan songs, probably not in my top 10... or even top 20. I like songs best that tell a story, or at least suggest a story, and for a story-lover, Bob Dylan is a treasure trove. "Forever Young," however, has always seemed to me more of a series of platitudes and well-wishes.

May God bless and keep you always
May your wishes all come true
May you always do for others
And let others do for you

May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung
May you stay forever young

It does not evoke within me a sense of place or time or character. So it's to Paul Rogers' credit that he was able to infuse the song with just these elements and create a story through his illustrations. Beginning with a wide-eyed youth gazing at Woody Guthrie sitting outside of Gerde's Folk City, "This Machine Kills Fascists" emblazoned on his guitar case, it follows him through adolecense, through Greenwich Village, the shows, festivals, the protests. Along the way, the backgrounds are littered with the likes of Joan Baez, Allen Ginsberg, Pete Seeger, John Lennon, all those greats, and references to Dylan songs.

The illustrator's notes at the end give away most of the references, which may seem like cheating, but Arlo really enjoyed going back through the book afterward to see if he could pick out the hidden emblems. "Get some Dylan albums," he writes, "sit down, listen to the lyrics, look at the book, and see what you can find."


Roland Humphrey is Wearing a WHAT? (2012)

Written by Eileen Kiernan-Johnson

Illustrated by Katrina Revenaugh

Cut paper

Huntley Rahara Press

I was happy to receive a complimentary copy of this book in the mail the other day, and I found it to be a fun little tale, lively written, and pretty cool cut paper illustrations which really bound with joy on every page.

It is the story about a boy who wears dresses - and tiaras, and sparkly butterflies - and his parents who try to encourage him, and these fiendish girls who constantly rag him about it. "Your sparkles are really starting to annoy. When you wear clothes for girls, how do we know you're a boy?"

It seemed to me clearly to be a book written for families dealing with this very issue themselves, and how to handle it, so that they know they are not alone. Though I thought the prose bounced along cleverly enough that I could see it having more widespread appeal, such as:

If girls can wear boy clothes, why not the reverse?
Do colors have meaning? Is purple inherently perverse?

All the colors are brought out and disected, some are boyish, some are girlish, the proper things that boys should be interested in and not interested in are listed in detail. The further and further it went, the less it seemed to me to be about one particular boy who just happens to like pretty, pretty things, but a good rumination in general on why it is that such things are so divided by gender. As the parent of a non-cross-dressing boy who loves trucks and fashions anythig into a gun, these issues do come up regardless.

Not surprisingly, the book was written about the author's own son. Looking her up, I found her blog which I felt was pretty interesting, and goes into more detail and emotional honesty than the upbeat ending of the book delivers: "We like you for you, whatever you wear."

After her son had decided that he wanted to start wearing boy clothes because of the comments of some of his classmates, Kiernan-Johnson writes: "I suppose it was inevitable that the weight of peer pressure would reach him at some point. I just imagined that it would be further down the road, that we’d have more time to inhabit our happy little bubble of authenticity, that he could obliviously be who he is without the burden of arbitrary societal dictates intruding on that.  It isn’t that I want my son to waltz through life in a ballgown; it is that I don’t want the world to crush his spirit and stamp out his unique way of being. I don’t want it to burst his bubble."

I don't think she has to worry about the world crushing his spirits just yet (that doesn't happen until you start working), but it did make going back reading the joyful exuberance of "Roland Humphrey" a bit bittersweet, and for me, more meaningful. 


And Tango Makes Three (2005)

Illustrated by Henry Cole


Text set in Garamond

It was mating season at the Penguin habitat in the New York Central Zoo, love was in the air. Penguins began pairing off, including two especially loving, sweet penguins named Roy and Silo.

Yes, they were both dudes, but that’s not the controversial part.

When the other happy penguin couples found themselves in a family way and began spending their days and nights keeping their eggs warm, Roy and Silo – not to be outdone – found an egg-shaped rock upon which to sit. They took turns sitting on that lifeless rock, determined to keep it warm and safe. In their own way, they loved that little rock.

Then, in a fateful moment of inspiration – in an action which would have profound consequences throughout public schools and libraries the country over and serve as a lightning rod for free speech and civil rights issues – a clever zookeeper got the swell idea to substitute that egg-like rock for the real deal.

One day, the egg hatched, and a baby penguin pup was born. His name was Tango.

And Tango Makes Three was published in 2005, written by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell. It is the true account of the birth of Tango, and of the attempts made by Roy and Silo to raise the young penguin pup as their own, and of the acceptance this unlikely family finds in the zoo. It is an incredibly sweet story.

The first I’d heard of the book was thanks to my good friends at Wolfgang Books. Distinctly do I remember that Saturday morning, browsing about their second floor bookshop in Phoenixville, Pa, with Arlo and a cup of coffee, when I saw the display table of banned and challenged books which they had set up in honor of Banned Books Week.

Just the words, “Banned Books” hold a certain, sexy allure. On the table were the usual suspects: Huckleberry Finn, The Giver, Animal Farm, all wonderful titles which I’d of course read and loved. But there was one book which did not initially seem to belong, and it was that book to which I immediately gravitated.

There is absolutely nothing about the look of And Tango Makes Three which hints at anything approaching even slightly controversial content. The cover depicts two gender-neutral looking penguins cuddling with their tiny pup, looking about as snug as a bug in a rug as penguinly possible.  There is a golden sticker in the left hand corner showing that this book is a winner for the ASPCA Henry Bergh Children’s Book Award. On the back are glowing quotes from the likes of Maurice Sendak and John Lithgow. If it had been in any other section of the bookstore, I would have most likely barely given it a second glance, though – as I said – there is a certain undeniable allure to the banned book which I am powerless to resist.

Ten minutes later, I bought it, and was thus able to support not only gay rights, but also free speech and my local independent bookshop all with the same purchase.

Later that afternoon, with Arlo cuddled next to me on the couch at our home, I read it aloud.
“Every year at the very same time, the girl penguins start noticing the boy penguins,” I began. “And they boy penguins start noticing the girls…”
Arlo listened, enjoying the playful illustrations of Henry Cole very much, as the penguins swim together, walk together, sing together... They’re not exactly 100% anthropomorphic. I can tell Cole spent a long time studying actual penguins in order to get their look and their body language just right, but he does give them very expressive eyes and half-crescent eyebrows, a slight upturn of a smile superimposed upon their beaks. He does a great job of being simultaneously realistic and fanciful.

As the story moves towards its resolution, there is a loud CRAAAACK! after which which baby Tango emerges from his egg, to the delight of both Roy and Silo, and to the delight of all the schoolchildren who would come to the zoo forever after and celebrate the penguin family.

“At night the three penguins returned to their nest,” the book concludes. “There they snuggled together and, like all the other penguins in the penguin house, and all the other animals in the zoo, and all the families in the big city around them, they went to sleep.”

I shut the book and set it down.

Arlo silently absorbed what he’d just heard.

“So, what did you think?” I prodded. “Did you like it?”

“Yes,” he said cautiously. He had a bit of a disturbed look on his face. “Except, I didn’t like the part where there was no momma.”

“Oh.” I frowned. “Well… suppose it had been about two moms and there was no daddy? What would you think of it, then?”

In a moment, Arlo’s eyes twinkled, a wide grin spread across his entire face and he exclaimed, “Yeah! That would be great!”


Unspoken (2012)

Illustrated by Henry Cole

Canson charcoal paper with Staedtler Mars 4B pencils

Adobe Garamond Pro Regular

Scholastic Press

This is a startlingly beautiful work. I can't quote any of it, because, as promised by the title, all is unspoken. The narrative relies only on the artwork to carry it along. The temptation is to flip through it quickly, but there is too much texture on each page. There's hardly any white space, practically every square centimeter is filled, even the cloudless sky, let alone the plentiful wood, brick and earth.

It seemed to me this book was as much about the setting and the environment as it was with the story. The first several pages consist of the young girl's life on the farm. Watching soldiers marching by, feeding the chickens, hanging quilts. I got a real sense of the passage of time, and the entirety of this young girl's existence.

When the story comes into play, it is with subtlety and mystery.

Do you see the eye in the corn?

That eye is all that is ever seen. Unspoken, indeed. There are layers of invisibility, just as the young girl herself, is practically invisible to the soldiers and bounty hunters come to her parent's home.

"Because I made only the pictures," writes Cole, "I'm hoping you will write the words and make this story your own."


Which Side Are You On? (2011)

Retold by George Ella Lyon

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!"

One of the songs on the album was, of course, "Which Side Are You On?" and though I had no idea of the story behind the song, the tempo always strikes me when I listen to it. Most of are upbeat and filled with pride. They had to be. This one, however, feels mournful to me, creeping with dread.

"Come all you poor workers, good news to you I'll tell, of how the good old union has come in here to dwell."

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:

"If you go to Harlan County, there is no neutral there. You will either be a union man, or a thug for J.H. Blair."

Suddenly, a bullet zips through the wall, just as their mom yells out, "Any of you youngins got a pencil?" and so the song comes to be written.

"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.

Here's the woman herself singing it.

And here's the group Rebel Diaz singing a version of it.

Please listen to both of these versions, in their entirety, one following the other, for an out-of-body experience.


Crossing Bok Chitto (2006)

Written by Tim Tingle

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.

"Son, son, it's about time you learned. There is a way to move amongst them where they won't even notice you. You move not too fast, not too slow, eyes to the ground, away you go!"

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!
It struck me how I am used to reading stories of Native American befriending the whites, and stories of black slaves befriending the whites, and on and on with so-called "unlikely" friendships between a minority and a white. In this story, however, the whites are always the other, and are never humanized. They represent a common adversary for the Choctaw and the black slaves.

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.

Really beautiful book trailer made by a fan


I Want to be Free (2009)

Written by Joseph Slate

Illustrated by E.B. Lewis


Text set in ITC Cushing

G.P. Putnam's Sons

"This poem is a retelling of a story in the sacred literature of Buddha about his disciples, the Elephant Ananda, as related by Rudyard Kipling in his novel, Kim," writes Joseph Slate, though you'd hardly guess it from a glance. The setting is very far removed from the world of Kipling. This is a story of African slaves fleeing their plantation and escaping to freedom along the underground railroad.

For complete authenticity, the illustrator, E.B. Lewis, made the journey from Kentucky across the Ohio river. "I imagined the dark nights when lives quietly swept across to the other side," he writes. "I toured the Rankin House in Ripley, OH, for the first time and stood still for a while to reflect on the risky and humane actions that helped free slaves during those times."

That is not to suggest that everything about this book is based on fact. There are several more fantastical moments, beginning with the very first page.

Before I die, I want to be free.
But the Big Man says, "You belong to me."

And then we see the Big Man, rising before the young slaves like a specter, his face covered in shadow from his wide-brimmed hat. His enormity is exaggerated. Looking at him is like looking at an unscalable mountain.

But its a mountain the narrator attempts to scale nonetheless. In another few pages, he's off through the woods, finding a cave by nightfall where other slaves huddle and hide. These nighttime scenes are incredibly beautiful and atmospheric, using just a few different shades of green, lewis creates an entire world of lush vegetation, ragged clothing and nighttime starscapes.

Big Man has dogs. He has a gun.

The salves flee in the night. One small child who had lost his mother is about to be left behind.

"Oh no," says I. "We'll run to the wild! The Lord will help me care fort this child!"

For the rest of the story, we follow the two of them fleeing together, all the meanwhile, the iron is still clasped firmly around the leg of the man.

One day, my child looked close at the rung.
Said, "Papa, papa, what is that thing?"
I told him the story of that dark, dark day.
He touched the ring. It fell away.
Tears welled up. Fell down from my face.
I saw my child lit up by grace.
"How, dear child, did you set me free?"
"I'm from the Lord. You cared for me."


Play Ball, Jackie! (2011)

Written by Stephen Krensky

Illustrated by Joe Morse

Millbrook Press

Oh, it's a strange thing, reading a book like this to my five year old son, to have it begin with the story of a father and his son going to a baseball game together. For me, I'm immediately digging the details Joe Morse adds in to make us feel like we're really back in the day - New York, 1947 - the clothes, the old trollies, the ads for Coca-Cola - I love stuff like that.

For Arlo, to be immediately taken in by the umpire with wild eyes and lips pulled back, "PLAY BALL!" with all the baseball players and their uniforms out their on the field, surrounded by some 25,000 fans, several dozen if whom are illustrated individually with rich details such that I'm certain any person in the know could pick out which neighborhood they were from. It's not homogeneous. It's frenetic with raised fists.

It's not until several pages in that the true story emerges, as Matty, a young boy, is told by his father how he came across the tickets to Opening Day.

"Free tickets," his father had told him. "One of the guys at work refused to go."

"Really?" said Matty. "He must be crazy."

"Not crazy. Disgusted."

"About what?"

Jackie Robinson. He's the center of the tale, though we see him only through the eyes of others - the enraged eyes of working class bigots, and the incredulous eyes of the open-minded and the innocent.

I think Arlo shares quite a bit in common with Matty, not understanding what the issue was, having to have it explained to him, spelled out. There's no question which side of the debate Matty's father is on.

"I don't care what color they are. Remember, your grandfather came to America from Italy. Lots of people didn't give him a chance either."

And it's a lesson Matty is able to put into practice during the 7th Inning Stretch, when he stands in line behind three kids, two white, one black.

"Just you wait," says the black boy. "Jackie will show you. There are plenty of good black players out there."

Matty returns with a hotdog and a "I'm for Jackie," button, a gift from the boy.

"We met these kids," Matty explains to his proud father. "They didn't think Jackie belonged on the team."


"We straightened them out."

The rest of the narrative follows the game. Krensky takes great care to detail it as it happened, with the names of the players, the scores, the plays, and leading to Jackie scoring a run in, the Dodgers winning the game.

I loved the way Jackie was kept removed, not seeing his thoughts, bit only how the boy imagined Jackie must have felt. It served to keep his stature mythic, larger than life, while at the same time, keeping the story grounded and filled with real, genuine emotion. Not a biographical account or a history lesson, but history-as-mythology.

The book concludes with several photographs of the real Jackie Robinson and a brief biographical note written by the author which concludes with a quote from baseball commissioner Bud Selig.

Baseball's proudest moment and its most powerful social statement came on April 15, 1947, when Jackie Robinson first set foot on a Major League Baseball field.
Click here for more stories about Civil Rights!


Donovan's Big Day (2011)

Written by Leslea Newman

Illustrated by Mike Dutton

Gouache with Digital Finish

Typeset in Advert and Franklin Gothic

Tricycle Press

As with many books dealing with same-sex relationships and marriage in recent years, the same-sex aspect of the story does not enter into the narrative in a significant way, but seems more a part of the backdrop. In fact, it is not until the final pages in which we learn that the marriage in question involves "mommy" and "mama."

This is a contrast with Newman's famous take on same-sex relationships in Heather Has Two Mommies - in which the question of gender was the source of some angst. Heather Has Two Mommies was a question. Donovan's Big Day is a celebration.

Every character appears to be heady with excitement and anticipation, not the least of which is Donovan himself, the young child of the two mothers, maneuvering his way through their busy world of grown-up responsibilities and wedding-day preparations, mentally cataloging his epic quest every step of the way in a series of bouncing run-on sentences:

He had to be the first one to hop off his seat, scramble out of the car, scurry up some steps, hurry through a large, sunlit lobby, and dash into a loud, crowded room full of hundreds of grown-ups all dressed up in their very best clothes and he had to say hello to every single one of them while they shook his hand, gave him a hug, kissed his cheek, and told him how very handsome he looked on this very BIG day.

The entire book is composed in this frenetic style, and I love phrases like, "hundreds of grown-ups," which gives the proceedings the feel that this is an alien terrain through which young Donovan - and all children, after a fashion - must journey. The ways of grown-ups are not his ways, and so it is imperative that he memorize and go through such a long list of responsibilities, in the pursuit of this, this happiest of all occasions, "when the tall grown-up in the long, black robe said, 'I now pronounce you wife and wife."


The Beatitudes: From Slavery to Civil Rights (2010)

Written by Carole Boston Weatherford

Illustrated by Tim Ladwig

Watercolor and pastel on Twinrocket tinted watercolor paper

Typeset in Adobe Garamond Pro

Eerdmans Books for Young Readers

"Since the first African-American churches were founded in the 18th Century, black religious organizations have brought biblical values to bear on the freedom struggle," begins the book in a nice introductory note, explaining the pairing of the text of Matthew 5:3-12 - commonly referred to as the Beatitudes - with snapshot portraits of scenes from the history of Civil Rights.

We start in the darkened hold of a slave ship - one of the slaves sitting up straight - staring into a shaft of light beaming through the ceiling. "I am the Lord your God," begins the narrative. "I was with the Africans who were torn from the Motherland and cramped in holds of ships on the Middle Passage from Africa to the Americas. I heard the chant Kum ba ya, kum ba ya."

Running along the bottom of the two-page spread is the first of the beatitudes, "Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven."

In direct contrast with the first image, the next is filled with light. A family claps their hands in a sun-drenched church:

I was with Richard Allen, Absalom Jones and James Varick, who founded churches where African Americans could praise the Lord and shout "Hallelujah!" I rang the church bells.

From there we move chronologically through American history. Harriet Tubman against a star-filled night. Marian Anderson standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Rosa Parks, poor Emmett Till.

I had to pause at the image of young Ruby Bridges, wide-eyed between the shoulders of the law - and in particular, the faces twisted in rage and hate filling the pages behind her which Ladwig very menacingly illustrates. "Blessed are you when men shall revile you and persecute you and say all manner of evil against you."

Of all the historical names listed, Ruby Bridges was one of only two with a birth date and no death date. Somewhere, Ruby is 57 years old. The only other still living subject - born just seven years after Ruby Bridges - is Barack Obama.

I was with [him] when he took his oath as President of the United States. I was the Bible where he placed his hand.

From there, finally, we are transported back a hundred years or more, as a group of men, women and children wade into the waters, the sky orange with dawn. "The holy water is the stream of humanity," concludes Weatherford. "Drink, breathe and be free."
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