Nov 12, 2017

In Daddy's Arms... a Mirror for ALL of Us

I'm nearly ready to post a series about some of the picture book poetry nominees I'm reviewing as a CYBILS panelist this season. Winnowing is no easy process, but one that I enjoy. For today, though, I want to spotlight three picture books that aren't among the nominees for 2017. I haven't posted in a couple of weeks, so I found myself running long on this one, and also sending readers to multiple cross-links. Please consider following my leads.

Veterans Day had me thinking about my dad, a WWII German-American soldier who was fighting on his grandparent's homeland. Earlier this year I reviewed JABARI JUMPS, by Gaia Cornwall.  If you missed it, I hope you'll take a moment to click the title above and read about the book, about the way it connected me to memories of Dad. Not only will it mean you'll get to know a bit about him, but also about  a book that continues to win praise from far-more-influential reviewers than I am. Look for this title to float to the top during end-of-year awards season. 

One of the most enjoyable things about having this blog is that it allows me to explore inner connections and reactions, (okay, emotions), that might otherwise get only passing attention from me while reading. Warm, sometimes worrisome, responses triggered by words and images on the page are essential to being "a reader". When the process of engaging with discreet text and pictures reveals a whole world in your hands, a world that vibrates through you and awakens memories, emotions, and connections, you know you are really reading.

Lee & Low Books, 2001
It's fun to read and review a newly released picture book like Jabari Jumps and celebrate it here, even before a tidal wave of praise and support arrived via social media. It's also fun to make a quiet discovery, to share it year after year and see its effects on young readers, only to learn much later that it had been awarded accolades that I was too busy teaching to notice at the time. 
IN DADDY'S ARMS I AM TALL: AFRICAN AMERICANS CELEBRATING FATHERS, an anthology edited by Javaka Steptoe, is such a book. My classroom copy of this book was worn-thin and replaced several times in the span of a few years. This long-time favorite collection of poems foreshadowed, in a sense, the current wave of anthologies (both poetry and prose) by  long-successful and newly minted diverse authors. It's loaded with poems kids love to memorize, to use as mentor text or forms, and to internalize- regardless the readers' ethnicities. My classroom students, though diverse, were primarily as "white" as I am, but the love within the pages transcended the images and settings to connect with the truth of each poem. 
What truth?
Just read that title.
There is no larger truth than that- IN DADDY'S ARMS I AM TALL. 

Pair this with a more recent release, CROWN: AN ODE TO THE FRESH CUT, written by Derrick Barnes and illustrated by Gordon C. Hayes
I found this to be a brilliant blend of text and illustration, inviting readers through the door of a black barbershop, into the cultural experience of transformation and observation, to the process of growing into yourself and into your community. It's a celebration in concept and images, each with rhythm and depth, both with shimmer and shine, delivered with swagger and smiles. 
The afterward was particularly moving, to me, after recently hearing an interview with Gary Younge, author of ANOTHER DAY IN THE DEATH OF AMERICA, on my local NPR station, WUWM. I encourage you to listen to the full interview linked above.
Kirkus Reviews gave it a starred review, and I'd give it one, if I had one to give. But I disagree with three words in their note:
"One of the best reads for young black boys in years, it should be in every library, media center, and, yes, barbershop." 
Their statement is true, as far as it goes. I fear, though, that it will be seen as a book for YOUNG BLACK BOYS (which it is) but ONLY for them. Worse yet, only during February.
The only kinks I had in my hair were at Easter, the day after Mom sat me on a stool in the kitchen and gave me a "TONETTE". It fried my hair to frizz and kept my Easter bonnet from fitting. Even so, as I did with Jabari Jumps, as I and my students did with In My Daddy's Arms I AM Tall in this book, I found connection. It was easy to sense the truth underlying both common and different experiences. 
One of my earliest posts, written just weeks after launching this blog, was titled, HAPPY BIRTHDAY, MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. Reading that might make what I say next more understandable. 
I recently heard a woman interviewed, a member of a white-nationalist group. She claimed to be one of the "fine" people taking part in recent protests throughout the country. She insisted that she didn't hate anyone or any race, she was just so tired of having everything "in her face". Why couldn't we go back to the way things were? (Paraphrasing, except for the quote.) She specified, when asked, that "everything" meant media displaying mixed couples, LGBTQIA individuals and couples, and "so many blacks" in every kind of program.
I feel certain that, if she read this post or even scanned the book covers, she would ask me, "Why?" Why would I feature THREE books with black characters when there are so many good books out there with whites. WHY would I want to erase her and her race from discussion? It's not even FEBRUARY!
My answer would be too long to include here, but this is the gist of it: 
These books are about HER, about her sons, their fathers, her community. 
She just sin't willing to find those connections, to look into the books and see herself reflected there. To recognize that the distinctions are important but the similarities are even greater.
After all, that's what those "many good books" about "whites" would say to any people of color or difference, right? That's the "in your face" reality, still, for 95+% of the books that people of color and difference encounter on most library, classroom, and bookstore shelves.  We  ask "others" to find themselves and their truths within  the words and pages  of "white" books NOW nearly as often as we have for centuries. Let's realize that they are provided NO CHOICE but to succeed in that "in your face" effort. Shouldn't we do the same? If we fail to see ourselves in these works, to connect at a visceral level with experiences and identities that are not our own, isn't it our own failure? 
Until we can do that, spontaneously, naturally, eagerly, our society will continue to see surface differences as barriers rather than mirrors. 
And we'll miss opportunities to find our own truths and emotions in everyone we meet.

Oct 28, 2017

The Poetry Plunge Begins: Cybils Nominees

After numerous trips to the library, I am now facing an enormous stack of 2017 books nominated for the CYBILS Poetry category. Some of which, (many, in fact),  I've read previously, but they will get close second reads. Also included are many that lingered on my "wanna read" list but hadn't yet reached the surface. Among the stack are a few that had flown under my radar until now, which is always exciting. With a deadline looming, I look forward to deep reads on each and every title.

If you care to read along, you can find all the nominated titles at the Cybils site, here.

I'll be keeping a record of my reading on my Goodreads account, which you're invited to follow. Some are NOT picture books, so they won't appear in posts here. Without indicating comparisons or preferences, I do plan to share brief notes about many of the picture books on this blog. Before I begin that process, though, I encountered this poem, shared on the WRITERS ALMANAC on 10/28/2017:

The POEM OF THE FUTURE, by J. R. Solonche
The poem of the future will be smaller.
It will fit in the palm of your hand,
on your wrist, in your ear.
The poem of the future will not need
bulky batteries or cumbersome wires.
It will be powered by moonlight and weed.
The poem of the future will be automatic.
It will go for months without routine maintenance.
It will be faster, smoother, with a digital tick.
The poem of the future will be lighter.
It will be made of plastics and exotic metals.
It will be available in hundreds of shapes and colors.
The poem of the future will make our lives true.
It will perform in a second what it takes
the poem of the present a day to do.
The poem of the future will talk to us.
It will say things like “Buy IBM,” and “Be my friend,”
and “Pulvis et umbra sumus.”
“The Poem of the Future” by J.R. Solonche from Invisible. © Five Oaks Press, 2017. 
That last quote, by the way, "Pulvis et umbra sumus", translates to "We are dust and shadow". 

I appreciate the wry irony of this poem. It takes little effort to bump into whiny complaints about kid-sized, digitally-dependent humans losing any capacity to sustain attention. The hyped pitch in the poem above implies the same, and yet ends with a nod to the truth: poetry may use fewer words, but they are the BEST words, the RIGHT words, the words that allow each reader to savor the delicious bits on the tongue while consuming and digesting dust, shadows, and insights. Poetry leaves room for second helpings, prompting recommendations and requests for more.
This, too, is the nature of picture books, so my task is a welcome one.
WORDSONG, September, 2017

For now, I'll close here and plunge into the stacks of books. First, though, I'll copy my Goodreads comments about one of the picture books, Read! Read! Read!, with poems by Amy Ludwig Vanderwater and illustrated by Ryan O'Rourke:  
"This has been in my TBR pile for more than a month, and now I'm kicking myself for not reading it sooner. 
The collection of poems represents a range of structures, topics, rhymed and unrhymed verse, reflective and immediate concepts. Within its pages there are poems about Googling guinea pigs, dealing with grief in stories to be prepared for real-life grieving, stoking imaginations, exploring the past and the future, among many other recognizable moments in life. This is a must-have for every library and classroom and makes an ideal gift book as well."

With that, I'll close and "face the music" of poetry!

Oct 13, 2017

Art Appreciation: Wyeths, Monet, and Oscar

I continue to gather the nominated titles for the CYBILS POETRY category (nominations close 10/15/17). When the list is complete I'll begin commenting on some outstanding titles in these posts, so I'm going to offer a mash-up of picture books in other categories before turning my full attention to poetry. 

What better topic should I start with than ART? In particular, the three titles featured in this post include fiction and nonfiction, representational art and impressionist, expository text and storytelling. In other words, something for everyone. 
Chronicle Books, 2014
Let's begin with a book for older readers that includes reproductions, quotations, sources, and an index:  EVERYBODY PAINTS! The Lives and Art of the Wyeth Family. Written by Susan Goldman Rubin, this multi-generational biographic profile of the Wyeth family is a stunning book, in narrative, in visual content and in design. Widely recognized as the preeminent American family of painters, the abundance of art and anecdotes from which to choose must have been daunting. In fact, though, biographer Rubin has achieved her own masterpiece of storytelling and placement of selected pieces within each chapter. 
Just as the art of each individual (N.C. Wyeth, Andrew Wyeth, and Jamie Wyeth) portrays specific images yet resonates with hidden stories and emotions, so too does the story of this incredible family. 
Rubin acknowledges that the women in the family were comparably talented, dedicated, and distinctive, but the focus in this book is on the legacy passing from grandfather to father to grandson.
Sprinkled throughout with concise nuggets of wisdom ("Study nature, not books.") and intricately woven aspects of real lives with images on canvas, even the most iconic illustrations or individual pieces take on new depth and significance in this reading.

Charlesbridge, 2012
Moving from a century-long triple-biographic profile of artists to a day-in-the-life approach can be a bit disorienting, and yet each works perfectly for its subject(s). 
MONET PAINTS A DAY is written by Julie Danneberg and illustrated by Caitlin Heimerl. My comments about the book must begin with a disclaimer: I'm a full-bore Monet fan. 
That said, I love the multiple text forms used in this book (first person voice, letter excerpts, and expository side bars). 
I particularly enjoy the insights to Monet's personality, the interactions he had with the local children, and the impressionist style used by the illustrator. The author's note at the back extends biographical content as well as addressing the narrative approach used and the reasons for it. 
The Wyeth biography requires an older reading audience, perhaps one with some background in modern American art, or at least a virtual field trip to examine works by this iconic family of painters. The Monet biography could serve a wide range of audiences, with an accessible voice and images for the youngest while providing text features for advanced readers, including an author's note, bibliography, and descriptions of art tools and techniques in the back matter as well as those concise side bar notes on each page.

Charlesbridge, 2012
Finally there is a charming little book, THE ART COLLECTOR, written by Jan Wahl and illustrated by Rosalinde Bonnet. Young Oscar knows what he likes. He likes art: watching it emerge from the media, attempting to make his own art, and appreciating specific aspects of art when he sees it. 
His appreciation is expansive, noting the figures, the colors, the patterns, the movement, and the aesthetics of various visual art pieces. There is a role for collectors in the art world, particularly when he shares his work with the public. 
The character/narrative art is consistently 2-dimensional and simplistic throughout, while the framed images reveal a wide array of art periods, styles, and techniques. One strength of the narrative is that everyone can collect art that they enjoy, if they shop wisely, save their pennies, and are willing to pull lots of weeds to make the extra cash. The thought that art collection is not limited to the rich is a powerful message.
There are a few cautions to note in this work, though. First is how easily Oscar's early interest in creating his own art succumbed to discouragement (despite his family's effort to admire and encourage his attempts). Next is the universally white population of the street fair, the frame shop, and even the final museum visitors. The message that art is for white people may be inadvertent but is a miserably clear one from a young child's perspective. If this is addressed directly when used with young audiences it still has much to offer. 

While we're talking something special to offer...
 I'm excited to report that an exhibit of WENDELL MINOR's art that I wrote about HERE ,(including an interview),has been traveling and will open at HERITAGE MUSEUMS in Sandwich, MA on April 14, 2018.There's a remarkable hour-long video interview of Wendell Minor via Youtube, HERE.

So, while fall colors, a changing landscape, or anything else is tickling the artistic impulses of your kids- or your own!- start with these and express yourself!

Picture books are as versatile and diverse as the readers who enjoy them. Join me to explore the wacky, wonderful, challenging and changing world of picture books.