Month: April 2014

Young Healer

CClaraAndDavie_coverlara and Davie: The True Story of Young Clara Barton, Founder of the American Red Cross
Written and Illustrated by Patricia Polacco
(Scholastic, 2014, $17.99, New York)

Americans remember Clara Barton as the “Angel of the Battlefield,” the nurse who cared for Civil War soldiers and later founded the American Red Cross. In Clara and Davie, author-illustrator Patricia Polacco introduces us to a much younger Barton: a shy child who adored animals, flowers, and her big brother Davie.

When classmates mock Clara’s speech impediment, Davie comforts her, and her family decides to educate her at home. Clara proves an apt pupil, devouring books about medicine and using her knowledge to heal injured animals. Together, she and Davie explore the countryside. Then, one day, Davie suffers a bad fall – and Clara must use her skills to save her beloved brother.

Polacco’s pencil and acrylic illustrations evoke the beauty of the New England farm where Barton grew up and the joy nature brought her. In one especially winning spread, Clara and Davie occupy a window seat, laughing. Polacco positions the swing diagonally across the page, so the reader feels the same carefree exuberance as her characters. Polacco has a talent for capturing expressions: the happiness Clara feels with Davie, her despair when he is injured, her hurt when classmates taunt her, and the nastiness of her tormentors’ contorted faces. This is a story about hurt and healing, and Polacco shows readers both.

With more text than most picture-book biographies, Clara and Davie should appeal to readers of all ages. Adults will read the story to younger readers, and even middle graders will embrace this timely book about acceptance and love.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

Meet the Illustrator: R. Gregory Christie

R. Gregory Christie1R. Gregory Christie has illustrated over fifty books for young readers, many of them award-winning,  including It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw. A successful commerical illustrator, he is also the proprietor of Gas Art Gifts, an independent children’s bookstore in Decatur, Georgia. This week, he chatted with Kidsbiographer about his work on his most recent publication, Philip Reid Saves the Statue of Freedom.

Kidsbiographer: Philip Reid Saves the Statue of Freedom’s illustrations depict settings as varied as pre-Civil War plantation life, the foundries where Reid worked, and the Washington D.C. building where his expertise saved the Statue of Freedom. What sort of research did you to do to illustrate this array of images?

RGC: The research for such a book starts with putting the historical figure’s name in a search engine. Then figuring out the ages of the characters during specific key dates. When illustrating historical books, you must concern yourself with the fashions, hairstyles, architecture, species of plants and animals indigenous to specific regions and the day-to-day protocol and interaction between the book’s characters. The process further moves in to sketches that I’ll show to the editor along with notes questioning the historical accuracy of what I’ve drawn.

For instance, if dealing with slavery and more specifically skilled trade slavery, I want to render the art in a historically realistic manner; I feel that it’s a disservice to everyone not to do that.

I wondered if Mr. Reid had overseers when doing skilled labor? Did he have used equipment or the best available? Did he have better clothing than a field slave? Did he work alone, outside or indoors, What was the average height of a man during this time period? I would need to know people’s height so that I could render that in proportion to the statue’s height. All these questions go in to the illustration sketches before I can move to a final piece. So these days I use the internet, public library, editors, and the author of the project to be as historically accurate as possible with the visuals.

Kidsbiographer: One of my favorite illustrations in the picture-book biography is the one that shows young Philip Reid and his mother outdoors framed by a doorway. The green horizon suggests the freedom they envision, while the grey doorway reminds viewers they are still enslaved. How did you compose this remarkable painting?

RGC: Wow! I am happy to know that you picked up on that. I really wanted to have a visual balance to the written word, but often I break away from the literal interpretation in to a more symbolic one. I think that it is ironic that Mr. Reid, an enslaved man, was pivotal in saving a statue symbolizing the country’s bravery and freedom. Also in that spread, the author’s words touched on a woman speaking to her child about excelling in life, but both were still enslaved. I imagined that this conversation was in secret, perhaps in hushed tones and I wanted the viewer of this image to almost be visually eavesdropping on these two. The viewer’s vantage point is from inside a dark place, looking through the main figures and even past the green fields in to the true subject matter, the unseen world beyond those trees. It’s the same world the mother probably had never has seen, but believed in enough to speak about it to her child.

Kidsbiographer: Some of the book’s most striking illustrations depict the foundry where Reid worked. The liquid bronze glows in the dark room. Despite Reid’s enslavement, these images are exciting and convey something of the passion he brought to his work. Can you describe how you composed these illustrations?

RGC: I had to look at old Renaissance paintings of Hades and artwork from the Industrial Revolution era in order to figure out how to paint illuminated rooms of soot and stone. I’ve mostly painted art in books showcasing objects from a sunlit light source. If it were anything else, my semi -bstract style made the nighttime sky or candlelit room plausible through color over tone and proportion.

This particular style was reminiscent of my illustrations in William Miller’s Richard Wright and the Library Card. In both cases, I was more impressionistic with the paintings as I leaned more towards realism. If speaking about the foundry, then the orange and yellow you see in Philip Reid Saves the Statue of Freedom’s hues have to serve as a directional device but, I feel, can’t overpower the sentiment of a gritty and grime filled foundry. Not even, the permanence one would see in the withered and charred stones surrounding a team of stalwart workmen from that time period.

Kidsbiographer: You created a number of visual characters for  Philip Reid Saves the Statue of Freedom. Which was your favorite and why?

RGC: I really loved painting of the old man that taught Phillip about clay. Again my interpretation of Mr. Lapham and Mr. Walton’s words is metaphorical and symbolic in its meaning. You are there with the two slaves as they are sharing a peaceful moment in a dark place. Although the two are confined , the only reality is the work in front of them, and the interaction that they experience.  It’s not only commenting on them and the work that they must do, but it’s also more specifically, it’s them and the work that they must do; it’s a man who’s lived the scope of his life without much to look towards other than the rest of peace and a young boy facing dual aspects of his future, the one set up for him and the uncertain possibilities beyond that path. That’s why I chose to have Philip facing the window and the older gentleman facing his task on hand.

Kidsbiographer: What do you hope young readers will take away from the book?

RGC: That there’s a lot more to our book than a quaint story and pretty pictures. The irony of this book screams for a discussion and revaluation of our typical lesson plans. Our history, as it often is, can be seen all around us. Our history as it often is, can be seen all around us. Historical visuals like the Statue of Freedom help to teach the stories of “how, why and who” along with the “when”. It’s not just all about numbers and dates, there’s humanity in our history and when we can be open enough to reevaluate these stories, maybe even relearn our history, it can help to bring some balance and humility for our future generations.

Kidsbiographer: Would you like to discuss any current or upcoming projects?

RGC: Fortunately there’s always been illustration work since I’ve graduated art school (I’m knocking on wood). These days there are at least therebooks coming your way via my art table. However, the latest project is Gas-Art Gifts, my small bookshop at the North Dekalb Mall in Decatur, Georgia, which offers art classes, signed children’s books, community outreach, and artwork. It’s my own way to fight the implicit sentiment that our technology wins all. It’s not been easy and has not been lucrative, but I know it’s a very important direction for me, and the right thing to do.

The Jolliest Rogers

9780544104952_hresLives of the Pirates: Swashbucklers, Scoundrels (Neighbors Beware!)
By Kathleen Krull
Illustrated by Kathryn Hewitt
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010, Paperback edition 2013, Boston, $8.99)

The most romanticized of outlaws, pirates have long attracted people of all ages. In Lives of the Pirates, Kathleen Krull and illustrator Kathryn Hewitt analyze their appeal – and debunk popular myths about their lives. The collective biography boasts lively profiles of nineteen infamous rogues, each accompanied by Hewitt’s humorous portrait of the swashbuckler in question. Although Lives of the Pirates has enough gory detail to satisfy the most bloodthirsty armchair adventurer, Krull also reveals surprising facts about her subjects. For example, readers will learn that plenty of pirates considered themselves patriots, that one was a diligent diarist and naturalist (William Dampier), and that Blackbeard, despite his terrifying visage, wasn’t that successful a plunderer. Along the way, they meet pirates from every corner of the globe, a few women who sailed the seas, and even a fictional character, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Long John Silver, who is responsible for our contemporary understanding of pirates. With its delightful illustrations and playful prose, Lives of the Pirates should entertain middle-grade and adult readers alike.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

Meet the Biographer and Illustrator: Allen Say

9780544050501_hresDuring his career, Allen Say has written and illustrated a variety of children’s books, including Tree of Cranes, Tea with Milk, and Emma’s Rug. Last year, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt released a twentieth-anniversary edition of Grandfather’s Journey, which won the Caldecott Medal in 1994. Earlier this week, Allen Say discussed the book with Kidsbiographer.

Kidsbiographer: Grandfather’s Journey describes your grandfather’s life, which he divided between two countries, the U.S. and Japan. Did you do any research into family history to write it, or did you rely on stories you had already heard and memories you already had of him?

Allen Say: As I said in the introduction to the anniversary edition of Grandfather’s Journey, the whole story came to me on a short walk through a park in San Francisco. The book that came out of it was based entirely on memories of what I had heard from my mother when I was a boy. I had no photos of my grandfather as a young man, so I put my face on him and journeyed back in my family history according to my mother’s telling.

Kidsbiographer: Although you wrote Grandfather’s Journey in English, your prose style is very understated, very Japanese. How did Japanese aesthetics and literature influence your work on this book?

Allen Say: The Japanese culture in which I grew up has influenced everything I’ve done, and it will continue to do so in the future. It’s as unavoidable as aging. The story of my grandfather came to me in the plain English I’d first learned at age 16, not in the Japanese of haiku. But the funny thing is, my translation of the story into Japanese that I did for a Tokyo publisher reads better than the original version I wrote in English.

Kidsbiographer
: The book contains an array of illustrations: stunning landscapes of Japan and the United States, portraits of your grandfather and the people in his life, and even images that convey the devastation of war. Which of these was the most challenging to compose and why?

Allen Say: The most difficult piece is on page 18, which shows the grandfather standing among birdcages. I was a purist in those days –- when painting with watercolors I didn’t use frisket, wax, or opaque white because I thought that was cheating. So I painted the little spaces between the birdcage wires with a tiny brush, which took two months. I’m not a purist anymore.

Kidsbiographer: A painting of a yellow origami boat appears on the book’s title page. Can you describe how you conceived this idea?

Allen Say: When the book was finished, I wanted to put a small drawing on the title page that would symbolize journeying; and as I thought about it, I saw on my worktable an origami crane I had made for my daughter. Why not a boat? A symbol of voyage! I bought a packet of origami and folded one.

Kidsbiographer: Since Grandfather’s Journey was first published in 1993, you must have received a lot of feedback about the book. What is the most gratifying response you received from a young reader?

Allen Say: The loveliest compliment I ever received was a question from a fourth-grade English girl who asked, “Mr. Say, when you are painting, are you always trying to make new colors?” It’s the most beautiful question ever asked of me; it made me feel like a super chef who’s trying cook up something that no one has ever tasted before.

Kidsbiographer: Would you like to discuss any current or upcoming projects?

Allen Say: My next book, The Inker’s Shadow, the sequel to Drawing from Memory, will be published in the fall of 2015. In the meantime, I’ve been working on a new book, and I don’t know where it’s taking me.

A Home Run for Springfield

Bunny Cover-thumb smllA Home Run for Bunny
By Richard Andersen
Illustrated by Gerald Purnell
(Illumination Arts, 2013, Bellevue, Washington, $16.95)

In 1934, a group of high school athletes from Springfield, Massachusetts stood up against segregation. When the American Legion All-Star baseball team traveled to North Carolina to play in a regional event, the boys experienced the ugliness of racism firsthand: Ernest “Bunny” Taliafero, the team’s most talented – and only black –player, was not allowed to stay in the same hotel as his teammates. During practice, spectators taunted him. Teams from other southern states threatened to withdraw from the tournament if Bunny played. The Springfield players had a choice: they could play if Bunny did not participate in the games, or they could forfeit the championships and return to Massachusetts together. Bunny’s teammates chose unity, and when they arrived in Springfield, the community accorded them a hero’s welcome.

In A Home Run for Bunny, Richard Andersen and illustrator Gerald Purnell celebrate Bunny’s achievements and the sportsmanship he and his team showed. The text derives much of its strength from Andersen’s unnamed first-person narrator, a former teammate who reminisces about Bunny, their childhood rivalry, and their time in North Carolina. Readers and listeners will feel as though they are listening to an elderly relative muse about an old friend. Purnell’s mixed media illustrations also suggest memory, the impressions people retain of each other at certain moments. In one spread, three images depict Bunny, a three-letter athlete, playing baseball, football, and basketball. In another, he leaps out of a black and white newspaper photo, in color and bearing a football. When the team travels south, the illustrations become starker and more realistic: they confer with their coach in a grey, grainy hotel room. On the train home to Massachusetts, the boys’ faces are soft and radiant in the moonlight that streams through a window.

A Home Run for Bunny is a moving story about loyalty and fairness. It is a reminder that ordinary people, even children, can choose inclusion over exclusion, unity over personal advancement.

-Dorothy A. Dahm