Month: February 2016

Standing and Singing for Freedom

9780763665319Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement
By Carole Boston Weatherford
Illustrated by Ekua Holmes
(Candlewick Press, 2015, Somerville, Massachusetts, $17.99)

The granddaughter of slaves and the child of Mississippi Delta sharecroppers, Fannie Lou Hamer always knew the cards were stacked against her and her family. She knew it wasn’t right that she had to drop out of school in sixth grade to work alongside her parents and older siblings in the cotton field. She knew the white landowners made sure sharecroppers stayed in debt and did pay them enough for their cotton. When she grew up, the state of Mississippi forced Hamer and other poor black women to undergo sterilization. But in middle-age, she became involved with the Civil Rights movement. She worked on voter registration drives, sang spirituals at rallies, and even participated in politics at the national level. For her efforts, she endured threats, a brutal beating, and even attempts on her life. But Hamer kept fighting and never lost hope.

In Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement, Carole Boston Weatherford celebrates the remarkable activist. Her first-person narrative captures Hamer’s warm and direct voice: “Chile, I am proof that the Delta birthed the blues,” she tells an unidentified listener. The book offers an unflinching look at the indignities and injustices African Americans endured under Jim Crow and the violence Civil Rights workers, black and white, encountered. For that reason, as well as the length of the text, Voice of Freedom is best suited to middle grade and young adult readers, despite its picture-book package.

Ekua Holmes’ vibrant mixed media illustrations convey Hamer’s strength and vision. Yes, one painting depicts the brutal beating she suffered at police hands. However, other spreads show Hamer standing atop a sunlit hill with her adopted daughters, singing at a rally, and proudly raising her hand when she registers to vote. Despite the obstacles and cruelty she encounters, she never loses hope for the future.

It would be impossible to teach children about the Civil Rights movement without a frank discussion about life under segregation and acknowledgement of the activists’ bravery. Voice of Freedom does both beautifully – and introduces readers of all to an important figure in the struggle.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

 

 

Cozy with Cassatt

GTK_Cassett_cvr2.inddMary Cassatt
Written and illustrated by Mike Venezia
(Children’s Press, 2015, New York, $29)

There are many ways to introduce children to art and art history: education, museum excursions, and stories. In Mary Cassatt, author-illustrator Mike Venezia fuses these approaches to introduce early readers to the Impressionist painter. He interposes his straightforward biography with cartoons about Cassatt’s life; these act as humorous and humanizing asides within the narrative. Finally, Venezia includes photos of Cassatt’s work with those of her contemporaries, including her friend Edgar Degas. Thus, the book allows children – including those who might not have an opportunity to visit an art museum – to see and enjoy her paintings.

Although Venezia uses simple language, his approach to Cassatt, her art, and her milieu is far from simplistic. He describes the obstacles Cassatt faced as a woman pursuing an artistic career in the late nineteenth century; he also addresses the mixed critical reception the early Impressionists received. In addition, Venezia discusses the techniques Cassatt employed, from brushstrokes to her experiments with pastels. The result is a surprisingly rich, multifaceted look at an independent woman and her art that works equally well in the classroom, library, and living room.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

 

Grappling with Nature

john-muir-wrestles-a-waterfall-hiresJohn Muir Wrestles a Waterfall
By Julie Danneberg
Illustrated by Jamie Hogan
(Charlesbridge, 2015, Watertown, Massachusetts, $16.95)

John Muir, writer, explorer, conservation advocate, and founder of the Sierra Club, delighted in nature. Marveling at both the delicacy of a snowflake and the power of an earthquake, he spent years living in California’s Yosemite Valley. There, he lived in a sawmill he built himself; through the window, he could see the awe-inspiring Yosemite Falls. One night, in April 1871, Muir decided to get very close to the falls: an experience that simultaneously uplifted him and nearly cost him his life.

In John Muir Wrestles a Waterfall, Julie Danneberg and illustrator Jamie Hogan recount this chapter in Muir’s life. Danneberg’s lyrical, present-tense narrative transports readers to the rocky outcropping behind the falls. Hogan’s pastel illustrations bring Muir’s Yosemite to life. The book’s most striking spreads depict Muir behind the waterfall; these pictures capture both the falls’ mesmerizing quality and Muir’s wonder, allowing readers to share his excitement. What detracts from an otherwise compelling package are short, informative paragraphs that appear on some of the earlier spreads. Although they provide useful context, they would have been more effective in the book’s afterword.

In an essay about the adventure, Muir wrote that he was “better, not worse, for my wild bath in moonlit spray.” John Muir Wrestles a Waterfall encourages children to view nature as something wonderful to experience and protect – even if that force also poses danger.

-Dorothy A. Dahm

Trees for Peace

Wangari_300ppiWangari Maathai: The Woman Who Planted Millions of Trees
By Franck Prévot
Illustrated by Aurélia Fronty
Translated from the French by Dominique Clément
(Charlesbridge, 2015, Watertown, Massachusetts, $17.95)

Wangari Maathai lived a remarkable life by anyone’s standards. Born in 1940 to a poor family in rural Kenya, she was the first East African woman to earn a PhD and the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Along the way, she worked both to protect Kenya’s land and people from exploitation; in her mind, environmental protection and human rights were closely aligned. Her environmental activism often took a simple and concrete form: planting trees in deforested areas and encouraging others, especially poor women, to do the same.

In Wangari Maathai: The Woman Who Planted Millions of Trees, Franck Prévot and Aurélia Fronty introduce young readers to the pioneering activist. Translator Dominique Clément ensures the picture-book biography retains the understated lyricism of the original French narrative: “In shade of the big mugumo, her mother teaches her that a tree is worth more than its wood, an expression Wangari never forgets.” Fronty’s colorful illustrations reflect the interconnectedness Maathai saw between all life. In one striking spread, a leopard poses gracefully in a tree with a slim, twisting trunk. The tendrils of other trees and even smaller plants intertwine with the trunk; a bird perches on one limb. Nearby, a young Wangari, whose name means “She who belongs to the leopard,” peeps from behind two large leaves. Other illustrations flirt with a symbolic surrealism. One spread shows the shoots of various plants, in vivid red, blue, and green, springing from Maathai’s fingertips. The plants’ veins extend down into her hand and arm; a red heart branches off from a vein in her hand, suggesting the love and interdependence that unite all life. A timeline of Maathai’s life and information about Kenya’s current political and environmental situation follow the narrative.

Both teaching tool and a work of art,  is a passionate look at the difference one person can make. It should inspire children and adults to improve their corner of the world – even if they only plant a tree.

-Dorothy A. Dahm