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Friday, October 18, 2013

Two very different picture books -- both good.

Nelson, Kadir (2011) Heart and Soul:  The Story of America and African Americans  New York: HarperCollins

Henkes, Kevin (2012) Penny and her Doll  New York:  HarperCollins

Children's picture books are amazing in their range.  I recently read two picture books, one after the other, liked both of them, and was struck by how bizarrely different they were.

Let's start with Kardir Nelson's Heart and Soul.  Here is the cover:

I could stare at Kadir Nelson's illustrations all day.  I used to assign my Children's Lit students to buy Nelson's We are the Ship which isn't even really a kids book (though it is a beautiful picture book about the Negro Baseball Leagues -- you should buy it from an independent bookstore immediately -- or get it out from your library). His paintings always seem to smell like summer to me. I wish I could walk into them (and talk to the people he paints, their faces seem to have so many stories etched into them).  Just look at that illustration above for a minute.  Isn't it gorgeous?  Hold on, let me show you another one:

How does he make something as horrible as slaves exposed on the deck of a ship making the middle passage from Africa look so beautiful?  I know this image is a little small, but one of the things that strikes me about it is how he honors the dignity f every single person he depicts, even the white sailors.

Anyway, where was I?  Oh, yeah, so Heart and Soul is this amazing overview of the story of African-Americans in America from the Revolutionary War to the election of President Obama.  And if I wasn't jealous enough of Nelson's artistic ability, he is an excellent writer as well.  The text takes the form of a narrative from an older family member to a younger one (or maybe a group of kids) about their history.  The voice is strong and interesting.  Here are the opening lines of the book:

"Ever visit the capital in Washington, DC?  It's a beautiful white building made of sandstone, and it has a big iron dome that rises over the city like a full moon.  It was built by slaves and freemen to be a symbol of the liberty Americans had won from England in the American Revolution.  Inside the rotunda there are large paintings and sculptures of famous Americans.  Big ol' statues of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington.  The paintings tell the story of how America came to be.  Strange, though... nary a black face in all of those pretty pictures.  There's plenty of white folks and a few Indians here and there, but none of us.  It's as if we never existed -- stricken from the record, like Moses from the walls of Egypt.  Of course, those fancy paintings ain't telling the whole truth."

Bottom line:  Heart and Soul is a beautiful books that more students ought to be exposed to -- from pre-K grade through graduate school (though the little ones might enjoy it more if you show them the pictures and talk through it -- they might have to be in first grad before the text really makes sense to them. )  It is serious at time, but also full of sunlight and hope throughout. Buy it.

So how can I talk about a book called Penny and her Doll after describing a book that covers almost the entire sweep of American history?  How could Kevin Henkes ever hope to achieve that level of gravitas? 

Well, that's an easy question -- he can't, he doesn't, and he isn't trying to.  Penny and Her Doll is about a girl (actually a mouse-girl -- this is Kevin Henkes after all) who is trying to think of a name for her new ragdoll sent from Grandma.  Penny struggles with finding the right name for a while, and finally she does.  That's it. Nothing profound, just the story of a little kids solving a real problem by working at it for a while.   Henkes's style is nothing like Nelson's.

This book is covered, inside and outside with flowers.  There is a lot of pink going on here.  The mouse is presentational rather than representational.  So why would I like this book?  I mean, doesn't it seem a little bit shallow?

Maybe, but look at the cover once.  The focus of the whole cover is on a young mouse showering a little doll with affection.  Look at the way she holds the doll.  This little mouse really cares.  And the story is a simple one with simple words -- but it is also very reassuring.  Penny is seriously worried, the way little kids can be sometimes, that she will not be able to find a name for her doll.  The grownups in her life reassure her that she will come up with something.  And eventually, after thinking it over for a few days, she does.  Nothing dramatic here, but yet there is something very important being communicated.

Reassurance.  Listen, maybe you have a rosy picture of childhood as a time when each day stretched out before you without any commitments, and life was carefree and without worry.  If that is your memory, it is false.  Children worry about a lot of things.  Many of the things they worry about are not, of course, reasonable, but they don't know that.  One of the things picture books can do is remind them that things are going to be okay.  This book (and the other Penny books with it; Henkes has several out) is reassuring.

Wait a minute, you say.  So the first story was very honest -- so much so that it sounds like it might be a little unsettling.  The second book frankly seems a little unrealistic -- but it is reassuring.  so which is it?  Which kind of book does a little kid need to read.

My friends, children desperately need both. 

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