Saturday, February 26, 2011

A Writer’s Best Friend

Where do you get your ideas? A writer hears that question more than any other. Maybe the person to ask is the writer's best childhood friend.

ZORA AND ME by Victoria Bond & T. R. Simon, Candlewick Press, 2010

This middle grade novel is a fictionalized account of the childhood of author Zora Neale Hurston. A debut for both writers, Bond and Simon, this is the only project endorsed by the Zora Neale Hurston Trust that was not written by Hurston herself.

Hurston’s best known work, Their Eyes Were Watching God, is considered the most widely read and highly acclaimed novel in African American literature. Praised as a tribute to the strength of black women, it raises the question in the mind of the reader, “Where did she get her ideas?”

That, in turn, takes us back to Hurston’s childhood in Eatonville, Florida, an all black township incorporated by 27 African-American men soon after the Emancipation Proclamation. Hurston and family moved there when she was a toddler and it’s in this community that her writer’s heart was nourished.

Eatonville is also the setting for this story about solid friendships, the difference between lies and storytelling, and how life and death and pretending are tangled up together in the world of the adolescent.

Zora’s best friend, Carrie, is the narrator. Her own insights and observations lend a surprising depth to this well-told story. Sometimes a sentence is so profound, it takes several readings to explore it, let it sink in, and wonder if the authors planted it there for parents or kids. Their Eyes Were Watching God is on high school reading lists. If I’d read Zora and Me first, I’d have a better understanding of the adult book. (I'd also be younger.)

Sadly, Hurston’s writing career didn’t bring her fortune. She received little for her work and died destitute. Her burial was in an unmarked grave. When Alice Walker was a young writer, she found the grave and made sure that a monument was placed to honor the life and achievements of this brilliant author.

Bond and Simon included an annotated bibliography of Hurston’s works as well as their own sources. A short biography of Hurston and a timeline of important events in her life are helpful references. more

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Escaping Into Art

How many times have you heard, “Reading saved me” Or “Writing saved me”? The arts have power. Music, dance, painting, sculpture. Art can take us away. Poetry. Pottery. No matter what holds us captive, escape is built into the art that calls us away, nurtures us, rests us, and allows us to breathe free.

DAVE THE POTTER: Artist, Poet, Slave, by Laban Carrick Hill, Illustrated by Bryan Collier, Little, Brown and Company, 2010.

Author Hill calls Dave, a slave who lived about 200 years ago in South Carolina, “An important American artist.” We have no idea how Dave learned to read and write. It may not have been safe for him to write on his pottery, but this is how we know about him, from the inscribed pottery he left behind.

The story follows the potter’s hands as clay is dug from the earth and carried, wheelbarrow by wheelbarrow, to Dave’s spinning potter’s wheel. The sight of Dave’s hands, covered in the dusty wet clay, shaping and pulling the pot into being, is made even more dramatic by a triple spread fold out. The intensity on Dave’s face as he works makes the reader feel the pull in his fingers as he works against the pull of the wet clay, pinching and squeezing the resistant mass.

Then it all comes together. Dave stands proud, beholding the clay pot, the shape he "saw" before he began to pull the pot from the earth.

The next step is to turn wood ash and sand into a glasslike brown glaze, the outer covering that would extend the pot’s life “to withstand time.”

Still Dave isn’t finished. Before the clay hardens, he picks up a stick and scratches a poem of his own imagining into the clay.

The luminous illustrations, awarded a Caldecott Honor, were done in watercolor collage by an artist who began painting at the age of 15 and earned a BFA with honors from Pratt Institute in New York. Bryan Collier is no stranger to the field of outstanding children’s books. He is the illustrator of over 20 picture books including Martin’s Big Words (also a Caldecott Honor Book and a Coretta Scott King Honor Book) and Rosa (which won the Coretta Scott King Award.) He lives in Harlem, where he directs mural programs throughout the city for any child who wants to paint.

I wanted to see more paintings by this talented artist, scrolled through the web page gallery of Bryan Collier and picked favorites,“Circle of Daddy’s Arms” and “Blessings are Free.”

Award winning author Laban Hill was inspired to delve further into the artist’s life by reading one of Dave’s poems. He needed to know. Who was this talented man? We need to know, too. How did Dave soar above the bonds of his slavery? Somewhere, in his art, lies the answer.

To begin your quest, see the online biography of Dave.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Blistered Feet and Itchy Clothes

What is war like? TV, movie, and video game thrills and chills are one thing. The real thing is quite another.

FORGE by Laurie Halse Anderson, Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2010

Following the success of her best seller Chains, which received the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction in 2009, acclaimed author Anderson continues the story of Curzon and Isabel.

In the first book, the pair escaped slavery. At the opening of the second book, the two are separated and 15 year old Curzon is a free man serving in the Continental Army at Valley Forge. Where is Isabel? Is she still alive?

A descendent of soldiers who fought in the American Revolution, the author carried her research beyond a plethora of primary sources. She walked barefoot in the snow, cooked over open fires, wrote by candlelight, and split wood, grinding into her writing bones the cold and hunger the soldiers suffered.

Anderson’s characters forge bonds of friendship in spite of the chains forged to defeat Curzon and Isabel. The settings are believable enough for adults but not so harsh that young readers will recoil. Shelter, clothes, shoes, blankets, and tools were scarce and sometimes nonexistent. The soldiers ate firecake, squirrel, and opossum. What they had in great supply was determination and indomitable spirits. Their pluck adds depth to the meaning of Freedom.

Quotes from real people add authenticity. Each chapter is headlined by a quote from a diary, letter, speech, and newspapers of the day.

My favorite: “‘I wish most sincerely there was not a slave in the province. It allways appeard (sic) a most iniquitous Scheme to me-fight ourselfs for what we are daily robbing and plundering from those who have as good a right to freedom as we have. You know my mind upon this subject.’–Abigail Adams, whose father owned slaves, writing to her husband, John.”

My favorite quote from a character is Curzon’s: “For all the talk of battles and gun fire, soldiering was mostly about blistered feet and itchy clothes.”

To read more about the author, follow her

on twitter

or her blog

For readers ages 8 and up, Chains and Forge bring American history to life. They fit perfectly on any list of books to read during Black History Month.

Looking for more titles for Black History Month? Here's an excellent blog I follow

Monday, February 14, 2011

Something Sweet

Here’s a treat for young listeners that won’t take its toll on teeth. Read a sweet book.

BIG RED LOLLIPOP by Rukhsana Khan, illustrated by Sophie Blackall, Viking, 2010

This is for all those first children who wish they’d enjoyed a different birth order. Speaking as one of them, I know what it’s like to carry high expectations on one’s shoulders, when inside your head, your best instincts are battling with the green-eyed monster’s let’s-get-even
child instincts. Add a culture that your parents bring to their new country, but you, the new kid in class, don’t. I can’t speak for that experience, but Rubina can.

Rubina has, at wonderful long last!, been invited to a birthday party by a classmate. It’s a feeling of acceptance, belonging, all those kid needs that are separate from any adult understanding. Mother, Ami,thinks it’s wonderful, too. She’s thinking from a grown-up mother standpoint.

Rubina’s little sister, Sana, speaks up, “I want to go, too!” Ami agrees. Rubina must feel like grinding her teeth. It isn’t, simply is NOT done this way in America. Sana insists. Ami does not relent. Off they go, Rubina and Sana.

Of course, as any first grader could predict, this is a disaster waiting to happen. It does.

The sweet twist comes much later. Sana is invited to a birthday party. Oh, great joy at last! And her little sister, Maryam, wants to go. Ami thinks that’s just fine. Sana must feel like grinding her teeth, (Sound familiar?) But what does Rubina think? Say?

This is a book for great discussions. I don’t know about you, but I was proud of Rubina.

Author Khan moved to Canada from her birthplace in Pakiston when she was three. This well told story comes from her own childhood. Guess which sister she was? Illustrator Blackall is originally from Australia.Not sure about her childhood parties, but she says one of the worst things about being a grown-up is not being offered a goody bag at the end of a party.

Take a look at their websites:



For all of you out there attending parties today, may your little candy hearts have uplifting messages.

Even if the only valentine you can think of is your fluffy cat.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Flu Season Friends

Statistically speaking, February is flu month. Although flu can strike during other months, on a bar graph of numbers of reported cases each month, February wins the chicken soup trophy. What children dislike most about flu, besides feeling terrible, is missing their friends. Here is a prescription for housebound snifflers.

A SICK DAY FOR AMOS McGEE by Philip C. Stead, illustrated by Erin E. Stead, Roaring Brook Press, 2010

Amos is a kindly zookeeper who talks to his sugar bowl and counts as his friends the elephant, tortoise, rhinoceros, penguin, and owl.

One day Amos is too sick to go to work. He is missed. The animals decide to visit Amos. They even ride the #5 bus, the very same bus Amos rides to visit them.

I loved sharing this with a couple of bright pre-school classes. They identified with what it’s like to be sick. They thought it was the right thing to do for friends to come visit and bring a red balloon. (The cover clearly shows the penguin carrying a red balloon.)

As I read, the children sneezed (covering their sneezes with crisp white tissues, of course) along with the allergic rhino and poor sniffling Amos, and made sympathetic and friendly hooting sounds when Owl’s name was mentioned. Poor Owl. We knew his secret: he’s afraid of the dark.

The children quickly made friends with the little elephant puppet who came along to help me read the story. (After all, the elephant’s picture is on the cover.) In the meantime, grown ups in the room wondered how that red balloon managed to survive the trip. Ah, the beauty of fiction!

These tiny students were well coached. They knew, as one little girl said, the illustrator is the one who “colors the pictures.”

Although she has undoubtedly colored a lot of pictures, this is the first children’s book Erin Stead has illustrated (her husband wrote the text) and it won the Caldecott. Now the pressure is on. What will she do next?

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Think Spring!

The groundhog gurus have decided. Punxsutawney Phil in Pennsylvania says spring is around the corner. That's welcome news to Pennsylvania residents who are digging out from the last snow and looking skyward for the next one. Down south, Birmingham Bill in Alabama says six more weeks of winter. Garden enthusiasts there are already seeing buds on early bloomers. More winter? More cold with deceptive patches of ice? Yuck. Let’s honor the state of Pennsylvania today and hope Phil is the critter with the correct inside information.

BALLET FOR MARTHA: Making Appalachian Spring by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan, illustrated by Brian Floca.

How do you translate movement and music into words? This book is about collaboration.

First came Martha Graham, the godmother of modern dance. She wanted to create a ballet, “A legend of American living” set in the hills of western Pennsylvania on the wedding day of a young farmer and his bride.

Then Aaron Copland, the composer, responded to Martha’s invitation to create music for her ballet.

Add the sculptor Isamu Noguchi, one of the world’s most revered artists. As the musical progressed, he collaborated with Martha Graham on over twenty sets which came together to produce Appalachian Spring.

This is only part of the story. Behind the scenes of the book itself are three more creative talents. Authors
Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan have worked together before. If you enjoy this book, you will want to look up the stunning picture book Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Through the Gates and Beyond. Acclaimed as a pair, Greenberg and Jordan teamed with illustrator Brian Floca who is also accomplished and award winning. None of this has anything to do with awards, however. These three artists are like the three they bring to life on the page. Determined. Detailed. Thorough.

The illustrator captures the most subtle movement of the dancers, put there by Martha to deliver the most power. The writers embrace the energy, the swirling, twirling, strutting, leaping, contrasted with a sudden stillness, quiet, rest, as contemplative as rocking a baby. Art and text stitch a tapestry of life and love.

Even as the players move toward the stage lights to take the final bow, it’s obvious that this classic will be performed for generations to come by generations of dancers and musicians, set builders, actors, and producers. A link from past to future.

Martha Graham found the words "Appalachian Spring" in a poem and liked the sound of it. So do I. Hurry, spring!

Hillview School Library