Our library is open again! Right now you can’t browse the stacks or linger or use the computers, but you can put books on hold and pick them up and drop them off. And they do have a couple shelves of new releases set up near the checkout that you can browse. It was there that I stumbled across these first two picture books. Beautiful covers caught my eye, a quick flip through confirmed that they looked like my kind of books. So I brought them home and the small readers in my household concurred. These two books are treasures.
- River by Elisha Cooper
Morning, a mountain lake. A traveler. A canoe. As she paddles out into the blustery middle of the lake, she turns for a last wave to the shore behind her. Her journey begins.
A woman takes an imaginary canoe trip down the length of the Hudson River from Henderson Lake to New York Harbor and the lighthouse at Sandy Hook. The book begins with her sitting in her kitchen looking at a map with her son, daughter, and dog while through the window you can see her husband putting her canoe on top of the car.
The main text of the story doesn’t name place names at all– those all appear in the Note at the back of the book. Rather the story focuses on her experiences, what she sees and hears and does.
She is alone, far from home. Gray clouds bump into the mountains above her, a hard wind blows down through the tree tops. Three hundred miles stretch in front of her. A faraway destination, a wild plan. And the question: Can she do this?
The author notes that he did not canoe down the Hudson, not being a capable enough or brave enough canoer. But he did drive the route his heroine takes and he did canoe on the Batten Kill River and on a lake in Maine.
Hands blistered, body sore, she writes in her sketchbook by the glow of the lamp. Above her, stars come out in the blue-black sky.
The moon climbs up among the stars. She is alone, but not. The river stays beside her, mumbling to her and to itself al through the night.
The story doesn’t really focus on the dangers and hazards, nor does it burden the reader with the adventurer’s emotions. the unnamed woman deals with them matter of factly. She draws in her sketchbook, takes each adventure in stride. Communes with nature, sends off postcards to her family when she stops for supplies in town.
Creeks feed the river and the river widens. Cows graze in pastures at the river’s side, raising their heads to watch her go. She moos at the cows; one moos back. The land hums with tractors. The air smells of cut hay.
I love that he gave this epic adventure to a mom. I grabbed the book thinking it would be a nice geography lesson but it was much more than that. Such a lovely, meditative book. So serene and peaceful.
She paddles the days and camps in the evenings. Her blisters have hardened into calluses, her sunburn turned dark. Pencils whittled down, sketchbook filling up. The days blend together. Paddling, sketching, eating, camping, paddling again. At night when she sleeps, she dreams she is paddling under a big cloud sky.
2. A Map into the World Kao Kalia Yang
“Every single one of us carries a map inside of our hearts that we will need for something we don’t know is coming.” –Kao Kalia Yang
A Hmong girl and her family move into a new house and meet an elderly couple who live across the street, Bob and Ruth. Then when Ruth dies, the children are afraid that Bob won’t be able to find his way out of his house and into the world so they draw him a map in his driveway.
I love this image of grief as a place that is isolated and in which a person can get lost such that they can not be able to find their way back. And the map is delightful, being not a series of directions but a map of the good and the beautiful things that draw one into love and into engagement with the world:
I started my picture with a teardrop.
And then I made it splatter like sunshine. I drew lines leading away from the splattered sun in many directions . . .
I drew a line that led to the garden. There, I put a yellow ginko leaf.
I drew a line that led to the grass. There, I made the sparkling snow.
I drew a line to the sidewalk. There, I put a smiling worm named Annette.
I drew an arrow to our house. There, I added lilac flowers.
And then I drew a line, the biggest line of all, toward the street, and there I drew the whole world.
When I was done, I walked quietly to my mother and to Bob. They stopped talking, and Bob shook my hand.
“What did you draw for me?” he asked.
I said in a whisper, “A map into the world. Just in case you need it.”
At the beginning of the book the girl-narrator and her Tais Tais (grandmother) hang on the wall “a special story cloth about how the Hmong got to America.” The girl’s map for Bob seems to be a parallel of the story-cloth, the traditional Hmong way of remembering and transmitting their history in a time before their language was written down.
The book doesn’t explain what the story cloth is nor make a direct connection between it and the map the girl draws, but the parallel is there in a form that one can grasp intuitively. The book seems to encode the Hmong’s grief at leaving their homeland to come to America, entwining their story with that of Bob and Ruth. A truly lovely work of imagination.
You can find more about the book and author, including a video of author Kao Kalia Yang talking about her book, about her neighbor Bob, about Hmong story cloths, and more at the publisher’s web page, here: VIDEO: AUTHOR KAO KALIA YANG DISCUSSES A MAP INTO THE WORLD.
I recently stumbled across a painting by Kadir Nelson and fell in love. I googled him and found pages of his work and articles about him. I learned that he is a prolific illustrator of children’s books and I immediately surfed over to my library’s online catalog to put a bunch on hold. (Can I tell you how thrilled our library has reopened for pickup?)
Anyway, these are my first three Kadir Nelson books and I love all of them. He’s definitely my new children’s book illustrator crush. (I’d put him on a short list along with Barbara Cooney, Trina Schart Hyman, Barbara McClintock and others…)
3. Henry’s Freedom Box by Ellen Levine, illustrated by Kadir Nelson
But Henry’s mother knew things could change. “Do you see those leaves blowing in the wind? They are torn from the trees like slave children are torn from their families.”
This picture book tells the true story of Henry “Box” Brown who mailed himself to freedom in 1849 and thereafter became something of a celebrity.
Henry watched a bird soar high above the trees. “Free bird! Happy bird!” Henry thought. Henry said goodbye to his family. He looked across the field. The leaves swirled in the wind.
It is hard for children to read about slavery, about children torn from their families; but this book strikes the right note. I like the way it it uses imagery and symbol to move the reader through the terrible events that precede Henry’s escape. The book foreshadows the family’s dissolution with the image of the leaves torn from the trees. The way the metaphor builds up from the leaves, doesn’t soften the blow; rather, it underlies the grief and gives it a concrete form. Birds and tobacco leaves also give concrete form to Henry’s emotions.
First Henry is torn from his family when his master dies and he is given away to the master’s son. He does not say thank you to the old master as he is dying. “That would have been a lie.” (The understatement of the year, drives home Henry’s helplessness. He isn’t allowed to give his grief and his anger a voice. The best he can do is not to say the thing he’s expected to say.
When Henry meets Nancy he feels like singing– “but slaves didn’t dare sing in the streets.” Henry and Nancy marry and have several children. Again, the separation is foreshadowed:
Henry knew they were very lucky. They lived together even though they had different masters.
But Nancy was worried. Her master had lost a great deal of money. “I’m afraid he will sell our children,” she said. Henry sat very still.
And then Henry’s wife and children are sold away from him. He never sees them again.
I liked that when it comes to Henry’s daring escape he is shown as having agency. He mails himself, the story tells us, even though the white Dr Smith helps to arrange everything.
“Twist that tobacco!” The boss poked Henry. Henry twisted tobacco leaves. His heart twisted in his chest.
Beautifully illustrated, beautifully told. Definitely a worthy book to add to any lesson about the Underground Railroad.
You can watch a video of Henry’s Freedom Box being read on You Tube. (I’ve recently discovered that You Tube is a treasure trove of read alouds and I love it as a way to preview picture books, even if I usually prefer to read them to the children myself.)
4. Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Kadir Nelson
This is a gorgeous picture book. Oh how I adore Kadir Nelson’s illustrations. Harriet is not prettified, but she is strong and beautiful and radiant with an inner light. And Carole Boston Weatherford’s text is so lovely. This story focuses on Harriet Tubman’s spiritual life, her deep and prayerful relationship with God. On every page, just about, there is a dialogue between Harriet and God. When Harriet speaks to Him, asks His help, God always answers her.
On a summer night, Harriet gazes at the sky and talks with God, I am your child, Lord, yet Master owns me, drives me like a mule. Now he means to sell me south in chains to work cotton, rice, indigo, or sugarcane, never to see my family again.
God speaks in a whip-poor-will’s song,
I SET THE NORTH STAR IN THE HEAVENS AND I MEAN FOR YOU TO BE FREE.
Harriet sees the star twinkling, My mind is made up. Tomorrow, I flee.
God wraps her in the blanket of night, and she returns to the cabin, sleeps beside her husband one last time.
God’s presence is real and palpable. He speaks, he acts. He is most certainly with Harriet every step of the way.
In the underbrush, Harriet sleeps into a deep sleep. God cradles her. When she wakes, the men on horseback have passed. And day breaks.
Thank you, Lord, for watching over me.
And her work on the Underground Railroad is in answer to a call from God:
Risking her own life, Harriet returns to the dreaded South and rescues her family. But she dreams of slaves still in the yoke.
She hears their groans, sees their tears, tosses and turns in her sleep.
Then, God opens her eyes,
HARRIET, BE THE MOSES OF YOUR PEOPLE.
But I am a lowly woman, Lord,
HARRIET, I HAVE BLESSED YOU WITH A STRONG BODY, A CLEVER MIND, YOU HEAL THE SICJ AND SEE THE FUTURE, USE YOUR GIFTS TO BREAK THE CHAINS.
I will do as You say, Lord. I will show others the way to freedom that You have shown me.
But Harriet, always humble, gives the credit to God:
And when free souls sing her praises, she gives glory where it is due.
It wasn’t me. It was the Lord. I always trust Him to lead me and He always does.
Kadir Nelson talks about his process of making this book a bit in an interview that I found on You Tube: “Not that you can make– or would make– the topic of slavery cheerful, because it was anything but that. I had to keep my audience in mind but I also had to be truthful when it came to representing Harriet Tubman and her plight. I was trying to find a middle ground where I wasn’t sugarcoating Harriet’s journey
5. He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands illustrated by Kadir Nelson
An absolutely gorgeous illustrated edition of the popular spiritual that I remember singing as a child. Lucy, however, had never heard it before and was absolutely enchanted by the song and by the pictures. She loved this book so much. Plain swept off her feet.
The book opens (and closes) with images of the earth seen from space. Then there is an image of the city seen from across the water with the rising sun gleaming from behind the buildings and sparkling on the water. Then you see the boy in his room with his artwork hanging on the wall, the city visible outside his window, holding a picture of his family drawn in crayon. And then a lovely closeup of that crayon drawing with the boys fingers holding the paper visible at the edges of the frame.
The book’s pictures are set in the San Francisco area and follow a little boy and his three sisters and mother and father as he plays in the rain, look at the moon and stars with his dad, flies kites, goes fishing, swims in the ocean– pictured sitting on his father’s shoulders as the waves crash around them, puts together a puzzle with an image of the globe, goes to the park, and looks at a map of the world.
I’ve been thinking about Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s talk about The Danger of a Single Story. I think one pitfall I want to avoid while teaching about slavery and racism is that it could be easy for a child reader to come to see African Americans through only one lens: that of conflict. And as Adichie says, that single story would rob them of their full humanity.
I love being able to find beautiful books like this one that show black children, families, just doing the same things we do, enjoying God’s world the way we do, children of God, just like us. It is important to learn about the terrible history of slavery and racial injustice but I don’t want it to be the only story we learn. So I’m grateful to Kadir Nelson for giving us a beautiful range of stories to enjoy.