Jun 24, 2012
The Power of a Penny (and of Women)
Last week my post focused on the wisdom and grace of The Boys, a nearly wordless masterpiece by Jeff Newman.
Wisdom and grace are not gender specific, though.
I'll be traveling when this post appears, returning home from what I'm sure will be a joyful family wedding. Within the span of two months I'll witness the weddings of two of my nieces, both gorgeous, loving, accomplished, and wise in ways that matter most. That called to mind the perfect book to spotlight this week, MARY'S PENNY, by Tanya Landman, illustrated by Richard Holland.
To deal with my time constraints for the week I'll share a review I first wrote for the Center for Children's Literature at Carthage College. That allows me to prepare this in advance, travel, celebrate with family, yet post on time.
Tanya Landman’s Mary’s Penny demonstrates the power of well-paired text and illustration. Her straightforward but rhythmic language develops a sense of timeless wisdom, utilizing traditional elements including repetition and patterns of three (three word phrases, three siblings, three attempts to meet the challenge). When a farmer tests his two grown sons to determine which will eventually control the farm, the possibility of daughter Mary taking over doesn’t even occur to him. “Everyone thought that girls couldn’t run farms” in those “olden golden days”.
Mary bides her time, and holds her tongue. When brothers Hans and Franz attempt (and fail) a challenge to “fill the house” using a single penny, Mary quietly but firmly demands her opportunity to try. Though her arms and legs “were as slender as sticks” she insists “it takes brains, not brawn to run a farm.” With a lateral rather than literal approach, she uses her allotted penny to fill the house with light, knowledge, music, joy, and wisdom, winning her father’s approval to run the farm even before he is “dead and gone”.
Richard Holland’s use of detail, photographic images, and exaggerated proportions in mixed media/collage illustrations challenges readers to open their minds to possibilities. Minimal but intentional fine black lines and intricate elements allow the characters to focus attention, express emotion, and generate humor with the sparest of energy. Use of subtle color tones and ample open space on oversized double page spreads throughout create a sense of a simple place and a time long ago, yet offer a wealth of information and insight in background images. Each reading will reveal surprises and previously unnoticed repetitions, including the ubiquitous cat. As in Mary’s case, its internal musings are left to the reader to surmise.
This entertaining presentation of a lesser-known tale transcends its obvious feminist message to remind us all of the value of thinking deeply about our lives and filling them with things of real and lasting value.
An interview with Richard Holland can be read at the Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast Blog archive.
Note to self: I was clever enough to prepare this in advance, use previous material, and join my family in celebration while still posting on time. So why would I tell readers about that?
As much as I believe that age increases opportunities for wisdom, it doesn't always work that way for me. I'm not "native" to this digital world, not able to figure out things like this pre-posted posting automatically, instinctively, as it would have to my two young nieces. I debated several options for dealing with conflicts of travel and time, always thinking in a linear, old school approach. When this option occurred it reminded me of Mary's lateral logic. And I was pleased enough with myself to want to share it.
I worry that the wisdom of the young, particularly of talented young women such as Mary and my nieces, is too often overlooked or undervalued. Any fears and anxiety I may have about the future of society (environment, education, economics) is diminished when I look at their potential. I remember that all things are possible, that a little can go a long way, and that we can fill our lives with things of real and lasting value.
And picture books.
And I remind myself once again that not everything about the "olden golden" days should be preserved.