May 24, 2013

Memorial Day: Eternal Flames

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On Memorial Day we commemorate and honor those who served our country to assure the continuation of our independence and freedoms. It is indisputable (and honorable) that we should do so.

That we should do so only on this occasion is indeed a travesty. Our year-round acknowledgement of the service and sacrifice of others should extend far beyond the sincerely polite "Thank you for your service" offered to those in uniform when we encounter them, most often in an airport terminal.

A year ago at this time Maurice Sendak had recently died and my remarks about remembering and honoring those who contribute to society's greater good, to our advancement and improvement as people, focused on his remarkable contributions. In that post I urged the use of picture books throughout the year to share history with new generations, to explore and discuss the values and principles that lead us into wars and require vigilant protection.

As I write this today, on Memorial Day weekend, I can't help but focus on a turning point in the Civil Rights movement, leading to the passage of the historic Civil Rights legislation just one year later. Five young girls had completed their Sunday school class in the basement of a Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama.
Martin's Big Words: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Hyperion Books, 2001

MARTIN'S BIG WORDS: The Life of Martin Luther King, Jr., by Doreen Rappaport, illustrated by Bryan Collier, does not need me to sing its praises. Named as recipient of the prestigious Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Award, as a Caldecott Honor Book, Jane Addams Book for Young Readers, ALA Notable Children's Book, and New York Times Book Review Award, to name a few.

 I feature this title, on this weekend, not to honor Dr. King, but to honor the young girls who were killed by the fire bomb thrown into their church that day. Today President Obama signed the Congressional Gold Medal Bill conferring on each of these four girls the highest civilian award granted by our government. The fact that the bill passed on a vote of 97-0 in these contentious political times is every bit as impressive as the passage of the original Civil Rights Act which changed all of our lives. By that I mean that the death of these four young girls can continue to challenge and inspire us to rise above our differences, no matter how deeply held, to do what is right.

So why mention these girls in connection with this book? Find a copy and read Bryan Collier's illustration notes. He refers to his characteristic collage techniques, the symbolism of the stained glass motif, and the portrait images he chose to use. Then he explains his intent for depicting four candles burning brightly on a final page. These represent the four girls who died in the fires on that night fifty years ago.   This is yet another example of the power of picture books, of the  the depths and layers of story, emotion, and insight contained in quality titles for readers of every age.

I honor and applaud the many who serve or served  in uniform, including my father and two brothers-in-law. My attention to this topic in no way reduces my genuine gratitude to them and to all who serve, and to the families who make their service possible.

But the anniversary of the Birmingham church fire, the Congressional Medal celebration, and the Memorial Day weekend came together in my mind in a way I could not ignore. It's easy to associate flames (and bombs) with war and battle. Flames can also inspire, commemorate, honor, and comfort. (Think vigil candles, votive candles, fireworks, and "This Little Light of Mine".) Those who serve in the military let their lights shine for the world on a daily basis. But others may inspire us to our higher selves even when it was never their choice to do so.

May their lights all shine, on and on.

To preview a selection of more traditional picture books on the topic of Memorial Day I'll link you to the always helpful post.

May 18, 2013

Personal Favorites- in Artifacts and Fleischman Titles

I've been a fan of Paul Fleischman's work for years, and his recent release does not disappoint. 

Candlewick, March, 2013

I'll admit I was predisposed to like THE MATCHBOX DIARY, illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline, before ever reading it. Back in the sixties (the decade, not my age) I was attempting to personalize the decor of a furnished sublet apartment on a limited budget. 
Okay, on NO budget.
What I did have in my possession was a stack of advertising notecards which were miniaturized versions of Pan Am travel posters. (For the younger crowd, Pan Am was the classy world-wide airline of the time.) I gathered some loose change and bought a couple of "boxes of boxes" of matches. Friends who were known to bar-hop on weekends provided me with a stack of absorbent cardboard coasters. Thus equipped, I set about using the notecards to wrap four dozen matchboxes with images of world-class destinations, taking care to keep the sandpaper striking side untouched by glue.  I then applied those images to the flip side of each coaster. (It was the sixties- think MadMen. It was assumed that guests would smoke and drink.) 
To my mind a brandy snifter of international matchboxes next to a stack of poster/coasters was a first step in transforming a co-ed who didn't drink, smoke, or travel beyond the midwest into a more interesting character. 

The very suggestion that an illiterate Italian immigrant would salvage empty matchboxes to document his challenging but admirable life had me falling in love with this book before I even opened the cover. Once I did, things only got better. Then I read Fleischman's description of his lifelong love affair with boxes and watched his Matchbox Theater Video. I was a goner.

When it comes to Fleischman's other titles, I find myself surprisingly ready to state my favorite, which I'm so often reluctant to do for any given author's or illustrator's work. When  asked about favorites I find my mind instantly snaps to qualifiers: For what readers? For what purpose? In which format? This should certainly be the case for him,  as you can see here from the vast array of outstanding titles he has produced. The fact that this hasn't happened with Fleischman's work means that one of his books transcends my general high standards as "one of my favorites for ___" to stand alone as my unqualified favorite. Full Stop. 

Candlewick, 2002
Until now that title has been WESLANDIA, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes. 
In this story Wes launches his summer vacation in his own backyard, equipped only with what he has learned in school, that the core of every enduring civilization is a staple food crop. That knowledge  in the hands of  a boy with insatiable curiosity and ingenious creativity needed only a summery night breeze to deposit a few seeds of unknown origin. An entire civilization takes root in his yard, extending  its reach into the hearts and minds of his bullying classmates and clueless parents. 

Candlewick,  2007

Fleischman and Hawkes again paired their talents for the fantastic SIDEWALK CIRCUS, with impressive and appealing results, yet WESLANDIA still had a lock on my heart.

Until now. 
Now I must fall back on qualifiers and hedging of one kind or another, because THE MATCHBOX DIARY has latched on to another piece of my heart. In WESLANDIA  the exuberance and vibrant abstractions in the images fully reflect Wes's blend of  nerdy schoolboy with super-hero resilience and brilliance.

 THE MATCHBOX DIARY's  muted tones, crumpled artifacts, and historic specificity reflect the fragile but durable experiences of great-grandfather's life, preserved in matchboxes collected over many decades. The fact that these two titles are so different in image, content, character and genre protect my heart from being severed like the baby in Solomon's court. Instead they lend themselves beautifully to different purposes and audiences, reflecting the remarkably versatile talent of their author.

Each stands on its own solid ground as fine literature and art. Each has unforgettable characters, setting, and plot. Each transcends target ages, offering something for everyone without diluting quality or story. And each is densely layered, offering potential for discussion, for curricular connections, and for links to personal experience. 

If Paul Fleischman's titles are not already on your shelves, add these two today, then explore the rich array of others he has to offer.

May 16, 2013

Love a Tree- Today and Every Day!

Sometimes it's best not to fight Mother Nature. Or social media, for that matter.
I was planning to post a piece about the incredible book below later this month, but decided to shift gears and get it out today, just in time for "Love-a-Tree Day". This is yet another example of a worthy designation of a themed day, week, or month. But, (and regular readers have my permission to roll their eyes at this point) I've stated my reasons for being less than enamored with this approach, especially when it comes to sharing quality picture books.
But some days the signs are too strong to ignore and you gotta cry uncle.
So, this mid-week post started when I read Cathy's HUMOR ME post about this special day, including quick notes and links to several of my favorite books about trees. (Some who know me personally might spot one title in her list about which my strong feelings are not really positive, but it shall remain a mystery, since I know it is a beloved favorite of many.) 

Albert Whitman & Company, 2013
Then I read Beth's comment on Cathy's post recommending the recent release, PICTURE A TREE, by incredibly talented author and illustrator, Barbara Reid

Just last week I was drafting a post about this book while I was lucky enough to have it from the library, but I took this as a sign that posting it today was "meant to be", as they say. 

For starters, I hope you'll go to the link to Barbara's website before reading any further. Regardless of the content, Reid's signature plasticine constructs/illustrations create visual storytelling at its best. In this case, each double page spread, including the end papers, develops a story far beyond the few words on the page. This is one of those priceless selections offering something for every age and purpose, beginning with sheer enjoyment. It can also serve as mentor text for figurative language, especially metaphor. It's the kind of book that will be reread/re-examined time after time. And for those countless kiddies who adore "search" books, this is an ideal alternative.

Once I resigned myself to posting this today I was waiting to complete some gardening and errands. During that time I caught snippets of three different public radio programs dealing with trees, deforestation/climate change, and urban forests. I headed for the keyboard and started putting this together before Smoky Bear came knocking at my door.

But for those who might have missed my weekend post, I'm linking here. My radio monitoring (which obviously sustains me throughout the day) also revealed that over in Madison, Wisconsin the legislature is following up their legalization of wolf hunting by proposing that the cost of buying a license be reduced. I won't even think about debating the rightness or wrongness of hunting wolves in this venue, but I would like to think that making it "cheaper" to do so is a less desirable choice than using proceeds from the existing license fees to monitor the wolf population for precipitous reductions. 
Dutton Juvenile, 2008

So here's my mid-week, theme-based Love-A-Tree Day post. Do yourself a favor and get your hands on PICTURE A TREE. You won't regret it.

May 11, 2013

They're Back, But For How Long?

Readers of this blog are aware of my contrarian attitude about focusing on theme months, specific holidays, etc. as a reason to feature quality titles, only to mentally (or even physically) stuff them away for the remainder of the year. Earth Day was several weeks ago, but the backstory on this event stretches through time into the past, the present, and our multi-generational futures.
The forces threatening Mother Nature's delicate balance have been at work since before the advent of humankind, but the footprint of civilization has crushed wide swaths of nature in its wake. Rachel Carson's paradigm-shifting SILENT SPRING celebrated its fiftieth anniversary last year (2012), the same year that marked the death of another noble defender of nature, Jean Craighead George. No words of praise from me or others can do justice to the impact her writings have had in leading countless readers along a path of responsible conservation of Earth's resources, especially wildlife.

Dutton Juvenile, 2008
George's work on her writings and her cause continued until the end of her days, and beyond. (see below)  Her series focusing attention on the loss of species to particular habitats and their eventual restoration began with THE WOLVES ARE BACK. Each of the titles in this series paired her text with paintings by Wendell Minor. In this book the sad truth is told that wolves were intentionally eliminated from Yellowstone National Park in order to offer public viewing of only more docile creatures. That elimination involved shooting and tapping wolves until every last one was gone. Only after they were missed, truly mourned, were packs reinstated. Over time, their presence has enhanced the quality and balance of the entire ecosystem, including food chains, populations of other species,  and the natural growth patterns of grasses and woodlands.

Dutton Juvenile, 2010
Two years later THE BUFFALO ARE BACK was released, produced with the same pairing of George's words  and Minor's paintings. Once again the sad truth is that the buffalo were also eliminated intentionally as a means of controlling the survival of Native Americans and their reliance on prairie traditions. Removal of the buffalo led directly to dependence on reservation life.
Almost a decade before Silent Spring was published I recall standing  with my fourth grade classmates for a choral recitation of the eloquent short poem by Carl Sandburg, Buffalo Dusk.

The Buffaloes are gone.
And those who saw the buffaloes are gone.
Those who saw the buffaloes by the thousands and how they pawed the prairie sod
into dust with their hoofs, their great heads down pawing on in a great pageant of dusk,
Those who sawa the buffaloes are gone.
And the buffaloes are gone.

George's text is equally eloquent in its clear portrayal of the domino effects this interference with nature generated. A cascade of negative consequences followed: plowing, farming, and  predictable climate cycles of drought and flood resulted in the grasshopper plagues, erosion, and the dustbowl.

Dial Books, 2013
Last March, less than a year after her death, THE EAGLES ARE BACK was published posthumously. In this case the loss of our incomparable eagles was the inevitable but unintended consequence of the use of pesticides, developed in part to maximize crops from the depleted plains. In this portrayal a young boy begins his own lifetime commitment to nature when he experiences firsthand the dwindling population of eagles. In the course of the book legislation and conservation actions, promoted by the leaders who created Earth Day, help to restore health to the entire food chain, allowing eagles to once again breed successfully. 

I hope these books will find their way into the hands of young readers, initiating a domino effect of positive consequences. My life has spanned the years when extinction and loss were considered inevitable and irreversible, on to years of awareness and activism on behalf of nature. Now, though, the good news contained in these portrayals has produced the twin challenges penned by Dickens: ignorance and apathy. When populations have recovered enough that states now allow hunting and trapping of wolves, when the boundaries of national parks form an unfenced border beyond which these restored species are game, it's far to easy to assume that extinction is not a concern. Our vigilance must be greater than ever. The youth of today need to read these stories of species on the brink of disappearing in order to become tomorrow's defenders of the cause to which Caron and George devoted their lives.

May 8, 2013

May 8 Remembrance: VE Day

A quick mid-week post here in honor of the 68th anniversary of VE DAY- the official end to open combat in Europe in the waning days of World War II, May 8, 1945. My dad was serving in Germany and years later told how devastating it was to see the German people (old men, women, and children) nearly starving after years of Hitler depleting their homeland to underwrite the war. He said when Allied troops hauled in truckloads of potatoes to feed them,  the locals would first  cut out the healthy eyes as seed crop for the coming year before cooking and eating what remained, even if it was rotten.

That sounds harsh, and yes, it was tragic. 

On the other hand, it was in these same days that Allied troops were liberating the desperate survivors of concentration camps, discovering their horrid truth and their even more devastating reality of furnaces, crematoriums, and mass graves.
Orchard Books, 1996

Today or any day is an ideal time to share LET THE CELEBRATIONS BEGIN, written by Margaret Wild and illustrated by Julie Vivas. Now out of print, it is worth a search to track down this sensitive treatment based on Holocaust survivor reports. 

Reflecting actual events in WWII concentration camps as liberation neared, this is the story of a group of women prisoners who patched toys together (literally) from the meager scraps of their lives to assure that the few children who survived with them would have a celebration once the Allies reached them and finally released them from a living Hell. The author's note confirms the actual events and artifacts from which this story was developed

Some escaped the horror of the concentration camps, but not without the help and bravery of others. This was the case 
for PASSAGE TO FREEDOM: The Sugihara Story

Perfection Learning, 2003
Several international leaders during the Holocaust have been honored as "Righteous Among Nations," their stories told in books and movies (Schindler's List comes to mind). The story of Sugihara, Japanese ambassador to Lithuania in 1940, has been told here through the eyes of his young son, with an afterword in the son's own words. He is justifiably proud of the role his father played in saving thousands of lives, and the fact that he was the only Asian recognized for such service to humanity.

When you're having a bad day, pause to honor the struggles and suffering of the Allies who ended this devastation, and those who lived through countless days whose horrors defy description. 
And then share their stories so kids today can keep their own bad days in perspective.

Picture books are as versatile and diverse as the readers who enjoy them. Join me to explore the wacky, wonderful, challenging and changing world of picture books.