Jul 3, 2013

Ways to Celebrate Independence Day-- with Books!

Until last fall I was very satisfied with my name. My mother was determined to give us names that would not be "nicknamed". She accomplished that with my older sibs, at least until they moved into the tweens/teens when pals determined what they would be called. 
With my name, though, there was no fighting the fact that Sandra became "Sandy" before I could have anything to say about it (or about anything, for that matter, since I wasn't yet speaking!) Other than a brief burst of protest in my teens during which I insisted my name should be spelled "Sandi", I've felt more than satisfied with my name. 
Paul J. RIchards/AFP/Getty images
Via www.NPR.org

"Sandy", to me, conveys a generally appealing beachy impression, with enough implied grit and irritant that my personality doesn't come as too big a surprise once people get past the name. 
And then Super Storm Sandy co-opted my name. Compared to the havoc it wreaked on the east coast, I certainly shouldn't gripe about a simple name corruption. Even though I'm a midwesterner, my deep sympathy goes out to the millions who were affected, and my gratitude goes out to those who helped them in ways large and small.  This Fourth of July, just in time for fireworks, the Statue of Liberty reopens for the first time since SSSandy blew into the Big Apple.

Traditional Fourth of July celebrations range from local to legendary, from neighborly to national. For more than a decade I lived in a small town where the parade drew everyone (really, EVERYONE!) to participate, spectate, or both. It was composed of tractors, combines, a few flatbed floats, decorated bikes, squads of marching Little Leaguers and VFW members, and about two dozen fire trucks, ambulances, and squad cars. The parade was timed so that all the equipment from a dozen surrounding townships could be used in each community in sequence, starting as early as 8:00 AM and ending late afternoon just in time to settle in for music, food and  fireworks at each home town park. 
Now I live in a suburban community with at least ten times the budget and a century-old tradition of much the same kind: parade, talent show, music, food, and fireworks. The surrounding suburbs mirror that effort and spirit. Our suburbs encircle a major metro area perched on Lake Michigan, which offers a massive, bank-funded celebration on July Third. That allows everyone to enjoy the extravaganza and their own community confabs on the fourth.

So what does this have to do with picture books? Easy-peasy, can't you guess? 

Exactly! Picture books can be just as varied, just as reflective of different communities, and just as perfectly suited to a single theme, despite their differences. So let's look at a few.
Clarion Books,
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2013

It's a safe bet that "Yankee Doodle" will be played and sung in all the above celebrations, but Tom Angleberger's recent release, CRANKEE DOODLE, is getting almost as much attention. Illustrated by the author's wife, CeCe Bell, this is a comical, cartoonish deconstruction of the song by an upbeat pony and the bored, argumentative Yankee. The premise is a hoot, including the last pageturn punchline. The pony's back page monologue clarifies the origin and interpretations of the lyrics. Kirkus gave it a starred review, and Books for Kids Blog raved about it as well. 

My advice? Squeeze in a trip to the library or bookstore and take this pony for a ride.

Henry Holt and Company, 2005
The New York City celebrations and harbor fireworks are viewed by millions, locally and on television. It is always a thrill to see the Statue of Liberty sllhouetted during the concert and under the celebratory night lights. It's perhaps the most universal icon of America and freedom, with its reopening for the holiday restoring a sense of normalcy to the beleaguered coastline. 
LIBERTY RISING: The Story of the Statue of Liberty is written  by Pegi Deitz Shea and illustrated by Wade Zahares. There are any number of titles portraying the story of the statue's creation, gifting, and transport from France intended for audiences of all ages. This version hits the picture book sweet spot, combining enough text to tell the story effectively with easily interpreted illustrations. The intense color, dramatic scale, and abstraction ramp up the tension, even though we know the story well. The double fold-out spread of the mounted statue and the timeline backmatter enhance this non-fiction selection further.

National Geographic Children's book,
MASTER GEORGE'S PEOPLE: George Washington, His Slaves, and His Revolutionary Transformation is written by Marfe Ferguson Delano with Mount Vernon with photography by Lori Epstein. The opening endpapers display the Declaration of Independence, whose public announcement we celebrate each Fourth of July. The final end papers display Washington's handwritten last will and testament, which reveals his transformed frame of mind about the Declaration's inspiring but misleading words, "that all men are created equal". 
Washington and most of the other signers were slaveowners, believing that the words only applied to white males. This major non-fiction work offers appealing photos for younger viewers but demands more from those seriously curious about Washington's change of heart.
Check it out at the Mount Vernon site.

Candlewick, 2012
Finally, consider this story about another New York City icon, the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine. As the backmatter says, it has two nicknames, "Big John" and "Saint John the Unfinished". The cornerstone was set  back in 1892 and it is still under construction. ME and MOMMA and BIG JOHN, by Mara Rockliff and illustrated by William Low, tells this remarkable story through a fictional family based on real New Yorkers. How does this fit with the Fourth of July? Think about that line in the document Washington signed: the right to the pursuit of happiness. 
Work on this massive cathedral was halted to divert funds to the ever-present needs of the neighborhood community, to those who lacked the means for survival, let alone pursuing happiness. Eventually the need for trained workers and the need for jobs coalesced to produce an apprenticeship program for craftsman to complete the construction. This book wins the trifecta of story, story-telling, and visual power.

The bottom line is a simple search-engine prompt will lead you to an unlimited list of titles about Fourth of July celebrations. Amid the flood of suggestions, take the time to find, read, and share those with the staying power to appeal all year long, and for years to come. 

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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.