Apr 14, 2014

A Gift from the Past: Galapagos George

Just about a year ago I wrote about some picture books by Jean Craighead George and Wendell Minor: THE WOLVES ARE BACK ,  THE BUFFALO ARE BACK, and  THE EAGLES ARE BACK.
Dial Books, March 2013

Dutton Juvenile, 2010

Dutton Juvenile, 2008
Recently this pair of kindred spirits released another title portraying threatened and endangered species,  

Despite its luminous content, in text and illustrations, there's a melancholy note to this  title in the series. This is in part due to the fact that this is a posthumous release for Jean Craighead George, who, together with her long-time illustration partner, Wendell Minor, proposed this project more than fifteen years ago. At the time publishers hesitated due to its discussions of evolution. Sadly, JCGeorge died before its release, although she was able to see a draft version of the book before her death. 

Harper Collins Books, April, 2014
This week I enjoyed the privilege of a lengthy conversation with the illustrator, Wendell Minor, who, like JCGeorge, is a force of nature himself. I'm preparing several posts to share his thoughts on these titles and his long career as an illustrator. This post, though, will focus on GALAPAGOS GEORGE. 
The earlier titles portrayed the tragic near-extinction of wolves, buffalo, and bald eagles from North America due to the predation and contamination of humans on the animals and their habitat. Eventually, with positive intervention from humans, these species regained enough ground to make modest comebacks. With careful monitoring and cautious conservation they may continue to survive the ever-encroaching and damaging effects of civilization.

This last title, however, chronicles the actual extinction of a species. Predictably, the reason for that loss isn't microbes or meteorites, but the destructive activities of humans. It begins with the story of prehistoric, desert-dwelling giant tortoise, Giantess George, whose fossil records indicate she lived long after the extinction of dinosaurs when furry creatures shared her desert, living in a land of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. She survived a massive storm that washed her and other tortoises from the continental coast into the ocean. 
Long neck allowed eating leaves when ground plants were no longer available.
Note the typical shape to the shell, before offspring  gradually adapted (below).

Tides and currents carried them on to the west, eventually reaching what we now call the Galapagos Islands. JCGeorge's text, as always, achieves an inspired balance of science and poetry, effectively describing the adaptation of the descendants of Giantess George and other long-necked tortoises on one of the islands. Fourteen tortoise varieties adapted with different characteristics on each isolated island in the archipelago.
Interior, showing the stages of adaptation.
 After millennia of adaptation and survival in nature, humans discovered and inhabited the island. The changes they brought with them destroyed habits, altered food chains, and eventually reduced the populations of each island species. Only in recent decades did scientists intervene to attempt to rescue the last of this Giant Tortoise species, dubbed Lonesome George. The sad truth was, though, that it was too late. When only one member of a species remains, population restoration is impossible.

I've already shared a spoiler in that this story is not one of recovery, and yet it is one of hope. I will leave it to readers, though, to discover the content of  final pages offering details about Lonesome George, as well as the illustrator notes and a note from Twig George, Jean's daughter. The back matter offers key terms, a timeline, and other excellent annotated resources. It meets Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts/Science and Technical Subjects. 

Images were used with permission of Wendell Minor. In future posts I'll explore his many collaborations with Jean Craighead George and his career in illustration. That gives you time to do a little exploration yourself and use a search engine (including a library!) to see just how many of your favorite picture books have been created by this prolific and legendary artist.

Apr 1, 2014

Dreaming Beyond Our Limits

by Kristy Dempsey, illustrated by Floyd Cooper

Philomel, 2014
And… I'm back again. Notice, though, I held out for this post until March, Women's History Month, ended. I've done this in the past, but this title is was such a powerful book it was a struggle not to share it sooner. I'll also mention some related titles I've reviewed in the past. Here's what I had to say about A DANCE LIKE STARLIGHT on Goodreads:

"This is both fiction (the young girl's dream) and fact/biographic  (Prima Ballerina Janet Collins breaking of the color barrier with her performance at the Met). Dempsey's language should be used across many ages as mentor text. It's figurative language ("streetlights spreading bright halos round their pin-top faces") grabs you and lifts you to New York City rooftops from page one. This young "colored" girl's dream of becoming a prima ballerina is firmly anchored in two realities: her frequent exposure to the highest levels of ballet through her mother's job, and her culture-limiting skin color. Together Dempsey and Cooper create a girl so real I was sure that links to her career in ballet would be listed at the back."

Other reviews of this book can be found here from some of my go-to sources: 

KIds Read: http://www.kidsreads.com

A Mighty Girl: http:// www.amightygirl.com

Children's Books Heal: http://childrensbooksheal.com

Kirkus reviews: https:www.kirkusreviews.com

KidLit Celebrates Women's History Month: http://kidlitwhm.blogspot.com 
(Don't miss the "INDEX" tab on this blog. It offers an alphabetized link to all previously reviewed titles for use throughout the year.)

They are universally impressed not only with the strength of the content of the story, but with the lyricism of the language and the illustrations rich with mood, detail, and underlayers of story. Neither is a surprise. Cooper participated in an interview in one of my earlier posts. His comments there and his many books demonstrate his versatility and talent, but are even more revealing of his insight into the richness of the text his illustrations support. 

Dempsey's line quoted in my review above offers only a sliver of her mastery and economy of language. That should come as no surprise once you click over to her website here and see that she is, first and foremost, a poet. Her home page says it best:

"Welcome! This site is for people who love words –
Words that call you like a whistle to come and listen…
Words that bounce you up and down and across a wondrous path called Story…
Words that make you never, ever, ever want to leave…"

See what I mean? An art form with the strength, delicacy, control, and power of ballet (and of dreams) could be in no better hands than with Dempsey and Cooper. 
Except, perhaps, when those creators are Rachel Isador and Tomi DePaulo.

In a much earlier post I featured three ballet titles and hope you'll take the time to read that now, if you haven't before. Just in case you're in a rush I'll provide the titles here so you can jot them down and find them later. Seriously, they're worth the effort. Each also pays homage to the importance of children's dreams.
Nancy Paulson Books, 2012 

First, BEA AT BALLET, with story and art by Rachel Isadore.
 In this little beauty, Bea is only one of a highly diverse group of toddlers participating in first experiences with the world of ballet. Apart from the beauty and grace of the story and images, the inclusion in this group of wee ones of  every race, ethnicity, and ability is understated brilliance. Every child has dreams, each can and does have innate appreciation of movement and music, of group interaction.

Greenwillow Books, 2003

An earlier offering from Isadore is ON YOUR TOES: A Ballet ABC. It does what only the best concept books do, it generates underlying themes and suggests worlds within worlds in each image. Alphabet books are particularly challenged by this, since the purpose of the book is to associate a distinct item to each letter, not to muddy the waters with irrelevant details. Isadore's book presents tones, word choices, and relationships in the art of ballet that infuse it with the dignity, value, and inspiration of dreams.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1979
OLIVER BUTTON IS A SISSY by Tomi DePaulo, involves tap dancing, not ballet, but it is a perfect pairing with A DANCE LIKE STARLIGHT. Oliver Button is a boy in school in the days nearly as restrictive in gender-expectations as the color barrier was in those same days. His dream of dancing, though, is one he refuses to deny, as is the case with Starlight's young girl. 

These titles illustrate (no pun intended), the REAL importance of sharing themed titles throughout the year better than any arguments I might profess. In the case of Black History, Women's History, Hispanic Heritage or any other topic, the unifying element found in the best selections is that model of someone, somewhere who has a dream. It's generally a dream that circumstances would deny, or at the very least suppress. None were written to "teach a lesson" or "instruct", but each offers quality literary and visual experiences, entertainment, emotional engagement. The featured individuals who stand tall as examples of dreamers with the determination to push open doors, make their voices heard, and take up any gauntlet thrown in their path. 
If that doesn't merit year-round reading, what does?

And if you're not in a mood for dreams but love humor, check out this prior post featuring an interview with Molly Idol about FLORA and FLAMINGO. Ballet, friendship, and just plain fun.
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.