Saturday, March 26, 2011

Dave the Potter

First of all, I have been reading in the last three weeks, just not writing.  I've been up against a couple of deadlines - many library books that I couldn't renew for various reasons (and I would never give up a library book without reading it first!), and I've also been reading the books for School Library Journal's Battle of the Books.  If you don't know about this fun contest, you should.  Each year, they pit 16 books against each other and have children's authors read two books each and decide which book should move on, culminating in one final winner.  In the children's literature world, these decisions are hotly contested, and the authors' decisions are always strongly written and entertaining.  This year, I hadn't read many of the books chosen, so I have been reading like crazy, trying to get to the books before their fate is determined.  The choices the Battle Commanders have made are really interesting - a strong mix of fiction, nonfiction and graphic novels.  If you're interested in seeing which teen-level books I've been reading, check out my YA Challenge page.  While I am only listing the books that I've read that are considered teen books, this gives you an idea of the volume of books that I am reading.

But I have also been reading all of the books that won Youth Media Awards from the American Library Association this year, and I want to talk about a book that won both a Caldecott Honor Award and a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award for its illustrator - Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave.

The author, Laban Carrick Hill, begins with a connection to the young reader who is opening the book.   He invites them to remember the feelings of dirt, mud and clay, how each of these feel trickling through the reader's fingers.  This is a detail that brings readers right into the book and in turn invites them into Dave's world.

While a quick flip through Hill's brief, poetic text might make you believe that this is more of a picture book, it is definitely beyond a young child's capacity.  Because of how Hill deposits readers into the middle of the story, readers have to have a certain amount of knowledge before beginning.  For instance, there is no mention of time period at the beginning of the book.  Readers have to recognize that it is slavery depicted on the first page to get at least an idea of when the book occurs.

From the very first page it is apparent that Dave is a slave, but that he isn't the same as the other slaves on the plantation.  As Dave sifts through dirt in the foreground, there is a line of men behind him, toiling in that same dirt.  As his talent for throwing pots is exposed to the reader, it is obvious that this talent has elevated Dave above the field slaves.  There are often glimpses of slaves working in the hot sun behind Dave as he creates.  So without even describing the conditions in which Dave lives, Hill and Collier have explained how his life is structured.

Although Hill's text is sparse, it is rich in imagery.  Hill doesn't need a lot of extraneous words to describe Dave.  In a particularly strong fold-out spread, Hill's words cascade down the first page and then stack in a corner of the double-page spread as Collier demonstrates Dave's pottery abilities.  Hill evokes sensory images of Dave's work - something important to allow readers to envision the process and its difficulty.

All of this discussion does very little justice to the amazing illustration work that Collier has done.  The technique that he used is a combination of watercolor and collage, and it truly makes the paintings pop off the page.  There is a painting where Dave has finished the jar, making it so large that Hill notes if Dave would have gotten in the jar, "he would have been embraced."  Dave is shown with his eyes closed, arms outstretched.  Behind him is a tree with arms outstretched as well, but on the arms and trunk of the tree are the faces of other people, supporting and inspiring him.  It is truly majestic.

And in the illustration where Dave is described kicking his potter's wheel, Collier does something unusual.  Dave is shown with his back to the reader, hunched over the jar so that the reader cannot see either Dave's face or the jar.  Instead, the reader's eye is drawn to the potter's wheel, peeking out between Dave's legs and feet.  Collier has created a stream of sunlight that burns down through the haze of Dave's workshop onto the wheel, focusing the reader's attention. 

While most of the colors Collier uses are the colors of the dirt - clay, mud, ruddy - the book is somehow luminous and vibrant.  The light sources that Collier shows - from bright sunlight to the stream mentioned above - make Dave's work glow and brings the man to life.
Finally, as the story ends, Hill takes time to describe what little is known about Dave the Potter.  He goes over why Dave's life story and pottery are so unique.  And as in any work of nonfiction that I champion, there is a strong bibliography, a list of websites, and really illuminating author and illustrator's notes.  Collier describes his own creative process and how these illustrations came to be made.  It is truly amazing to me that so little is known about Dave, and yet Hill and Collier were able to create such a rich book about him.

I have to admit that I would have chosen this book as the Caldecott winner over A Sick Day for Amos McGee.  These illustrations really spoke to me.  I felt that they were so elegant and full of humanity.  Of course, I was not on the selection committee, and I do recognize how hard their job is.  But take some time to find and celebrate this book - it's worth it.

Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave.  Laban Carrick Hill, illustrated by Bryan Collier.  Little, Brown and Co., 2010.

borrowed from Helena School District

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Guardian of the Dead

It's late and I'm trying to squeeze in a blog post before it gets too much later, but I wanted to write about this book before I have to return it.  I once again have a bunch of overdue books or books coming due in the next week, so I've got to get reading!

Guardian of the Dead was on the William C. Morris YA Debut Award shortlist this year, so it went on my reading list.  I had read a review of the book a few months ago, when I was still ordering books for the library, and it seemed intriguing.  It begins in a boarding school, and I am a total sucker for boarding school books.  The book also takes place on New Zealand, and the information about Maori culture and society brings a new life to supernatural fiction.

Ellie is at boarding school because her parents are on a year-long trip.  She is asked by a friend to help out in a nearby production of "A Midsummer's Night Dream" because she has tae kwon do experience and can help with the fight scenes.  It is through this play that she begins to become aware that some things around her are not adding up.  There's a mysterious boy who keeps confusing her, a woman without pupils, and a serial killer who is stealing people's eyes.

Her connection with the mysterious boy, Mark, becomes deeper as more of her own latent power is awakened.  This connects her as well to the world Mark represents - the world on the other side.  The biggest threat to this world comes from the patupaiarehe - beings who live in the mists around the island and are yearning to become immortal.  But if they gain immortality, it will threaten to bring destruction to all of New Zealand.

I felt like this book was unique in several ways.  First of all, the introduction to Maori culture and mythology is something that American readers don't have exposure to.  But Healey does a terrific job of giving the context to the unfamiliar language and cultural norms.  There is also a brief glossary of Maori terms that are used throughout New Zealand so that readers can refer to it - even non-Maori speakers use these terms regularly.   This book is strongly rooted in Maori mythology, but Healey draws parallels between Maori, Greek and Roman mythologies.  Ellie is a Classics student, so she explains the parallels to readers in a natural way.

Above all, this book is a suspenseful adventure.  It is complex, with many layers of story and characters.  And most importantly for me, it is intelligent.  I am not a big fan of supernatural fiction, so the addition of smart characters who are not afraid to be smart makes the supernatural more palatable.  Ellie is not the sort of female main character who will dither and wring her hands.  She's scared and unsure at times, but she is also exploring her power and trying to find her way through what is rapidly becoming a nightmare.

This is a really strong, smart book - I recommend it to you!

Guardian of the Dead.  Karen Healey.  Little, Brown and Co., 2010.
borrowed from Lewis & Clark library

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Agony of Alice

As you've seen here and here, I'm reading the Alice series by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor.  I had read a few books in the series and loved them, and I'd always intended to read them all.  The Agony of Alice was the first book in the series, written in 1985.

It takes place after Alice, her father and older brother have moved to Silver Spring.  Alice will be beginning sixth grade in a new school - a daunting task for anyone.  Alice is no exception - she is looking at herself and feeling very self-conscious.  She is embarrassed by some of the situations she finds herself in - like when she asked a neighbor to play Tarzan and Jane with her so she could kiss him, and then changed her mind at the last minute.  Naylor is very tuned in to Alice's tween personality and fluctuating emotions, and I think any girl of this age will relate to Alice.  Even as an adult, I can remember feeling self-conscious, awkward and unsure of myself at Alice's age.

However what makes Alice different than most girls is the absence of her mother.  While Alice's mom died seven years ago, when Alice was four, but that doesn't mean that Alice misses her any less at this point in her life.  In fact, Alice is sure that a mother would have helped steer her away from the embarrassing situations Alice seems to find herself in.  Her mother's death is part of what makes up Alice's personality.  I love that Lester (who is older, and thus remembers their mother more clearly) shares his memories with Alice, who remembers very little of her.  The family spends a lot of time bringing their mother to life - a healthy way to grieve but also honor her.

As these books go on, it is evident that Alice's father is slightly out of depth with Alice.  Alice gets her period in this novel, and luckily it happens at her aunt's house.  When she gets home, her dad mentions it awkwardly, and Alice knows that however she feels about it, she wants to make her father comfortable.  She reassures him matter of factly that everything's okay, and he is visibly relieved.

Alice finds herself grasping for guidance that she might have gotten from her mother.  She is disappointed when she arrives at her new school to find she's been assigned to Mrs. Plotkin's room.  She instantly dislikes Mrs. Plotkin, based on her name and shape.   Alice wants nothing more than to be in the beautiful, young teacher's classroom, but as the year progresses, Mrs. Plotkin turns out to be the teacher Alice needs and much more.  The name Mrs. Plotkin is so evocative, but her true personality is revealed and she is wonderful.  Naylor provides a gentle lesson for readers, but in a warm way.

Many of the recurring characters in this series are already onstage in this novel - Alice's father has memorable female employees vying for his attention; Lester has two girlfriends who he will go back and forth between throughout the series.  Alice is observing what it is like to be a woman in all these situations, and it is a diverse group that influences her.  Alice has already met the girls who will be her best friends, Pamela and Elizabeth.  And then there's Patrick, Alice's "boyfriend" - "On the way to school the next morning, Patrick threw another candy bar toward me, a Three Musketeers.  This time I was so nervous I dropped it,...and after that , I guess we were going together." (p. 94)  So sixth grade!!

This book introduces new feelings and ideas to tween girls, but it is done in such a friendly, comforting way.  Yet another terrific book about growing up by Naylor.

The Agony of Alice.  Phyllis Reynolds Naylor.  Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 1985.
borrowed from Lewis & Clark Library