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

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