Thursday, June 9, 2011

Me, Frida

I have slowly but surely been working my way through the award-winning books from last year.  I haven’t written about much of what I’ve read because I feel that my blog’s purpose is to introduce you to books you haven’t seen or heard of before.  But the Pura Belpre winners are a little different.  The information about the award is here.  Especially here in Montana, books about Hispanic culture aren’t easy to find.  I grew up in San Diego, though, so Hispanic culture was a huge part of my upbringing (I even majored in the Spanish language in college!).
So when I saw Me. Frida on the new nonfiction shelf at our public library, I picked it up immediately  (As a side note, have you noticed how often I say we pick things up at the library?  The circulation clerks groan when they see us coming!).  Diaz won a Pura Belpre Illustrator Honor Award for this book, and I’ll talk about those gorgeous paintings in a minute.  First, I’ll focus on the text.
Noresky takes just a moment in Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera’s lives to look at here.  It is 1930, the time when Diego Rivera was invited to go to San Francisco to create a mural celebrating the city.  Frida, who was a young artist, newly married to Rivera, was just beginning to find herself artistically.  What is interesting about Novesky’s choice is that this snapshot of their marriage says so much about them and society at large in the thirties.
One of the biggest themes in this book is inspiration.  When Frida and Diego first arrive in California, they do a lot of exploring.  They look at skyscrapers, the redwoods – all overwhelming, big, towering things.  This is where Diego (who Novesky describes as “big as an elephant”) finds his inspiration.  He thrives on the enormous; Frida is lost in it.  Frida, who paints herself as a small, soaring bird, despairs in all the enormity.  Instead, once Diego begins to work on his mural, she begins to explore the minutiae of San Francisco – the street markets, the neighborhood of Chinatown.  It is the little details – the smells, sounds and colors – that inspire Frida and get her working. 
Even their painting sizes are different – Rivera paints the mural, with all of San Francisco as his subject.  Kahlo begins to paint small portraits, including a portrait of their marriage.  It is clear from the text that although their marriage is slightly unconventional (of course, none of the really salacious details are covered in this picture book biography), there is room for both kinds of inspiration and artistic vision here.  However, their marriage comes up against the conventions of society when they travel to San Francisco.  Where it seems that they see each other as individuals, San Francisco expects to see Mr. and Mrs. Diego Rivera.  At the various events that they attend, Diego is the focus, while Frida stands uncharacteristically quietly by his side.  You can sense the constriction Frida feels – unable to express herself and be recognized for her own worth.  There is a defining moment, when American society first recognizes Frida for herself, and then her painting is chosen for exhibition.  This is when Frida finally begins to soar.
When we speak of inspiration and artistic vision in this book, Diaz’s artistic vision is just as much of a force as Kahlo’s.  The paintings are vibrant with backgrounds streaked and crackling with rich paint.  His choice of primed linen for the foundation of these paintings gives texture, contrasting with all the dark lines and streaks of color.  This use of texture is something I admire when looking at paintings in books.  You can almost feel the texture under your fingers, inviting you deeper into the painting. 
Diaz uses Kahlo and Rivera’s styles as guides here, so a reader familiar with their art will feel instantly at home.  The cover portrait of Frida is recognizable and iconographic, mimicking many of her self-portraits.  Diaz’s imaginative art also uses motifs from their work within his paintings, to give even more depth to readers’ knowledge about these two influential artists.  It is amazing to me that Diaz can meld his own style so effortlessly with Kahlo and Rivera’s styles, paying homage to them and staying distinctive. 
I strongly believe this will have a place both in arts and programs and in studies about Mexican art and culture.  But even if neither of these things are of interest to you, pick up this book to see a young artist growing into herself , creating art full of life and love.

Me, Frida.  Amy Novesky; illustrated by David Diaz.  Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2010.
Borrowed from Lewis & Clark Library

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