Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Secret River

It's been almost two weeks since my marathon Frances blog post, and I'm sorry there haven't been any posts.  It's not for a lack of material, believe me.  I have a huge pile of books to write about!  But last week on Sunday (when I usually write blog posts) we were all coming down with what ended up being a mammoth cold that knocked all of us out for the week.  That is a worry because my Frances is scheduled to get her tonsils and adenoids out next week, so we're really focused on getting healthy this weekend.  I'm aiming to write two posts to catch up this weekend.  I have so much to write about!

The Secret River was published this year to much fanfare and a little bit of controversy.  Rawlings wrote this story before she died in the 1950's.  This short story was originally published posthumously in 1956, with original illustrations by Leonard Weisgard.  A note at the back of the book says that The Secret River is Rawlings' only work written especially for children.  The work she's most famous for, The Yearling, wasn't intended for children at all, according to the note.  It's easy to see why a book written by a famous author, illustrated by a Caldecott-winning couple, would be published to much fanfare.  The controversy is a little harder to understand.  It boils down to whether or not this publication of the story is eligible for a Caldecott or not.  This book has an original copyright date of 1955, which seems to make it ineligible for consideration.  After all, in the Caldecott criteria, it states that "If a book is published prior to its year of copyright as stated in the book, it shall be considered in its year of copyright as stated in the book. The intent of the definition is that every book be eligible for consideration, but that no book be considered in more than one year."  This is something that was heavily discussed this year (this links to Fuse #8's blog post on the School Library Journal website).  The general consensus is that there have been other titles that earned Caldecotts for their illustrations even though the text had been previously published, including Ox-Cart Man, The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship, and A Child's Calendar.  But of course, none of us are on the Caldecott committee, so we'll have to wait to see how this year's committee interprets the criteria.

Of course, there wouldn't be controversy and fanfare over a pedestrian book.  The illustrations by the Dillons are worth every moment of discussion.  The short story was written in the 1950's, but it has a very contemporary theme at its core.  It is set in Florida (a common setting for Rawlings' work), and it is told through the point of view of a young girl named Calpurnia.  At breakfast, her father announces that hard times have come to their forest.  When she asks for an explanation, he tells her "'It means that everything is hard, and especially for poor people.'"  Calpurnia's family is visibly poor - her father's overalls are patched in several places and there is a curling calendar page tacked onto the wall as art.  Her father tells Calpurnia that people are so poor that they won't be able to buy the fish he catches and he'll have to close his fish market.  Obviously, this strikes a chord with today's American children as well.  Children are still hearing and internalizing their parents' financial worries today.

But Calpurnia decides to take matters into her own hands.  Calpurnia is a smart and brave child, and she goes to find the wisest woman in the forest to help her solve the problem.  Mother Albirtha tells Calpurnia about a Secret River where she can catch big fish, so that "hard times can become soft times".  Calpurnia isn't just smart and brave, she is generous.  When she finds the Secret River and catches quite a few fish, she passes some of them out to hungry animals on her way back to town.  The fish she catches help the town rebound, one person at a time.  Calpurnia's generosity starts a new optimism for everyone.

This story is a unique combination of historical fiction and magical folktale, and this is exactly how the Dillons chose to illustrate it.  In many illustrations, townspeople are dressed in period clothes, doing the daily business of life.  They are struggling - you can see it in their faces.  But then there are the illustrations that look at life through Calpurnia's imagination.  For instance, towards the beginning of the story, Calpurnia is daydreaming a song about bees.  The illustration on that page is a close-up of Calpurnia's face, surrounded by a halo of flowers and enormous (placid) honeybees.  The colors are lush, the look on Calpurnia's face is one of dreamy determination.  It is beautiful, and perfectly shows the dichotomy of this short story.  There is the security of the historical setting (Calpurnia's neatly braided hair and checked dress) and the flight of fancy of the folktale (the imaginary bees and flowers that surround her brain).

Each double-page spread includes one almost full-page illustration.  The paintings are framed by a creamy white one inch border.  The border sets off the painting, giving it space to breathe.  Many of the paintings have so many details to pore over, so the border also gives the reader's eye a place to rest before moving on.  There are also patterns and textures everywhere in the illustrations.  As Calpurnia returns from the Secret River, she runs into a hoot-owl.  The owl, shown on the facing page, is large and menacing.  His talons grip the branch and look like steel or iron.  His eyes are enormous, fierce and threatening.  But what's best about this owl is the pattern in his feathers.  Throughout the feathers are the faces of other owls, looking just as angry.  They all glare at Calpurnia, echoing the danger she finds herself in.

There are also spot illustrations scattered throughout the book, on the pages with the text blocks.  Many of these smaller illustrations focus on Calpurnia or her beagle, Buggy-horse (so named because he is sway-backed).  They add to the overall feeling of this story, allowing the Dillons to use the larger illustrations to highlight one larger element of the story.  The bigger pieces have whimsy, mystery and bravery.  The Dillons have brought this story to life in a whole new way.  They truly do deserve a Caldecott for these gorgeous, imaginative paintings.  Go fishing in The Secret River and see what you discover.

The Secret River.  Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings; illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon.  Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2011.

borrowed from Lewis & Clark Library

No comments:

Post a Comment