Friday, March 16, 2012

Diego Rivera

I know I have said before how important I think Hispanic literature is for children, and I've brought your attention to several books (including The Cazuela the Farm Maiden Stirred).  I find that there isn't always a lot of attention brought to these books, and I want to make sure I do my part.  That's why I was so excited to see Diego Rivera on my Cybils Non-Fiction Picture Book nomination list.  I had also seen it mentioned previously on some of my regular blogs, but hadn't been able to get my hands on it.  So when it finally landed in my mailbox as part of the Cybils, I was thrilled!!  And then it won the Pura Belpre Award for Illustration in the ALA Youth Media Awards announcements.  And now I can't wait to share it with you!

This book is not your traditional biography, and Duncan Tonatiuh shows a deft, sure hand while describing Rivera's life.  He chooses to focus almost exclusively on Rivera's artistic life in this book, so there is no mention of (or place for) his equally famous wife, Frida Kahlo.  It's an interesting counterpoint to Me, Frida, which I reviewed here last year.  However, Tonatiuh find a way to include detail about Rivera's interests and life without overwhelming the reader.  The text is brief and clear.  Young readers will have no problem following the line of thought.  One of the things I admire most about Tonatiuh's writing  is the way he defines artistic styles within his text.  The definitions are concise, natural and contextual.  For instance, "There he learned the classical way to paint, which means his finished paintings looked very realistic, almost like photographs." (p. 2)  The tone keeps this accessible, so readers won't stumble over unfamiliar terms.
But what makes this book feel very fresh and intriguing is indicated in the subtitle: His World and Ours.  After the biographical part of the book, Tonatiuh asks readers to imagine what Rivera would find culturally significant and inspiring in today's society.  This question requires those readers to not only look critically at our society, but to apply what they have learned previously about Diego Rivera as well.  What interested him in his own society?  This takes passively learned knowledge to the next level.  It also makes the book applicable to any grade child or almost any classroom.  It's just as useful in a social studies unit as an art classroom or a history lesson on Mexico.  This book is incredibly flexible.
Then Tonatiuh takes this concept up another notch.  He compares our society to Rivera's paintings in side-by-side comparisons, cleverly positioning contemporary people to seem like those from the past.  After all, as he notes, "Diego's murals teach us about the past.  But they also show a better future for common people." (p. 28)  This is a textually strong book, and it also has great informative back matter.  It includes a well-written glossary, an author's note with expanded biographical information, bibliography, and a list of places you can see Rivera's work, both in and outside of the United States.

I haven't really talked about the illustrations so far in the review, but rest assured that the Belpre Award for Illustration is well deserved here (he also won a Honor in 2011).  Tonatiuh does an amazing job of echoing Rivera's style without abandoning his own artistic leanings.  His faces are perfectly rounded, with sharp lips and sloping noses.  As you can see from the cover image above, Diego Rivera is perfectly recognizable in the foreground, even though it is done in Tonatiuh's own style.  In the author's note, he describes how both he and Rivera were inspired by ancient Pre-Columbian and Mayan art.  It is fascinating to see how well Rivera's style melds with Tonatiuh's own.  A final piece of back matter that I found very useful is the Inspirations piece.  There is a list of page numbers for the illustrations in the book, along with the murals or paintings that Rivera did that inspired Tonatiuh's illustrations.  He includes the size of the murals, yet another way of emphasizing the enormity of Rivera's imagination and work.

His artistic style for this book is unusual and thoughtful.  On the back of the title page, it is noted "The artwork in this book was hand-drawn, then collaged digitally."  This is a fascinating combination, especially in light of the historic influences on both of their work.  For instance, on a set of book shelves, most books are hand-drawn.  But then there are also a few, scattered about, that are clearly "real" books.  These help add depth and texture to the illustrations.  Sometimes the collaged parts are immediately visible in framing elements; sometimes they are more subtle, such as the hair of one of the figures.  The collaged elements also help draw a connection between ancient and modern society.
All in all, this book cannot be missed.  Its unique combination of artistic styles and its ability to bring a historical figure into today's society is phenomenal.  It is also a valuable book for schools and classrooms.  Do yourself a favor and investigate this one.

Diego Rivera: His World and Ours.  Duncan Tonatiuh.  Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2011.

given by publisher for review in conjunction with Cybils.

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