Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Traveling Photographer Series

I love Cybils season for so many reasons.  One of those reasons is my exposure to books I would never have experienced on my own.  I have been on the Nonfiction Picture Book panel two years in a row, and both years I have read and blogged about books that are unusual.  One of those books this year was The Story of Silk: From Worm Spit to Woven Scarves.  When I first picked it up, I believed it would be about the science of making silk.  As I began to read, I realized this was more a book about a village, a culture, and a craft.  As I read further in the book, I became more intrigued by the story of this village in Thailand, where Richard Sobol had previously written and photographed another book in his Traveling Photographer series, The Life of Rice: From Seedling to Supper.  I wanted to know more about the village, and fortunately, my library carried The Life of Rice, so I could explore this country more.

Sobol originally travels to Thailand to help protect Thai wildlife.  As he traveled the country on that assignment, he began to become aware of the fields of rice he was traveling through, and initially looks at them as a photographer.  He is attracted to the strong colors and textures of the fields, the contrast with the villagers who work in those fields.  Then he is invited to an official royal event- the Royal Plowing Ceremony.  This ceremony kicks off the rice-growing season, and while it is ceremonial and symbolic, it is also very important to the Thai people.  The king scatters royal seeds and the families quickly gather the seeds, along with the soil, to replant in their own fields.

In this book, Sobol focuses on the Issan province, and on the jasmine rice that is grown there.  He describes the process from planting through harvesting, threshing, hulling and selling.  He details how for many Thai families, this is their business - children come after school to help weed and tend to the rice fields, while the adults work all day long.  For almost every family, this is a very labor-intensive, manual process.  Only the richest farmers can afford to rent a combine, but that is only used in one part of this cycle.  The rest of it - planting, transplanting, weeding, etc., is all done by hand, bent over in the fields.  At the end of the season, families sell off most of their crop, saving only a few bags for their food for the rest of the year.  However, no part of the rice plant goes to waste.  The rice stalks are used for cooking fuel, in their gardens, or as food for their livestock.

In the preface to The Story of Silk, Sobol describes how he returned to Thailand with copies of The Life of Rice, to share it with the people of Issan province.  He goes to Thailand at a different time of year than his previous trip, and realizes that there is a whole new industry taking place at that time of year - silk-making.  Rice cannot grow during the dry season, and so he begins to investigate another fascinating craft.  Sobol begins with the silkworm (did you know it's not really a worm?) which must eat mulberry leaves constantly for 28 days.  Again, the process of creating silk is labor-intensive and requires the help of the entire village.  The leaves must be replaced regularly, worms must be covered so they don't get too hot, worm cocoons must be cleaned carefully... Sobol does a great job of getting into the details of the process that will interest young readers without overwhelming them with the individual tasks.  And there are many more tasks in this book that will be good for a horrified groan from readers - silkworms are boiled and eaten (again, as in the rice cycle, nothing is wasted).  By the end of the book, readers have gained a real appreciation for the hard work behind what is presented to us as consumers.  They may not look at a bag of rice in the grocery store in the same way again, and may take more of an interest in the fabric their clothes are created from.

Of course, in a series called "Traveling Photographer", the photographs are remarkable.  The colors are rich and vibrant, and Sobol's photographs help define and delineate the text.  But where I think Sobol has a real gift is in conveying some of the Thai culture simply through documenting their work.  You can see clothing, houses, family relations, royalty and more through his lens.  He doesn't just show their livelihood, but also their lives.  The books are full of photographs, which lend life to the text.  Every page has at least one photograph on it, and many have two or three photographs to help readers envision what they are reading about.  Sobol has a sense for what readers would need clarification on, or have curiosity about, and that is what he photographs.

While both books focus on the same province of Thailand, they have very different tones.  In the first book, Sobol mentions how he travels the province to document the rice growing in the fields.  It is well described and documented, but there isn't a lot of detail about the people he meets on the trip.  It is constructed as a narrative, and you get the story of rice through the text and see the Thai culture shown more in the photos.  But in The Story of Silk, Sobol focuses on one village and that village comes to life both in photos and text.  He describes giggling young girls who tell him they will be the supermodels of silk.  Sobol writes about the men of the village, who laugh as they eat the boiled silkworms with red pepper sauce.  And he retells a weaving lesson given by a village woman named Auntie.  The book is more alive than The Life of Rice, although the first book only suffers in contrast.  They are both compelling stories, I just prefer the inclusion of the village life in the second book.

Both books include facts about rice and silk and a glossary with English and Thai words at the end of the book.  The Life of Rice also includes a list of rice-related holidays throughout the year and the translations of some Thai rice dish names, although no descriptions of the dishes.  These books give readers a sense of the real work behind products they experience on a regular basis.  But even more valuable to me is the very natural way these books become about Thai culture.  Taken together, Sobol has created a durable image of the Thai year, and how it centers around these simple, yet challenging industries.

The Life of Rice: From Seedling to Supper. (Traveling Photographer).  Richard Sobol.  Candlewick Press, 2010.
The Story of Silk: From Worm Spit to Woven Scarves. (Traveling Photographer).  Richard Sobol.  Candlewick Press, 2012.

Life of Rice borrowed from Lewis & Clark Library; Story of Silk sent by publisher as part of the Cybils panel.

Note: I am on the Cybils Nonfiction Picture Book panel, but this blog post does not represent the committee's thoughts about the book.  It only represents my personal ideas and thoughts.

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