Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Midnight Library

I know that I am among friends when I relay the following story.  When I was young, I entertained the idea of many other careers (dolphin trainer was one of my more creative ideas).  But there was really no question that being a librarian was a career near to my heart.  I vividly remember the closet I shared with my little sister.  There were bookshelves inside that I kept in order, along with my very own card catalog.  I wish I could remember now how I cataloged each book.  But I knew enough from my experience at our public library to add title, author and a summary to the card for each book.  It was a natural thing for me, to organize and check out my own books.

Once I went to library school, and then began working in public libraries, I discovered that one of my favorite things to do was readers advisory - matching readers and books.  I just loved working with children and hearing what they were interested in.  This sort of conversation as we walked over to the shelves might lead to a whole stack of books as I heard what they had read last, what they liked and didn't like to read, whether they like to read at all, and how long the book was required to be.  All these things would get mixed into my head and come out as title recommendations.  Even better would be the later conversations, when they tried something and liked it, or maybe didn't like it, and could articulate why.  That would lead to more books, more conversations, and on and on, in an incredibly fulfilling loop of relationship between children and books.  In many ways, that is what I continue to do with all of you, my readers.  But it doesn't always feel the same.


The little girl in The Midnight Library is of course a girl after my own heart.  Starting in the endpapers, her world is stocked with shelves of books, swaying under their weight.  The books are interspersed with lanterns, an occasional helper owl and a ladder.  It's the sort of place that makes you want to slip in and explore.  Even better, the title page shows the young librarian, with pigtails flying, welcoming a string of library patrons.  Those patrons happen to be animals, but you can sense their excitement from their smiles as they approach.

The story is fairly simple - this library is only open at night, and is staffed by the little girl librarian and the three owls, who dash and fly around at her beck and call.  Animals visit the library in droves, but are respectful of the library as a place to learn. But one night things go a little awry.  A band of squirrels begin to play music in the reading room, and needs to be escorted to an activity room.  Then a wolf begins to cry so much at the plot of her book that the wolf's tears fall like rain (hey, we've all been there!).  Finally, at closing time, a tortoise believes that he shouldn't leave the library until he's finished reading his book...and he only has 500 more pages! We all know how slow tortoises are!  What's a librarian to do?

While I don't agree that the library should always be a quiet place, there are many, many things I love about this book.  First and foremost, I love that she is a young librarian.  It shows us all that children are never too young to love and be advocates for books and reading.  There is always such joy and enthusiasm on the girl's face as she interacts with her patrons.  I love that she is a problem-solver, without judgment.  The wolf is so upset by her story and tells the librarian "' Something very sad happened in my story and I can't read it any more.'"  But the librarian leads the wolf over to a storytelling area, and the read the story together, supporting the wolf until she smiles.  Finally, and what I love most about this story, is that the librarian is a valued and loved member of her community.  This Midnight Library is a community space, where everyone shares their activities and their interests together.  They trust her to be there for all the animals, and to meet them where they are.  The young librarian doesn't yell at the tortoise for trying to finish the long book, she gives him a library card.  She is patient with the noisy squirrels, crying wolf and slow-moving tortoise.  Each of these patrons has very different needs, and she is able to fulfill all of them.

Though the plot of this story is wonderful, I have to admit that it's the illustrations that really do me in.  First of all, the pages are a lovely muted orange - a very unusual choice for a picture book.  But because Kohara uses linocuts for her illustrations, the color choice works very well.  The linocuts involve a lot of heavy dark lines and print, and the orange just stands out perfectly.  And to add to the contrast, Kohara uses a deep blue as an accent.  It helps create the feeling of midnight, and it also makes The Midnight Library feel very charming, cozy and friendly.

The characters in the book are so endearing and warm too.  Because of the linocut technique, they are created with very few lines, but you realize there doesn't need to be a lot of detail to add personality.  The tortoise, eyes almost closed with the effort of reading, weights his page down with his flipper.  Behind him, the owl assistants ring the bell to close the library.  And speaking of the owls!  They are my very favorite part of the book.  The owl assistants are there on every page, hovering over the librarian, stamping and shelving books.  They really are the cutest!!!

I quite often buy children's books about libraries for my own collection.  The Midnight Library is one that I cannot pass up! Celebrate reading with this darling librarian and her wise assistants.

The Midnight Librarian. Kazuno Kohara.  Roaring Brook Press, 2014.

borrowed from the Lewis & Clark Library

Friday, February 13, 2015

Viva Frida

My favorite time of year has just passed - the announcements of the ALA Media Awards!  I love those few days before the awards are announced, when all over the United States librarians, bloggers, children and adults who love children's books are buzzing about their favorite titles.  Authors and illustrators are hoping their phones will ring at some ungodly hour of the morning.  Mock lists are popping up all around the Internet.  And then I love those days after the winners are announced, as those lucky authors and illustrators who have gotten the phone calls retell how it happened and how they felt, and we all rejoice with them.  I haven't heard how Yuyi Morales felt when she got her phone calls, announcing her as the winner of a Caldecott Honor Award and the Pura Belpre Illustrator Award.  But this book, Viva Frida, is a work of art and magic, and I am thrilled to share it with you!

I will tell you right up front that I was lucky enough to discover Viva Frida this summer, through my reviewing assignment from School Library Journal.  Ordinarily, I would never try to review a book on my blog that I had already reviewed for SLJ.  However, once I read this one, and saw how gorgeous it was, I wanted to write about it here.  It also fits so nicely with my interest in books that represent the Hispanic culture.  And once I knew that SLJ editors agreed with my assessment that this was a truly special book, I had to ask for permission to write about it.  I was so happy that SLJ agreed!

And I intended to write about it long ago, but as often happens around here, other books shouted more loudly than this quiet, dreamy stunner.  I even set it aside two weeks ago, to try and get a review written ahead of the awards I knew it would earn.  That obviously didn't happen either!  But it hasn't been forgotten, and I am taking the opportunity to celebrate it now.

You can tell from the woman gazing serenely from the cover of Viva Frida that this book is about Frida Kahlo. Many of the hallmarks are present in that initial shot - her monobrow, her bright, festive clothing, the knowing gaze, papel picado, and updone hair.  The cover image is of Frida, alone and isolated, on a background of scattered flowers.  But while she is alone, her eyes meet the reader's gaze, and you can tell that her secret life comforts her.

The magic starts right from the cover illustration.  By the way, I want to thank Roaring Brook Press for including the list of media Yuyi Morales used in creating this title.  There is no way I could have guessed at all of the techniques she used, including: "stop-motion puppets made from steel, polymer clay, and wool, acrylic paints, photography, and digital manipulation."  Those of you who are regular readers of my blog know that I am fascinated by the art used  to create books, and this one is no exception.  The cover model of Frida is a puppet, but again, her gaze is so human, so present.  It is uncanny.

I am really going to try not to describe every page to you in this post.  It's difficult because they are so layered, so glorious.  It is also difficult not to want to describe each page's illustrations because that is where so much of the plot takes place.  For example, the title page shows Frida's desk, with a sketch, little stoppered bottles, an unfurled piece of leather and brushes. Also, just peering over the top edge of the desk is an inquisitive monkey, holding out a silver key in an enticing manner.  The monkey could be stealing the key off the desk, or holding it out for Frida to take.  Regardless, it is there that the "story" begins. 

As I mentioned before, the story line is primarily conveyed visually.  The text is bilingual, and comprised of "I statements" about Frida and her drive to create.  It is spare, with only two or three words per double-paged spread.  The text draws you into Frida's mind, heart and soul.  "I play/I know/I dream."  The text is poetic, and floats in space visually, leaving the reader plenty of room to admire the result of Frida's creativity.  The English words are in a heavy black font, with the Spanish equivalent hovering above in a ghostly gray or white.  The effect is dreamy.

To add to the text are Morales' illustrations.  For those of us familiar with Kahlo's life story and artistic themes, the book is instantly recognizable.  Diego Rivera is shown working in his overalls, sharing an artistic space with her.  As Frida explores her own creativity, you see her animals surrounding her, playing with her.   At one point, she and that endearing monkey get out a skeleton puppet to play with, as that monkey tangles in the strings.  Halfway through the book, at the moment when the text reads "Sueño= I dream", the art changes.  In the first half, the illustrations are clearly realistic representations of Frida's life.  Frida and Diego are puppets and their studio space and actions are clearly based in the tangible world.  But as soon as Frida begins to dream, things shift.  Frida's eyes are closed, and her animal companions stare transfixed at painted versions of Frida soaring above her own dreaming head.  As the pages continue, more and more of each spread is created through paintings.  The soaring Frida sees a fawn whose leg has been pierced by an arrow.  She swoops down to rescue it, and of course it returns to her "real life" with Frida, to become part of her menagerie.

In one of the last spreads, Frida says "que amo = that I love".  It is my favorite picture - Frida's eyes are closed in contentment, Diego kissing her on the cheek while the animals also look on in adoration.  And because Frida loves, she also creates, something that is so engrained in her soul, in her personality.  Frida is creativity.

There is an author's note at the end of the book, called "My Frida Kahlo".  It is written in both English and Spanish.  I love this author's note because I think it brings Kahlo's deeply thematic, layered work to life for young readers.  Morales admits "When I was younger, I often found her paintings tortuous and difficult to understand."  That simple statement allows readers to realize that admiring someone's art doesn't mean you always have to understand it.  Morales gives some basic facts about Kahlo's life and art in this note before showing how much Frida Kahlo inspired her: "Did she know how many artists she influenced with her courage and her ability to overcome her own limitations?"

Another thing I love about this book is its flexibility.  For those who know nothing about Kahlo's life, it can stand as poetry, as a self-affirmation.  It can be shared with young readers as part of an art appreciation unit, or during Hispanic Heritage or Women's History Months.  But for the older reader in a high school art class, or for someone who has studied Frida Kahlo's biography, the book really shines. There are so many layers to the art included here, so many things to discuss in the words and pictures I could go on and on.  It is so lucky for all of us that Yuyi Morales chose Frida Kahlo new life here.  It is magic you'll never forget.

Viva Frida.  Yuyi Morales; photography by Tim O'Meara.  Roaring Brook Press, 2014.

sent by publisher through School Library Journal