Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Diverse Picture Books

Last year when LAST STOP ON MARKET STREET won the Newbery Medal, I was a bit skeptical. Out of all the incredible novels and works of nonfiction that are released within a given year, how was it that the "most distinguished contribution to American literature for children" was a book of no more than 32 pages with pictures supporting most of its text? Then I read it, and found some respect for the committee that chose it. It's text is sparse, but fantastic. While I still would personally rather see a longer novel or work of nonfiction win the Newbery Medal, LAST STOP ON MARKET STREET opened my eyes up to the text within picture books. I picked up the following books at my public library for a change of pace...

FREEDOM IN CONGO SQUARE tells the story of slaves in New Orleans and the unique French law that allowed them a free day from work, on Sunday. Slaves would gather together in many locations until 1817 when a city law designated one location for slaves to gather: Congo Square. It was here, where slaves sang and danced, socialized, and bought and sold goods and produce. Congo Square, at the time, truly was "freedom's heart."

"Mondays, there were hogs to slop, mules to train, and logs to chop. Slavery was no ways fair. Six more days to Congo Square." The story is told as a poem, just a few lines to a page, each day as strenuous as the one before but one day closer to freedom in Congo Square. The poetry is beautifully descriptive and its cadence is perfect. Each word, each line is carefully crafted. The illustrations are colorful and pair perfectly with each couplet. The glossary at the back of the book highlights 11 words from the text, a nice attempt to build vocabulary. The book is surprisingly celebratory and hopeful, considering its subject matter.

FREEDOM OVER ME is a difficult book to digest. The book centers around an appraisal completed for a Mrs. Fairchilds. Mrs. Fairchilds' husband passed away and concerned with stories of runaway and revolting slaves, she decided to have her slaves appraised with her estate so she could move back to England. Author Ashley Bryan tells the story of Mrs. Fairchilds eleven slaves, detailing what their lives in the Fairchilds' estate are like and what their dreams are from Africa.

"In recognizing our skills and labor, how can owners say we are property, priced and valued like cotton, cattle, hogs?" Each slave gets two pages of verse poetry and beautiful accompanying illustrations. One page details their responsibilities in the Big House, the other page shares their hopes and dreams. The verse poetry is more straightforward here, not as rhythmic as the poetry in CONGO SQUARE. The format however, is emotionally effective. Your heart aches for these people, who had their freedom, families, and cultures ripped away from them. An actual appraisal scan makes up the last page, further confounding how we ever as a race felt it was okay to buy and sell humans like crops and cattle.

JAZZ DAY is one cool book, honoring one cool group of musicians! It tells the story behind creating a famous 1958 Esquire magazine photo, titled Harlem 1958. Art Kane is the photographer who attempted to gather as many jazz musicians as possible in front of a New York brownstone to photograph as a group. Each page is its own separate poem (with a title) honoring a jazz artist or memory from that day. I particularly liked the poems about the neighborhood boys (Scuffle) getting into trouble throughout the 4-5 hour shoot. Together, the separate poems tell the crazy, joyous story of gathering together for that photograph.

Incorporating the real photograph was clever and I appreciated the profiles in the back of the book that provide information on each of the musicians highlighted throughout the story. The poetry threw me a bit. It was a bit disjointed, sometimes verse, sometimes free form, and I'm not sure kids (who aren't jazz fans) will be able to take away much meaning. I admire the project though and the illustrations are awesome.

FREEDOM IN CONGO SQUARE is probably my favorite of this group, but I liked all of them. CONGO SQUARE reminds me of LAST STOP ON MARKET STREET the most, in the powerful simplicity of its poetry and its celebratory tone. FREEDOM OVER ME and JAZZ DAY both exceed in creativity however and would both surely broaden the minds of young readers who happen to pick them up.

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