Oh my goodness to the red-bud tree . . .

h1 February 1st, 2011 by jules


“If I was a fish, I would only bite something unusual and something pretty.”

As I type this on Monday evening, it’s late, and I’m preparing for a presentation I’ll be making to a class at Vanderbilt tomorrow — a presentation about both 7-Imp and the book Betsy Bird, Peter D. Sieruta, and I are writing for Candlewick. All that’s to say that I hope I’m mildly to moderately coherent in this post. But I can’t not show you some illustrations from the newly-illustrated The Secret River, written by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (who received the 1939 Pulitzer for The Yearling). The original publication, illustrated by Leonard Weisgard, received a 1956 Newbery Honor and was actually published after Rawlings’ death. It’s been re-printed this month by Atheneum Books with illustrations by two-time Caldecott medalists Leo & Diane Dillon.


Cover of the 1955 title; visit this 2009 post at Vintage Kids’ Books My Kid Loves
to see some of Weisgard’s interior illustrations from the title.

This is a story of, as Booklist puts it, magic realism, all about a young girl named Calpurnia, a budding poet who lives in Florida (“There is a dark forest far away in Florida,” the book opens), trying to assist her family in need. Her father sells fish, but the fish are scarce, and Calpurnia’s determined to turn the hard times in the forest to “soft times.” She decides to visit, along with her dog Buggy-horse, “the wisest person in the forest,” Mother Albirtha, who tells Calpurnia she must find the secret forest (and who also says such lively things as, “oh my goodness to the red-bud tree” and “oh my goodness to the may-haw bush”). Calpurnia finds it and manages to bring home some fish, only giving some away to a hungry owl, bear, and panther on her way back home. It’s a story of courage and keeping one’s promises: Indeed, she brings catfish back home to her father, despite the frights she encounters in the forest, but stops by Mother Albirtha’s first, as she had vowed to do. Mother Albirtha eventually tells Calpurnia that the secret river was in her mind and that it’s a place she can visit any time she wants. “Close your eyes, and you will see it.”

A note about the author at the book’s close states this was the only story she specifically wrote for children. (The Yearling, that is, was written before the dawn of “YA literature,” Rawlings writing it with adults in mind, though now it consistently gets labelled as “YA.”) This is a slightly abridged version of the The Secret River, and the Dillons are an excellent pairing for this story of magic and mystery. With wit, imagination, and whimsy that’s never too cloying, they bring Rawlings’ forested Florida to life with vitality. This forest is one where everything is more than what it appears to be on the surface, if one just looks closely enough: Faces in the trees, fish outlined in the silhouettes of branches, faces on the wings of a crane, the eyes of an owl on the owl’s very feathers. It’s a lush, spectral, entranced world the Dillons invite us to enter.

And I could say so much more, but—again—my presentation calls. For those who want more, Publishers Weekly wrote, “Mesmerizing patterns and colors distinguish the Dillons’ spreads, which balance large, captivating panels with smaller vignettes clustered around the text. Their acrylics are a foray into magical realism (when Calpurnia invents a poem about befriending bees, her hair becomes a tangle of purple flowers thick with the insects), and their portraits are always true to Rawlings’s imaginings. Not to be missed.” And School Library Journal added, “Brilliantly composed images, where the young girl’s face is at times superimposed over objects in the story or seemingly floats over the magical river, have a lustrous glow. {They} effectively capture the Florida back country that Rawlings famously drew upon in her writings. Characters, well delineated throughout, pulse with life.”

A striking book. Below are some more illustrations. Please note that I broke up the spreads to show you the individual illustrations up close, so please click on the ones with borders to see the spreads in their entirety (and on their cream-colored backgrounds), as they were meant to be seen.


“Everybody’s bees is my friends. / Everybody’s flowers is my flowers. / Everybody’s happy hours / is my happy hours. / All this goes on / and there is no ends.”


“Calpurnia went outside and stood beside a tree and thought about the fish market…She said to herself, ‘Now if I was a fish, what would I like to bite?'”


“She pushed away from the shore. Then she took one of the pink paper roses from her braids and tied it to the hook on the end of her fishing line…”


“The pink rose floated for a few minutes, and then sank slowly down through the water. An old frog sitting at the bottom of the river saw it…”


“Then Calpurnia saw something crouching ahead of her. It was a panther. She did not know whether he was friendly or unfriendly, but she thought, I’m sure he’s hungry. I expect hard times have even come to the panthers in the forest.”

* * * * * * *

THE SECRET RIVER. Text copyright © 1955 Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. Illustration © 2011 Leo and Diane Dillon. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Atheneum Books for Young Readers, New York.

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12 comments to “Oh my goodness to the red-bud tree . . .”

  1. […] Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast » Blog Archive » Oh my goodness to the red-bud tree . . . blaine.org/sevenimpossiblethings/?p=2072 – view page – cached As I type this on Monday evening, it’s late, and I’m preparing for a presentation I’ll be making to a class at Vanderbilt tomorrow — a presentation about both 7-Imp and the book Betsy Bird, Peter D. Sieruta, and I are writing for Candlewick. All that’s to say that I hope I’m mildly to moderately coherent in this post. But I can’t not show you some illustrations from… Read moreAs I type this on Monday evening, it’s late, and I’m preparing for a presentation I’ll be making to a class at Vanderbilt tomorrow — a presentation about both 7-Imp and the book Betsy Bird, Peter D. Sieruta, and I are writing for Candlewick. All that’s to say that I hope I’m mildly to moderately coherent in this post. But I can’t not show you some illustrations from the newly-illustrated The Secret River, written by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (who received the 1939 Pulitzer for The Yearling). View page […]


  2. Wow, just wow. Incredibly beautiful.


  3. OH, WOW. That’s the most beautiful makeover I’ve seen in ages. And SO well-deserved! I am not always a fan of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings — her memoirs and writing for adults is frankly racist, and an artifact of her time and Southern zip code, I guess — but her writing of the natural world is so detailed and beautifully done, and this looks like a real treasure.

    And it makes me smile that she would do a double-take at the little brown girl. ^-^


  4. The illustrations are so beautiful. I like Leo and Diane Dillon’s style and their illustrations complement the text so well here. Thanks for sharing!


  5. Stunning! Thanks for sharing these illustrations.


  6. Good luck with the presentation!


  7. Jules, have fun!

    Wow on those illustrations. Wow. Thanks for the heads-up on the reissue.


  8. i love me some dillons. that is gorgeous.


  9. I’m joining the chorus of wows here. These illustrations aren’t just beautiful, they’re like windows onto a fully-formed world I’ve never seen. The colors and tones put me in mind of butterfly wings. Thank you for sharing these.


  10. What I find astonishing about the Dillons–their gorgeous, accomplished style is always recognizable and still they JUST KEEP GETTING BETTER.

    Huzzah!

    Jane


  11. Great illustrations! Love the cover art too.

    *****

    Jane,

    I couldn’t agree with you more. I knew in an instant the illustration at the top of this post was created by the Dillons as soon as I saw it.


  12. These are so beautiful. Sometimes poetry just begs to be paired with illustrations, and it’s so wonderful to see a picture book that does that incredibly well.


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