Who were his teachers, / His counselors, / His friends.”
How do you introduce illustrators like Leo and Diane Dillon? Well, they’re not here visiting today (I wish), but how, I wonder, do I introduce their art without sounding like a blithering starstruck halfwit? Their work is simply stunning and quite often breathtaking and always beautiful. They are living legends, who have illustrated more than sixty books for children and are two-time Caldecott Medal winners.
If you’re a fan, as I clearly am, you’ll want to see a copy of their latest illustrated title, written by the great Patricia C. McKissack, who herself has also acquired a slew of impressive awards in her career, including a Newbery Honor and a Coretta Scott King Award. It’s called Never Forgotten, was released by Schwartz & Wade this month, and has been met with starred reviews all-around.
Written in verse (“a searing cycle of poems” Kirkus calls it), it’s the chilling story of a young African boy taken by slave traders to America.
Dinga, a great blacksmith living in West Africa in 1725, is honored for his skill, yet also for his powerful magicianship. He can “speak the old names / Of the Mother Elements, / Earth, / Fire, / Water, / Wind, / And they would do his bidding…” After his wife dies during childbirth, Dinga calls upon these elements of the earth to help raise his son. Musafa grows as a happy child with his loving father and the Earth, Fire, Water, and Wind to raise him.
But, after becoming an apprentice to his father, he is taken by slave traders. There is a great search, each element wreaking as much havoc as possible in order to separate Musafa from the men and free him (earthquake, a blazing fire that engulfs the grasslands).
It’s Water who returns to say that the boy was sold to the Charlack Plantation in Carolina. (This is, arguably, the book’s most touching moment, pictured below: “So saddened by what she had to report, / Water melted into the river, / Where her tears flooded the shore.”) Dinga is heartbroken, but it’s Wind who ultimately brings good news about his son. Yes, good news, because Musafa has a will of steel, bravery in spades, and compassion — not to mention he carries the memory of his family with him.
But I don’t want to give it all away, so I shall stop there. It’s powerful stuff, a story of family ties, courage, and survival: “What father can hide his pain / When his child is stolen?” McKissack writes. “What mother does not lament / The loss of a son or daughter? / Remember the wisdom of Mother Dongi: / ‘Kings may come and go, / But the family endures forever.’ / Think on that when the silence comes.”
The Kirkus review adds that this is a “totally absorbing poetic celebration of loss and redemption.” Indeed. “The pictures,” wrote School Library Journal, “demonstrate the miracle of superb book illustration: how something that lies flat on the page can convey such depth, texture, and feeling.” The Dillons’ artwork, rendered in acrylics and watercolors, is haunting — boldly-outlined on a primarily Earth-toned palette and sometimes, as you can see in one of the illustrations below, depicting the slave traders as skeletons, faces of death.
Since the art speaks way more than I ever can, here is a bit more…
Blocked, / I can go no farther. / Fury!”
Shum Da Da We Da Shum Da Da We Da.”
To beware / Of the men who steal upriver. . . .”
NEVER FORGOTTEN. Copyright © 2011 by Patricia C. McKissack. Illustration © 2011 by Leo & Diane Dillon. Published by Schwartz & Wade Books, New York. Images reproduced with permission of the publisher.
Note for any new readers: 7-Imp’s 7 Kicks is a weekly meeting ground for taking some time to reflect on Seven(ish) Exceptionally Fabulous, Beautiful, Interesting, Hilarious, or Otherwise Positive Noteworthy Things from the past week, whether book-related or not, that happened to you.
1) “The last part of a story is the silence / That comes at the end.” I love that.
2) Speaking of great picture books, I already wrote about it at Kirkus on Friday, but I mention it again, since I’m crazy in love with it and it’s a kick: Susan Campbell Bartoletti’s Naamah and the Ark at Night, illustrated by Holly Meade. I’ll have some spreads from it here at 7-Imp on Friday.
3) And speaking of picture books in general, did you see the bold Picture Book Manifesto from a whole slew of talented authors, illustrators, and author/illustrators? Let the discussion begin! (Seriously, there’s a Facebook page for discussion, if you’re so inclined.)
(The image here comes from the proclamation and was created by Carson Ellis.)
4) Last weekend’s Southern Festival of Books was a delight. Here’s a picture (courtesy of my friend and fellow librarian Angela Frederick) from Matt Phelan’s and Bob Shea’s session. (That’s Matt on the left and Bob, right, both saying erudite things, I’m sure, about the art of illustration.)
5) This wonderful exhibit yesterday with good friends at a small gallery in East Nashville. That annual exhibit is devoted to children’s books by local artists. Cool, huh?
6) I’m seriously addicted to Breaking Bad, as in marathon-watching from Season One till now — late at night, that is, when everything else is done and the small people of the house are sleeping. It’s CHAIR-GRIPPINGLY intense, but the fine, fine acting in that show is what makes it like crack. Er, meth.
7) When Sam Phillips sings, “my heart, a little bird / keeps me in this world…”
NOTE: Holy wow, wouldn’t you like to go to this, the 22nd Annual Children’s Book Illustration Exhibition, at Rich Michelson’s gallery? Sometimes, everything great related to children’s book illustration seems so far away. (Note that I said “sometimes,” because of kick #5, for which I am grateful.)
Anyway, if you live in the Northeast and are near enough to his gallery, consider yourself informed.
What are YOUR kicks this week?