Picture Book Round-Up: Sweet, sweet freedom
(and lots of construction paper and glue)

h1 August 7th, 2007 by jules

Let it Shine:
Three Favorite Spirituals

by Ashley Bryan
Atheneum
January 2007
(library copy)

I have two things to say right off the bat about this exuberant and breathtaking picture book: 1). I want you to just try to read it without humming along, and 2). ART TEACHERS, TAKE NOTE. Ashley Bryan has created spreads in this book that are truly brilliant in all their color and wonder — and all with construction paper and scissors (the latter depicted on the book’s end pages). I swear, I could pore over the illustrations in this book for hours (and, elementary art teachers, how empowering is it for children to see art work like this? No fancy-schmancy oil paints or expensive art equipment needed, thanks very much. Just paper and a pair of scissors. Not that it’d be easy, mind you, to create art quite like Ashley Bryan does, but it’s still empowering to introduce to children such an accessible medium).

What he’s brought us here are three songs (“This Little Light of Mine,” “Oh, When the Saints Go Marching in,” and “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands”) that, Bryan explains in a note at the close of the book, are loved and sung all over the world now but were . . .

” . . . originally called ‘Negro Spirituals.’ It was a crime to teach a slave to read or write. However, the slaves’ urges to create could not be bound. In the freedom of the mind, their artistic gifts found expression . . . The Spirituals are unique in the folk songs of the world and are considered one of the finest gifts to world music . . . Whether sung by field hands or opera singers, the Spirituals have the power to touch singers and listeners alike. Throughout the years, many Spirituals have retained their original melodies and verses. Other Spirituals have had verses added or dropped, and melodies have also varied as the spirit moved the singer or the congregation. I’ve followed this practice in my offering . . . in an effort to create the most forceful illustrations that will capture the underlying meaning of the Spiritual.”

And boy howdy and howdy boy does he mean “forceful.” With the bold, bright standard colors included in a pack of costruction paper, he brings joyful, exhilarating life to each verse of each song with his collage illustrations. This could be a study in expert composition and in what an illustrator can do with line in a picture book. I’d say the most outstanding spreads (and this is difficult to pick) would be the one depicting Satan in “This Little Light of Mine” (“Don’t let Satan blow it out, I’m gonna let it shine”) and just about every spread in “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” but particularly the “little bitty baby” spread, showing someone lying on his or her side, cradling a baby — with vigorous swirls of primarily yellows and reds composing the entire spread. It’s quite moving.

Bryan goes far in conveying a strong message of peace and tolerance, as he shows a wide variety of locales in his spreads (particularly, on the “He’s got the whole world in His hands” spread, showing a church, a tipi, a temple, an igloo, the mountains, etc.) and showing the silhouettes of people with a wide range of skin tones. Bryan allows the illustrations of this last spiritual in the book to convey a potent sense of comfort and protection, no matter one’s religion, with his repeated and varied arrangements of large hands cradling scenes of nature and cradling others in what are radiant, life-affirming spreads.

Perfect for a read-aloud and a sing-along (it’s even sized appropriately for such, as it’s a bigger-than-average book), it even includes musical scores in the back for each song.

Absolutely divine.

Ain’t Nobody a Stranger to Me
by Ann Grifalconi
and illustrated by Jerry Pinkney
Jump At The Sun
April 2007
(library copy)

“A long, long time ago, when I was a little, little girl, my Gran’pa let me come along on his weekly visit to his apple orchard” begins Ann Grifalconi’s latest tale with luminous illustrations by Jerry Pinkney. When she asks him how he knows so many people, he tells her, “Don’t know ‘em by name—just by heart, Honey. . . . Ain’t nobody a stranger to me!” And that’s because “both me and my heart is free,” he further tells her — and then launches into his story about living without freedom “way back in the sad, old days of slavery” and how he kept an apple seed in his pocket for the day when he could plant his own soil on his own farm. He recounts the day he and his wife and baby girl, the young girl’s mother, “struck out for freedom ourselves” and headed north, hid in a barn near the Ohio River, and were befriended by the farmer and Quaker James Stanton and his wife, Sarah. They were, in fact, secret members of the Underground Railroad and helped the family across the river to freedom. He tells the girl: “Yep . . . I been on both sides. When somebody falls down, what kind of man gonna stop ‘n’ say: ‘I don’t pick up no stranger! Let ‘em lie there’? Leastways, not me!” He then explains to his granddaughter how his family, once North, was able to buy their own land, the land they’re walking on as they stroll and talk. In an eye-popping spread of a “whole pink cloud of blooming apple trees,” he tells her that, for each apple seed he planted, he thought of everyone who helped them along his journey to freedom. In the end, his granddaughter plants her own seed in the family orchard.

Pinkney’s impressionistic (particularly in the present-day moments) pencil and watercolor illustrations swing wildly in shade and tone from the glowing greens and shining yellows and parading pinks of the apple orchard and surrounding land to the dark shades of the grandfather’s past — primarily sepia-shaded browns and greys, showing the forest in which they ran and hid and symbolizing the fear and dread the family felt in an attempt to escape. Pinkney is an illustrator whose work I look forward to. Generally, his depiction of bright light combined with his use of warm colors sometimes literally makes my jaw drop. Yes, literally. Don’t report me. And, in the case of 1999′s The Ugly Duckling, some of the illustrations themselves brought tears to my eyes. (I’m such a big fat picture book baby).

In this title, the grandfather — in present-day time — looks to me like an eighteen-year-old in a fake beard, and he somehow looks older in his young version, as we look back at his journey to freedom. (Perhaps that was even intentional, as if freedom has lifted some years from his frame). And, as the School Library Journal review noted, “{s}ome of the figural renderings are less successful, and particular perspectives necessitate a foreshortening that appears awkward.” It’s certainly not what I would call Pinkney’s best work, but the light-filled apple orchard spread at the book’s close — and the book’s message of community and faith — almost makes up for these shortcomings.

Apparently, I have a copy of this book without what Booklist describes as the “final notes {which} explain the story’s roots in the life of Orleans Finger, who told his story as part of the Federal Writers’ Project in 1937.” But I hope that yours will.

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11 comments to “Picture Book Round-Up: Sweet, sweet freedom
(and lots of construction paper and glue)”

  1. I just wrote down Let It Shine for the next library trip. Thanks, Jules!


  2. Let me know what you think, Susan! I (obviously) loved it.


  3. I have a book of spirituals that Bryan illustrated that I bought a few years ago. I’ll have to check this one out, too. Thanks!


  4. Oooh! Ooh! OOOH! (Envision child raising hand, wriggling “Pick me! Pick me! so they can tell a story.)

    I got to stand next to (please note she did not say “meet.” This would have required speaking) Ashley Bryan last year at the Multicultural Conference at UCSF. He’ll be there again next February — (along with Naomi Shihab Nye – squeeeal!) and I love, love, LOVE his work. Between he and Debra Frasier, I’m turning into a picture book fan. (The second one – ever so beautiful and uplifting as well.)

    We SANG these three songs to honor him at the Conference last year. That, and because it’s fun to dance with librarians first thing in the morning. Man, that was some fun. I just might have to hop on a plane and come back for that one! Thanks for sharing this. I now have to hum this song all day. :) Literally!!!


  5. (oops. I meant USF – not UCSF.)


  6. TadMack, I’m a librarian and not so fun to dance with first thing in the morning until I’ve had my coffee. After that, I’m good to go and would like to think I’m great fun.

    Really, that is awesome that you stood next to him! Great story.

    I can help you become an even bigger picture book fan if you stick with me. They (well, the good ones) are the best thing since that espresso beer Eisha found in that brewery in Ithaca. Okay, so I haven’t had that yet, but it sounds really good and like the best thing ever.

    Alkelda, hope you like the book!


  7. Jules, you sound like a pusher. “C’mon, TadMack, picture books are cool, everyone’s doing them…”

    What would be cool is if an art teacher, after taking your advice and doing a lesson on cut-paper art based on Ashley Bryan’s book, then whipped out a few X-acto knives and said “Okay, now let’s move on to David Wisniewski!”


  8. Let It Shine sounds wonderful. I’ll look for this one. Thanks!


  9. Well, they are the gateway drug to all literature.

    Hey, if we’re going with this picture-books-as-drugs metaphor, can we have random employee picture-book testing for librarians? Where’s Minh, who would have a lot of fun with this metaphor, I would imagine?


  10. Wait, I thought graphic novels were the gateway drug! But seriously — here I thought I was all YA-hip and such, and suddenly, I’m having serious picture book lust.

    Not that I could write one. But still!

    So, yeah, pushers. I’m with ya.


  11. [...] Jules also sent me a book that her daughters made for me, based on Ashley Bryan’s Let It Shine, which has apparently become a huge hit in the Jules household. It has construction paper collage [...]


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