Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Art of Stephen Savage

Stephen Savage
If you look at the artwork for Polar Bear Night by Lauren Thompson, illustrated by Stephen Savage, you might think that it seems fairly simple--geometric shapes, pretty shades of blue, green and lavender, some interesting textures. 

But how does Savage create emotion with these fairly straightforward colors and shapes? The uncomplicated compositions allow young children to see themselves standing in for the polar bear cub. And Stephen Savage's technique is anything but simple. 

We got a chance to interview him about his book The Fathers Are Coming Home by Margaret Wise Brown, and he shared with us the multi-step process he uses every time he makes a print for one of his books. He draws on the linoleum, cuts the linoleum to create a relief print, then carefully builds up the inks on the raised areas to give a sense of depth, perspective and, in the case of Polar Bear Night, a nighttime setting.

He demonstrates his process here. It makes you think about how nothing is ever as easy as it looks.

Friday, January 18, 2013

A 50th Anniversary of a Dream

Monday is Martin Luther King Day, and 2013 marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Dr. King delivered his historic "I Have a Dream" speech. How do we make the impact of his words resonate for young people?

Kadir Nelson's glorious images in I Have a Dream (Schwartz & Wade/Random House) accompany the closing passages of Dr. King's speech. These are the most resonant lines, the ones adults hear in our heads when we think of his words. Nelson takes Dr. King's refrain and brings it home to children growing up today. With a portrait of Dr. King's own four children, and with the image for his dream that "little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers" in what resembles a game of Ring-Around-the-Rosy, Nelson removes any background or scenery so that the children could be of any time or place. (The book includes a transcription and recording of the full speech.)
Andrea Davis Pinkney

Andrea Davis Pinkney's Hand in Hand: Ten Black Men Who Changed America, illustrated by Brian Pinkney, focuses on other courageous men who helped Dr. King get to that historic day, August 28, 1963. They include A. Philip Randolph, one of Pinkney's chosen 10, who organized the march, and who also plays a key role in Tanya Lee Stone's Courage Has No Color: The True Story of the Triple Nickles: America's First Black Paratroopers. Randolph's plans to organize a similar strike in 1941 resulted in President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signing the Fair Employment Act, without which the Triple Nickles likely would not have formed.

All three books demonstrate how many people struggled--and continue to struggle--to realize the promise of Dr. King's dream.

This article first appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Hungry for Knowledge

In The Vengekeep Prophecies, 12-year-old Jaxter Grimjinx is from a family of thieves, but his contribution to their plans and execution is as a reader and chemist. 

He reads to discover the formulas that will open a lock or break a spell. His friendship with Callie inspires him to be a force of good in the world. Jaxter and Callie go on a quest in search of ingredients for an antidote to his family's ill-conceived plan, which has brought adversity upon the town of Vengekeep. But they find so much more. Their journey puts Jaxter in the path of both evil and salvation: his true calling. He meets the Dowager Soranna, whose fascination with herbs and salves outpaces his own. She teaches him about his craft and appreciates his mind. 

Meeting the Dowager introduces a defining moment for Jaxter: Does he steal from her to complete his antidote or remain with her and feed his mind? And what of his family? Can he abandon them? And if he returns to them, is he abandoning himself? This is Jaxter's first taste of independence, and the questions he asks himself are the defining questions of moving toward adulthood. To pursue one's own interests over the plans one's family has made for you can often feel like you're abandoning them. But the words of Jaxter's grandmother, as he sets out on his quest, offer a clue: "The things you learn in books will outshine all of us someday."

This is the first in a trilogy, but this book wraps up beautifully, with no easy answers and lingering questions that may well help shape readers' questions as they grapple with their own inner quests.

Friday, January 4, 2013

"A Teacher Every Day"

David Macaulay in his studio.
David Macaulay teaches with every book he writes. He imparts information like a student who can't wait to share what he's learned. That's why Jet Plane: How It Works feels exciting. It's facts delivered with the urgency of, "Can you believe how this all comes together?" 

Macaulay likes to figure things out, and then explain it all clearly and precisely, one revelation leading to the next. That makes Jet Plane ideal for beginning readers. He also goes a step further, anticipating how a young first-time flier might feel: What's that noise? ("That is the landing gear folding up into the hold.") How do the pilots fly safely at night? How does the plane stay up in the air? With cutaway views of the plane's inner workings, and shots of the control panels, he answers all these anxiety-making questions and puts children at ease. And for those simply interested in the technology, they come away satisfied, too.

In a memorable quote from Henry Drummond, in the play Inherit the Wind, he says, "[Y]ou may conquer the air, but the birds will lose their wonder and the clouds will smell of gasoline." Macaulay shows us that there is as much wonder in how a plane flies as a bird taking to the air. We may have more appreciation for a bird's aerodynamics after learning about all that's required to achieve flight through invention. The author-artist's contagious enthusiasm can't help but infect us, too.

Macaulay once told me, in an interview about The Way We Work, which explores the wonder of the human body, for School Library Journal, "I am a teacher every day. It works because I'm a student every day. All good teachers are students. I get so excited and emotionally tied up with the things I'm learning that I want to pass them on. That by definition makes me a teacher." May we ever remain teachable, and may Macaulay long conduct the classroom.