As someone who loves books (obviously), music, film, and, well, the arts in general, I always appreciate it when talented picture book creators pay tribute to the transcendent nature of the arts. Three books (two award winners from 2019 and one upcoming 2020 title) offer vibrant illustrations and dynamic prose when zeroing in on what makes artistic expression so valuable.
Dancing Hands: How Teresa Carreño Played the Piano for President Lincoln, illustrated by Rafael López, written by Margarita Engle, published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 978-1481487405 (released in 2019).
A few weeks ago I attended the ALA Midwinter Conference in Philadelphia. At Midwinter the highlight for all us youth librarians is attending the Monday morning announcement of the Youth Media Awards. This event is epic with many excited librarians, educators and publishers shouting hurrays for books and people who managed to wow a bunch of awards committees. Dancing Hands deservedly received the 2020 Pura Belpré Best Illustrator Award for the great López who triumphs with this visually striking (he used a wide variety of materials) non-fiction picture book about how art can heal. Engle’s urgent compelling text whisks readers back to the mid-19th century when young Teresa must flee Venezuela for the war-torn United States. A talented piano player, she ends up soothing a grieving President Lincoln with her skilled playing. López does a fantastic job conveying a vast array of moods–somber wartime scenes, the girl’s nervousness when entering the room where she will play. The book reaches a near-euphoric high when she performs for the President and ebullient images swirl from the instrument, filling the double page spread with colorful wonder.
Double Bass Blues, illustrated by Rudy Gutierrez, written by Andrea J. Loney, published by Knopf, ISBN: 978-1524718527 (released in 2019).
The 2020 Caldecott committee wisely chose this as a Caldecott Honor title. Rudy Gutierrez’s acrylic paintings electrify and dazzle, explode off the page. The story involves a young boy who can play a mean bass solo and wow his peers. However, when carrying the heavy cumbersome instrument across town, from school to home, he endures ridicule and scorn from a bunch of nasty people (and one breathtakingly stylized dog). He also has to zip through the rain. An out of order elevator serves as one last sigh-inducing “you have to be kidding me” punch to the gut. However, when he finally arrives home (after climbing many stairs), he finds four older musicians (his grandfather and three others) waiting for him to play music with them. Loney’s storytime-friendly text mostly consists of engaging musical sound effects–an oof here, a grrrrrrr! there, some plunk plunks. Gutierrez’s images dance, flow and soar across the pages. I love how he experiments with space as the boy journeys home. His paintings pulsate with a jittery energy–you can get lost in them. The book ends on a note of much-needed pure euphoria. Also, I must add how I love the endpapers. At the start we see a stylized modern art view of the boy’s orchestra that begins the book. At the end Guiterrez shows the kids playing with his grandfather’s quintet. Totally terrific.
Exquisite: The Poetry and Life of Gwendolyn Brooks, illustrated by Cozbi A. Cabrera, written by Suzanne Slade, published by ABRAMS, ISBN: 978-1419734113, to be released: April 7, 2020.
I just talked about two books that received some 2020 awards love. Here’s an upcoming release that I hope earns some awards love in January 2021 when the next batch of award winners are announced. This heartfelt and tender new book about the legendary poet Gwendolyn Brooks covers a large portion of her early life and does so in a way that is clear and easy to understand for young readers. In 1950, the Chicago-based Brooks became the first Black person to win the Pulitzer, and Exquisite deftly chronicles what led the author to that crowning moment. A book about a great poet should offer strong writing, and Slade truly delivers with her concise, poetic text. Meanwhile, the fabulous illustrator Cozbi A. Cabrera fills each of her acrylic paintings with beautiful sights and memorable emotion. Cabrera often adds a surreal spin to the words. For example, on the page that talks about how Brooks went to college and devoured countless poetry books there, Cabrera shows her legs walking on mountains of books. Visually, Cabrera keeps returning to the colorful clouds mentioned in the poem “Clouds” that Brooks wrote when she was only 15 (the book wisely includes it in its entirety in the back matter). Swirling pinks, blues, and whites fill the sky. And for those concerned with made-up dialogue in non-fiction picture book biographies, the back matter assures us that every quote can be traced back to an original source. This is a beautiful tribute to a great poet. Side note: I was able to see Brooks read twice, and she was amazing both times. This book truly captures her talent and spirit.