Ada’s Violin: The Story of the Recycled Orchestra of Paraguay by Susan Hood, illustrated by Sally Wern Comport.
Maybe Something Beautiful: How Art Transformed a Neighborhood by F. Isabel Campoy and Theresa Howell, illustrated by Rafael Lopez.
Jazz Day: The Making of a Famous Photograph by Roxane Orgill, illustrated by Francis Vallejo.
Freedom in Congo Square by Carol Boston Weatherford and R. Gregory Christie.
I checked out these four 2016 picture books from the library because they sounded interesting and had received some accolades and good reviews. Then, as I read them, I realized that, serendipitously, they all carry a similar theme: art and beauty can emerge from the depths of poverty, suffering, and confusion. And that art can be a source of inspiration and celebration for the artists and for those who can find the ability to appreciate their art. Maybe “emerge” isn’t quite the right word; it takes perseverance, insight and ideas, and hard work for the art to “emerge” in all of these stories.
Freedom in Congo Square is a verse story about the weekly Sunday celebration of freedom and community that the enslaved and the free black people of New Orleans came together for in Congo Square. The rhythm and rhyme of this poem mirrors the week to week rhythm of work and rest that comprised the lives of of hundreds of African Americans, and the folk art style complements the story. Dance, music, community and hope for freedom from oppression are all celebrated in this paean to a New Orleans tradition. The foreword and the author’s note also give more historical information about the development of the gatherings at Congo Square.
Jazz Day is a compilation of mostly free verse poems inspired by a famous 1958 photograph by Art Kane for Esquire magazine of a gathering of famous and not-so-famous jazz musicians. Mr. Kane had the idea of inviting all of the jazz community to come to Harlem and pose for a photograph in front of an “absolutely typical brownstone.” The invitation to the photo shoot was open to all jazz musicians, and 58 of them showed up for the photo, including Count Basie, Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonius Monk, and Lester Young. The illustrations include color paintings of the crowd milling about and the individual musicians and a foldout image of the famous photograph itself.
Something Beautiful is based on the story of the origins of the colorful murals of East Village in San Diego, California and of the Urban Art Trail, a movement for reviving urban communities through art. In this picture book, a little girl, Mira is the catalyst for a community celebration of color and painting and art. Even the neighborhood policeman becomes involved in the riot of color and artistic freedom that brings life and beauty to an entire neighborhood. The illustrations in the book were done by Rafael Lopez who is the inspiration for the book: the husband in the husband-wife-team who brought murals and bench paintings and public artistic expression to East Village.
Finally, Ada’s Violin tells the story of a community built on a landfill in which the children learn to play instruments made from recycled trash. The Recycled Orchestra of Cateura (Asuncion), Paraguay is a real thing. Families in Cateura spend their days picking through the trash in the landfill to find things they can recycle or sell. The average income is $2.00 a day. Ada Rios is a violinist with the Recycled Orchestra. Her violin is made of “an old paint can, an aluminum baking tray, a fork, and pieces of wooden crates.” THe director of the Recycled Orchestra, Favio Chavez, says, “The world sends us garbage. We send back music.”
Indeed, all of these books tell how, in one way or another, art can come from poverty and oppression. It’s not easy. It takes the persistence of a Favio Chavez or an Art Kane or a Rafael Lopez. It takes other people buying into the artist’s dream to create a community of artists. (I think it also takes the inspiration and grace of the Holy Spirit.) But it can be done.