Something Beautiful, Something Good

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.”

Recycled Orchestra from theremix on GodTube.

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.

Victoria House by Janice Shefelman

I found this picture book at Goodwill, the resale shop. As I looked through it, the pictures by Tom Shefelman drew me in, and I decided to take a chance and spend the dollar to bring it home to my library. I’m glad I did.

Victoria House is the story of an old country house, vacant and overgrown with weeds. As the developer who bought the land that Victoria House sits is about to have the house demolished to make way for “a boulevard lined with Spanish-style buildings,” the architect, Sarah, asks if she can move Victoria House to the city. She gets the approval of her husband, Jess, and of her young son, Mason, and of Big Earl, the house mover, and the house is carefully moved to a lot in the city.

I have another book in my library called Pete’s House by Harriet Sobol, and it is quite popular. It tells the story of a boy who is watching a house get built. Victoria House would pair well with Pete’s House, since both are about the nuts and bolts of building or remodeling a house. It’s a subject that can fascinate certain children as they think about what goes on underneath the surface in building and remodeling houses we live in.

As I said, the illustrations in Victoria House are stunning. Some of the color paintings reminded Engineer Husband of architectural renderings, which can be a work of art in and of themselves. I can see why someone might want to go to the trouble of moving such a beautiful house from the country to a place in the city where it could be repaired, lived in, and loved.

Victoria House was published in 1988, and it’s out of print. However, if you or your children are interested in old houses or architecture or house-building or moving houses, this book would be worth pursuing.

The Language of Angels by Richard Michelson

The Language of Angels: A Story About the Reinvention of Hebrew by Richard Michelson, illustrated by Karla Gudeon.

I love nonfiction picture books about overlooked and under-reported events and people in history. The Language of Angels is just such a picture book, about Itamar Ben-Avi (Ben-Zion) and his father, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda who were instrumental in the revival and implementation of Hebrew as the official and modern language of the state of Israel.

I knew that when Israel became a nation, that new/old nation adopted Hebrew as their official language. But I had no knowledge at all of the people behind the revival of the modern Hebrew language. When Eliezer Ben-Yehuda moved to Jerusalem in 1881, no one spoke Hebrew as their main, or native language. Today more than three million people speak Hebrew in daily life.

How did Eliezer and Devorah Ben-Yehuda and their son, Ben-Zion, manage to reinvent a language that had been dead as a daily spoken language for over 1500 years? Well, Eliezer started schools where the primary instruction was in Hebrew. And he decided that his children would speak and be spoken to only in Hebrew—a decision which made for a lonely childhood for Ben-Zion, since no one else spoke Hebrew when he was a child. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda also wrote a Hebrew dictionary and enlisted his pupils to help him make up words for modern things such as ice cream cones and bicycles. (Read the book to find out how to add new words to an old language.)

Even with the afterword that has more information about these people and their language-making, I still had unanswered questions. How did Ben-Yehuda get people to agree to have their children educated in Hebrew, an antiquated and unused language at the time? How did someone talk the fledgling government of Israel into adopting Hebrew as the national language? What happened to Ben-Zion during World War II and after? (His father died in 1922.) Of course a picture book can’t answer all the questions one might have about a particular subject, but the fact that this one sparked so many questions is a good recommendation for it.

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What Do You Say, Dear by Sesyle Joslin

What Do You Say, Dear? A Book of Manners for All Occasions by Sesyle Joslin, illustrated by Maurice Sendak.
What Do You Do, Dear? Proper Conduct for All Occasions by Sesyle Joslin, illustrated by Maurice Sendak.

My favorite Maurice Sendak books are not those he wrote and illustrated himself, not even the wildly popular Where the Wild Things Are, but rather this set of two volumes on good manners and proper conduct by Sesyle Joslin. What Do You Say, Dear won a Caldecott honor for Sendak’s pictures, and his droll, kid-friendly style does add to the book’s charm. However, I really love the situations that Ms. Joslin came up with for both of these books, situations that any child might find himself called up on to deal with at any moment. Example:

“You go to London to see the Queen. She says, ‘Oh, you must stay for dinner. We are having spaghetti.’ So you do, and there is spaghetti for the appetizer, spaghetti for the main dish, and a spaghetti salad. By the time the Queen’s guard brings spaghetti for dessert, you cannot fit in your chair any more and you want to leave the table. What do you say, dear?”

What person hasn’t found himself at some time or another at Buckingham Palace and burdened with a surfeit of spaghetti? *What DO you say, dear?

What Do You Do, Dear?, a second handbook of etiquette for young ladies and gentlemen to be used as a guide for everyday social behavior, is just as delightful as the first book, although not an award winner. You can use this second book to find out what to do when the Sheriff of Nottingham interrupts your reading or how to handle a handsome prince who proposes marriage when you unfortunately have just taken a great mouthful of pudding.

In addition to just tickling ye olde funny bone, these books use memorable vignettes to help children and adults remember the rules of etiquette. And which of us don’t need a little mnemonic device like a funny story to remember to mind our p’s and q’s? Oooh, I just found another “manners” book by Ms. Joslin that I would love to have: Dear Dragon . . . and Other Useful Letter Forms for Young Ladies and Gentlemen Engaged in Everyday Correspondence by Sesyle Joslin, illustrated by Irene Haas. It looks great.

*Of course, the proper thing to say to the Queen when you’ve reached your limit on the spaghetti is, “May I please be excused?”

All Upon a Sidewalk by Jean Craighead George

All Upon a Sidewalk by Jean Craighead George, illustrated by Don Bolognese.

Jean Craighead George, one of the great naturalist writers for children of the twentieth century, died in 2012. She left behind over 100 books, including the Newbery Medal-winning Julie of the Wolves and Newbery runner-up My Side of the Mountain. Although known for her fiction, Ms. George’s nonfiction narratives about various plants and animals and nature habitats are just as good as if not better than her novels.

In fact, All Upon a Sidewalk is something of a cross between fiction and nonfiction. It’s what many in the Charlotte Mason world would call a “living book” in that it tells a story that draws children in and encourages them to use their imagination to picture what life must be like for a tiny ant upon a large sidewalk. Lasius flavus is a small yellow ant who lives under the sidewalk on 19th Street in an unnamed city. “She was a yellow ant with big eyes, arrow waist, and a glittering assortment of six spindly legs.”

Lasius flavus is a worker ant, a natural chemist who serves the queen ant and follows the chemical instructions she receives from the queen. Whether it’s sugar or pollen or something else, Lasius flavus hurries to find what the queen wants. Today, Lasius flavus has a special mission: “the queen had asked for a wondrous treasure called Euplectus confluens. It was terribly appealing and hidden somewhere in the city.”

Both the reader and Lasius flavus remain in the dark as to the identity and whereabouts of Euplectus confluens until the end of the book. Lasius flavus walks about on the sidewalk, looking for this appealing substance, and on her way she encounters the dangers of spiders and bees and rainstorms and birds as she searches for the queen’s desire.

What a wonderful contrast to the flat prose of another popular children’s book about ants which says, “Do you know how many ants live in the world? More than 10,000,000,000,000,000. That’s a lot of ants. Ants live in fields and forests. They live under sidewalks, too. Ants are everywhere!”

And, instead of photographs, you get Mr. Bolognese’s painting, done from life. “He got down on his hands and knees and carefully inspected the sidewalk world through a magnifying glass.” Mightn’t your own children be inspired to do the same after reading this book?

All Upon a Sidewalk is out of print, but you can find used copies quite easily on Amazon or other used book sites.

The Princess and the Beggar by Anne Sibley O’Brien

The Princess and the Beggar: A Korean Folktale adapted and illustrated by Anne Sibley O’Brien.

The Princess and the Beggar is sort of a Korean version of Beauty and the Beast. The Weeping Princess marries Pabo Ondal, the fool of the forest. As they live together and learn each other’s way, the marriage transforms both the princess and the beggar. Or as the book says, “In time—as they planted, tended, and mended together, they learned not to fear each other.”

The illustrations show the dress and countryside of Korea during the Yi Dynasty (1392-1910), when the nobility wore fine brightly colored silks and brocades, while the peasants wore plain clothing of white and gray.Ms. O’Brien, the author-illustrator, lived in South Korea for thirteen years, the daughter of medical missionaries. She heard the story of Pabo Ondal and the the Weeping Princess as a child. Her faithful retelling and her beautiful illustrations show a sympathy for Korean tradition and folklore as well as an ability to to interpret that tradition for Western readers.

I would read this story along with a picture book version of Beauty and the Beast and compare the two stories. How is Pabo Ondal like the Beast? How is he different? How is the Weeping Princess like Beauty? How is she different? Do both stories end happily? Which is more familiar? Which story raises more questions? Some good picture book versions of Beauty and the Beast are:

Beauty and the Beast by Mahlon F. Craft, illustrated by Kinuko Y. Craft.
Beauty and the Beast, retold and illustrated by Jan Brett.
Beauty and the Beast by Marianna Mayer, illustrated by Mercer Mayer.

I especially like that in this Korean tale it is the wife who teaches and also gives moral support and encouragement to her husband until he becomes the man he is meant to be. And then, “Ondal’s services to the king were many and great, but his happiness awaited him at the foot of Peony Peak.” (his home with the princess)

Saturday Review of Books: February 18, 2017

“I wouldn’t be a songwriter if it wasn’t for books that I loved as a kid.” ~Taylor Swift


Welcome to the Saturday Review of Books at Semicolon. Here’s how it usually works. Find a book review on your blog posted sometime during the previous week. The review doesn’t have to be a formal sort of thing. You can link to your thoughts on a particular book, a few ideas inspired by reading the book, your evaluation, quotations, whatever.

Then on Friday night/Saturday, you post a link here at Semicolon in Mr. Linky to the specific post where you’ve written your book review. Don’t link to your main blog page because this kind of link makes it hard to find the book review, especially when people drop in later after you’ve added new content to your blog. In parentheses after your name, add the title of the book you’re reviewing. This addition will help people to find the reviews they’re most interested in reading.

After linking to your own reviews, you can spend as long as you want reading the reviews of other bloggers for the week and adding to your wishlist of books to read.

When the Rain Comes by Alma Fullerton

When the Rain Comes by Alma Fullerton, illustrated by Kim La Fave.

Malini is a little girl in a farming community in Sri Lanka. She wakes up in the morning, excited by her opportunity to learn to plant rice seedlings for the first time. But then, on her way to the fields, Malini has the chance to help the community in a different way, as the monsoon rains come and she responds to a near-disaster with pluck and bravery.

This story is just exciting and even scary enough to enthrall young readers and listeners, even as they learn to admire Malini’s courage and resourcefulness. The text itself, written in free verse, is filled with images and onamatapoeia and word pictures that will help readers to imagine what life must be like in a small farming community in Asia. And the illustrations are colorful and exciting, too, complementing the story and bringing out details that might be lost in the rush of the verse.

I’m excited to add this book to my library since my patrons are always looking for excellent picture books that will introduce their children to life in other places in the world. When the Rain Comes may become a favorite go-to title for those who are studying India and Sri Lanka.

Ashes by Laurie Halse Anderson

“Freedom would not be handed to us like a gift. Freedom had to be fought for and taken.”

This third and final book in Ms. Anderson’s Seeds of America trilogy wraps up the story of Curzon and Isabel, the black teens who have weathered the vicissitudes of the American revolution and of slavery, freedom, and re-capture and are now near their goal: the liberation of Isabel’s younger sister, Ruth, and her restoration to freedom and the only family she has, Isabel.

As always, however, in this series and in life, things don’t necessarily turn out the way one expects. Ruth, when she is found in Carolina, rejects Isabel and says she remembers nothing about her or their former life together in Rhode Island with their family. Also, Isabel and Curzon can’t agree about the war. Isabel believes, from experience, that neither the British nor the Continentals have any sympathy or good intentions for the freedom and welfare of black Americans, slave or free. Curzon believes in the ideals of the Revolution, and he believes that somehow, someday those ideals will be extended to apply to black people, too. So, they argue and separate, and eventually come back together because both love and circumstance push them together.

Ms. Anderson has written a trilogy that should become a classic in the genre of historical fiction about the American Revolution. Because of the violence and cruelty portrayed in the books, I would recommend them for middle school and high school readers, but they are invaluable in their depiction of the war from a different perspective, that of a courageous young black man and woman who maintain their dignity and determination throughout.

Philomena by Kate Seredy

Philomena is sturdy young country girl who lives with her grandmother in a village in the Czech Republic sometime in the early twentieth century. After her Babushka’s death, Philomena goes to the city of Prague to learn to be a servant and to find her Aunt Liska who deserted the family many years ago.

The story is very Catholic, and Philomena receives messages via circumstances that she believes are from the sainted Babushka. This aspect of the story didn’t bother me even though I don’t believe in praying to or receiving guidance from the dead. Philomena does believe that her grandmother is guiding her and caring for her from beyond the grave, and the device creates a gentle logic and organization to Philomena’s journey to the city and her growth from an innocent little girl to a self-sufficient and mature young lady.

“Everybody else in the village went to church every Sunday. First they listened to Father Matthias. Father Matthias was a wise priest who knew all about the weather, the sheep, and the chickens. He told the men of the village when to plant potatoes and corn. He told them what to do when animals got sick. He knew about God and Heaven, of course, but he also knew that people must have enough to eat to be happy, and therefore good, so he taught them to be good farmers. Good farmers have so much to do that there simply isn’t enough time left over for them to do anything that would make God angry with them! The good priest told them about Heaven, to be sure, but he just took it for granted that all his people would go there. He didn’t have to bother to tell them about the other place. He was a very wise man.”

While Father Matthias’ teaching or lack thereof doesn’t exactly fit with my own reading of the Bible and its soteriology, it is refreshing to read about such a good and down-to-earth priest.

Kate Seredy (pronounced SHARE-edy) was born in 1899 in Budapest, Hungary, and she grew up as an only child in the home of her teacher father. After World War II, Ms. Seredy emigrated to the United States and became an illustrator, first of cards and book covers and other low-paying artistic endeavors, then textbooks and books by other authors. Eventually, Ms. Seredy began to write and illustrate her own stories, mostly set in Central Europe, Hungary and this one in Czechoslovakia. The White Stag, based on Hungarian mythology and folklore and not her best book in my opinion, won the Newbery Medal in 1937. Philomena was published in 1955 after several other books, either written or illustrated or both by the talented Ms. Seredy, had won Newbery awards or honors.