Tag Archives: dreams

Take a Picture of Me, James VanDerZee!

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Andrea J. Loney and Keith Mallett’s New Voices Award Winner Take a Picture of Me, James VanDerZee! is one that, according to author Loney herself, “celebrate[s] the humanity of all children.” In this case, the child celebrated is James VanDerZee, an African-American boy born in 1886 to the former butler and maid of President Ulysses S. Grant. James himself, however, has a different future in mind: He wants to be an artist. James craves a way to “share the beauty he [sees] in his heart,” but his drawings of people never turn out quite right…so he ends up entering and winning a contest for his very own camera. Here, James does something quite mature: he neither gives up on a dream nor remains desperately grasping at an impossibility, instead adapting his plan as he sees and learns new things. Such a nuanced message is not often found in children’s books, and I wonder whether its poignancy stems from the fact that the story of James VanDerZee is a true one.

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James craves a way to “share the beauty he [sees] in his heart.”

This authenticity is evident in Mallett’s artistry as well. Illustrations in a book that centers on the life of an artist have high expectations to meet – but these delightful images deliver. The pictures of James with his camera are almost reverent, a beautiful glow from the device lighting James’ body and face so that he melts like butter against the soft, dark backdrop of the page.

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But the book is not all beauty and light. Loney does not shy away from reality, acknowledging in no uncertain terms the racism that James faces. I admire her willingness to speak of “segregation,” of the way that 19th century “customers would not want their portraits taken by a black man” – and also the way that Loney is able to illustrate resilience of black people in the face of these obstacles. James’ foray into the Harlem Renaissance comes alongside vivid depictions that are as jubilant as the “cultural celebration” itself.

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The book ends with a historical exploration: real photographs, as well as information about James that was not found in the book. It is always my hope that this type of story, told compellingly, will engage children not only in literacy and reading but in history and activism as well; the notes at the end of Take A Picture of Me, James VanDerZee! are ideal to pique a child’s interest in research after being drawn into James’ life through the narrative. 

-Addison Armstrong

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Traditional Thursdays: Angelina Ballerina

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Traditional Thursdays: Angelina Ballerina

Most little girls (and some boys too!) dream of being a ballet dancer at some point while growing up. Whether it be the beautifully ornate costumes, graceful movements, or the thrill of performing on stage, ballet dancing always seems to capture the hearts and imagination of children. As a dancer of fifteen years myself, I fell in love with this book at a very young age and was overwhelmed with warm memories upon rereading. This week’s Traditional Thursday selection, Angelina Ballerina written by Katharine Holabird and illustrated by Helen Craig (1983), tells the story of little white mouse named Angelina who dreams of becoming a ballerina.

The book opens with the simple statement, “More than anything else in the world, Angelina loved to dance.” Whether in her room, on the playground, in the kitchen, or in her dreams at night, Angelina dances wherever she is. She spends so much time dancing, however, that she often neglects her chores and is late to school. As is easy to do when exploring the realms of your imagination, Angelina is oblivious of the world around her. She upsets the boys in her class by not letting them catch her during recess, knocks over her mother’s Cheddar cheese pies, and even squashes Mrs. Hodgepodge’s pansies!

Angelina-imageAngelina’s mother and father finally decide that it’s time to enroll Angelina in dance classes. They even buy her a pink ballet dress and shoes. Angelina is overjoyed! She takes lessons at Miss Lilly’s Ballet School with nine other little girls. Miss Lilly encourages Angelina that if she works hard enough, she might grow up to be a ballerina! At home, Angelina now helps with the chores and is no longer late to school; she even lets the boys catch her on the playground!

The book ends concludes with,

“She went every day to her ballet lessons and worked very hard for many years…until at last she became the famous ballerina mademoiselle Angelina, and people came from far and wide to enjoy her lovely dancing.”

The exquisitely detailed illustrations by Helen Craig remind me of a ballerina. They are light, effortlessly beautiful, and extremely nuanced, with each line perfectly placed. The plain white backdrop of the pages focuses the reader on the illustrations and the story. My favorite part of the book though is the ending. Too often, I feel, children have their early dreams of becoming a firefighter, astronaut, garbage man, or ballerina dismissed too early by adults. Angelina Ballerina is a wonderful resource for teaching that with enough dedication, hard work, and passion, achieving your dreams is possible. And for the aspiring ballerinas (or dance lovers in general) out there, this book is perfect. Holabird’s use of proper ballet terminology, such as plié and arabesque, add a sophisticated authenticity to the book. Overall, Angelina Ballerina is a classic children’s book that incites the imaginations and wildest dreams of children everywhere. ballet-group

Author and Illustrator Info and Related Books

  • Katharine Holabird grew up in Chicago, Illinois but moved to Italy after college to write. She now lives in London, which is where she authored Angelina Ballerina (at her kitchen table!). The story and characters in the Angelina Ballerina series are based off her children. Her two daughters loved to dance, and their younger brother was the inspiration behind the character of Henry, who is introduced in subsequent Angelina Ballerina books. She is also the author of a new picture book series Twinkle.
  • Helen Craig is a native of England and still lives there today with her family. She is a member of the Terry family, who were famously talented members of the theatrical community in the 1800s. Other than Angelina Ballerina, Craig has also illustrated the Bear books (This is the Bear, This is the Bear and the Picnic Lunch, This is the Bear and the Scary Night) as well as authoring The Night of the Paper Bag Monsters and the Mouse House series of picture books.
  • There are thirteen Angelina Ballerina picture books, two Angelina Ballerina early readers, and four Angelina Ballerina chapter books (see below). So…as young readers progress, they can follow Angelina’s love of ballet and fun adventures in stories that match their level of reading ability.

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Fun Facts

  • In 2006, Katharine and Angelina were invited to attend the Queen of England’s 80th Birthday celebration!
  • Katharine Holabird is fluent in three languages: English, French, and Italian
  • The Angelina Ballerina books were turned into an actual ballet performed by The English National Ballet in 2007