Tag Archives: humanity

Pattan’s Pumpkin: A Traditional Flood Story from Southern India

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Pattan’s Pumpkin: A Traditional Flood Story from Southern India

Chitra Soundar and Frané Lessac have adapted a traditional Irula story to make it more accessible: turning the traditional churraka into a pumpkin and highlighting the story’s universal themes.

The story does, not, however, abandon its cultural roots. It is authentic in its language, retaining the Indian names Pattan and Kanni and placing the tale at the base not of any old mountain range but of the Sahyadri Mountains. Pattan and Kanni are illustrated with the characteristic dark skin of the Irula people and are dressed in traditional garb. Soundar also does not shy away from describing the details of Pattan and Kanni’s way of life as they grow pepper, rice, nutmeg, and bananas; ride elephants; and nurture animals in the foothills of South India’s mountains. As any culturally diverse book should, Pattan’s Pumpkin presents its characters positively: clever, resourceful, grateful for what they have, kind, and willing to share. These characteristics not only help children understand cultures beyond their own as positive but also model values for the children themselves!

Lessac’s pictures are as bright as the spirit of Pattan himself. The colors – oranges, yellows, reds, greens – pop off the page and bring the story to life. The use of full-page spreads accentuates the size of the pumpkin, sure to make any child shriek with shock and delight, and the landscapes are rich and vivid in their scope.

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Lessac’s spread toward the end of the story is lush green and deep black, dotted with every color in between. A picture does not do these colors justice!

Pattan’s Pumpkin comes together to tell not only an entertaining, engaging story but one that is valuable in any lesson on geography, history, culture, or even religion.

-Addison

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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

Last Stop on Market Street

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I cannot say enough good things about Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson’s 2015 Last Stop on Market Street. I stumbled upon it quite by accident, tugging on its bright orange spine in the hopes that the book would be less dusty and worn than the others I’d found in the library…and I was not disappointed.

The book itself – the text and the images – are beautifully done. In fact, Last Stop on Market Street won both the Newbery Medal and a Caldecott Honor in 2016. De la Peña’s writing is nuanced: simple and straightforward, easy for a child to understand – but also embedded with imagery and poeticism. The descriptions are as vivid for the scenery as they are for the characters: just as “Nana laughed her deep laugh,” the bus “sighed and sagged.” On the very second page, our young protagonist CJ steps out of church into “outside air [that] smelled like freedom, but […] also like rain”; toward the end, his grandmother tells him that “when you’re surrounded by dirt, […] you’re a better witness for what’s beautiful.”

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“‘Sometimes when you’re surrounded by dirt […] you’re a better witness for what’s beautiful.'”

Nana is referring to the beauty of the sky – but she could easily be talking about Robinson’s pictures. They are colorful and detailed, done in strokes that give the book’s childish narrator a stake in the visual aspect of the story as well as the narration – Robinson colors the world as a child sees it. The images give off a mixed media feel: newspaper on one page, the birds on the page shown above as if they have been cut from paper. And the figures themselves, of course, are vibrant, colorful representations of all of humanity: in wheelchairs, on foot, with headscarves, with no hair at all, tattooed, light-skinned, dark-skinned, elderly, middle-aged, bespectacled.

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The book is not one, however, that is simply beautiful. It is an emissary of so many beautiful messages: on being grateful, being positive, finding beauty everywhere, helping others, and, above all, perspective. Each character is unique; though the narrator and Nana use Standard American English, CJ has a clear dialect (see image below) that is not looked down upon by the narrator or criticized. His skin color, too, is darker than the average children’s book protagonist’s – but the book is about more than diversity.

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Throughout the book, CJ whines about his responsibilities, about not having a car…but at the end, CJ is gently reminded – as is the reader – to shift his perspective and realize that we are all luckier than we think. Last Stop on Market Street is a reminder to be grateful, compassionate, and respectful, and is a touching story that crosses cultures and class without coming off as as preachy or, on the other end, pitying. Instead, it recognizes not the deficits of different groups of people but the strengths; it celebrates humanity and the goodness de la Peña sees in us all.

 

 

-Addison Armstrong