Of the 2014 Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Medal books I have read and reviewed all of them but one; Parrots Over Puerto Rico written by Susan L. Roth and Cindy Trumbore, illustrated by Susan L. Roth (Winner), A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin written by Jen Bryant, illustrated by Melissa Sweet (Honor), Look Up!: Bird Watching in Your Own Backyard written and illustrated by Annette LaBlanc Cate (Honor) and Locomotive written and illustrated by Brian Floca (Honor)(Caldecott Award Winner). The photograph on the matching dust jacket and book case of the remaining volume certainly catches your eye. Everyone can agree the title immediately gets your attention, causing you to wonder exactly what it means.
The Mad Potter: George E. Ohr Eccentric Genius (A Neal Porter Book, Roaring Book Press, October 29, 2013) written by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan provides a narrative of a most unusual life. If you think of the historical time period in which Ohr lived (1857-1918), the reaction of people to his unconventional artistic endeavors makes sense. The real discoveries though, to be gleaned from this biography, are much more.
Biloxi, Mississippi, 1968: The sign read "Ojo's Junk Yard and Machine Shop"---a place to find car parts for an old Model T Ford or a broken down washing machine, not a long lost treasure.
I know what you are thinking about this first sentence in the introduction. How did we get to a point fifty years from the date of George E. Ohr's death? What significance does this hold?
From the time he was born in Biloxi, Mississippi, George was different. Not only was he different but he seemed to attract the blame for anything and everything, like a bee to honey. By the time he was thirteen, he had enough of schooling, ready to make a living. Unable to work amicably with his father in the family business as a blacksmith, he left home.
After a series of jobs, still not finding his niche, George was asked by a friend, Joseph Meyer in New Orleans, to be his apprentice in a small pottery factory. The potter's wheel and George were a match made in heaven. Years later he began to travel around the states studying the skills and art of other potters. Before long he was back in Biloxi to begin his own business.
George created pieces to be used as practical objects by the locals and more whimsical items for tourists. He experimented with color, glazes and techniques. More than once he packed up his "mud babies" taking them to huge exhibitions and fairs. A decision to add a singular flair to his work, to be an artist in every sense of the word, making no two items alike, is when George became his happiest.
A determined passion to pursue his dream, to do what he loved, despite setbacks outside his control, never wavered. Although his shop was decidedly a tourist attraction (his advertising and conversation mirroring that of a flamboyant entertainer), his pottery was never completely accepted within the art community as whole. It was simply too unique, too specialized.
Husband to Josephine, father to ten children and artist extraordinaire, George's days were undoubtedly busy. When he retired in 1910 instructions were given to his family as to the disposition of his pots. This, readers, brings us to Jim Carpenter, an antiques dealer, visiting in Biloxi in 1968. Needless to say, George was ahead of his time. Time was about to recognize his inventive genius.
The style of writing used by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan will hook any reader on the first page. Skillful use of beginning fifty years in the future, going back in time, moving forward in a circle to said future, keeps you turning the pages. You have to know what happened.
Descriptions of period and place, painting a picture with words, make you feel like you are walking side by side with George. Extensive use of personal quotes adeptly inserted into the narrative enhances this sensation. These two unquestionably have a gift of including the precise amount of detail without slowing the flow. Here are a couple of examples of their writing.
"When I found the potter's wheel I felt it all over like a duck in water."
At age twenty-two, George was handsome and sure of himself---dark-haired with a full, well-groomed moustache and piercing eyes. Shirtsleeves rolled up, a cap perched on his head to keep clay dust out of his eyes, he labored at the potter's wheel, using the foot pedal to make it turn, squishing the wet, slippery mud through his fingers.
He might RUFFLE OR FLUTE THE EDGES, TWIST THE NECK, MAKE A BORDER OF HIS THUMBPRINTS, FASHION CURVING HANDLES, TWIST, WRING, PUMMEL, AND FOLD THE WALLS, until each pot, although contorted, seemed to twirl in space.
The effect was witty, rhythmic, and sensual.
They weren't containers to store foodstuffs or pitchers to pour lemonade. George's pots were sculptures, three-dimensional works of art. "Shapes come to the potter as verses come to the poet," he wrote.
Captivating is assuredly an excellent one word description of The Mad Potter: George E. Ohr Eccentric Genius written by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan. After reading this twice I keep thinking how interesting it would be to meet this man, to engage him in conversation. He let nothing keep him from following his dream, working at it for nearly forty years. If readers take nothing else away (but trust me they will) from reading this biography, they will come to understand the importance of being yourself and having confidence in your work even if others fail to recognize how truly amazing it is. At only fifty-three pages long it would make an excellent read aloud or individual-choice selection.
Numerous photographs in black and white and color document the text expertly. An extensive bibliography and meticulous notes for each chapter appear at the end of the book. Greenberg and Jordan include a discussion of The Ohr-O'Keefe Museum of Art, The Pleasant Reed Interpretive Center, How to Look at a Pot And How to "Boss" One of Your Own (As George Would Say) at the conclusion of his story. Please follow the link embedded in their names to their official website.
I am more than glad to be participating in the 2014 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge hosted by Alyson Beecher at Kid Lit Frenzy. Without this challenge I might have missed this excellent book.