Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Using Her Gift

Each individual has within them a gift.  How they determine to use it or not to use it will chart the course of their lives.  For some it appears early and easily.  For others it takes time for the answer to present itself.

In 1932 a girl child was born in Prospect Township, South Africa.  Mama Africa! How Miriam Makeba Spread Hope With Her Song (Farrar Straus Giroux for Young Readers, an imprint of Macmillan Publishing Group, LLC, October 10, 2017) written by Kathryn Erskine with illustrations by Charly Palmer is the story of this girl child's life.  Her memorable music will long hold a place in history.

Miriam sang as soon as she could talk and danced as soon as she could walk.

She sang for family, friends and in her church's Sunday school choir.  Singing gave her a feeling of freedom in a world without freedom for people of color.  In South Africa, regardless of your ethnic group, nonwhite people suffered under apartheid, a system of laws designed to enforce segregation.

Miriam used her voice, her songs, to protest these laws, this inequality.  She sang her songs in the languages of the ethnic groups, disguising their meaning from the ruling white government.  Her popularity soared like her words.

She met people like Nelson Mandela championing for racial equality for everyone.  Regardless of the risks she continued to perform and spent time in jail.  Miriam did not silence her voice.  She sang for her people.  She sang for freedom.

An accident and a death fueled her anger and prompted her performance in an anti-apartheid movie.  This brought attention to Miriam and apartheid.  She left South Africa singing in Europe and the United States.  She had to be careful though because her family still remained in her homeland.  She was not careful enough.  Miriam was banned from returning home to South Africa.

The protests in South Africa increased.  Those killed and jailed increased. Miriam told about everything in her songs.  She was invited finally to speak at the United Nations about South Africa.  Those there heard her voice, a voice strong for her people.

Even when her songs were banned in South Africa, her people listened.  More people around the world listened but it was a stunning event in the township of Soweto that shocked the world even more.  Miriam sang louder.  Other singers joined her.

It was fourteen years after this event before Miriam lifted her voice in sheer joy for the freedom gained by her people.  She could go home after thirty years.  Eighteen years later Miriam died singing.  She used her gift with her last breath.

The narrative penned by Kathryn Erskine is a poetic tribute to this remarkable woman.  Each portion of text is like a verse in a song whose volume grows.  They are connected by particular words.  Some of the last words in one portion will be included in the beginning of the next section.  Kathryn not only educates us about Miriam, but the environment in which she lived.  Historical facts about apartheid in South Africa are threads in the fabric of Miriam's life.

We become personally attached to this woman's life through noted specific incidents such as nonwhite people in South Africa having to have passes to leave their neighborhoods.  If they didn't have passes they were jailed.  Even if they had passes the police could or would say they were not legal.  Kathryn also uses Miriam's personal quotations and words from her songs to add emphasis.  Here is a sample passage.

South Africans, many of them, both black and white, protest apartheid---marching, striking, speaking, writing.  Some black protesters must flee the baases.  They go to northern Africa and find Mama Africa.

Mama Africa helps the refugees---young men and women, even children.  She gives them food, clothes, and song.  When her song becomes too loud for some, they say she is not a singer but a politician.  "I am no politician," she says.  "I just see what I think is wrong and what is right."

The bright bold colors used by artist Charly Palmer are a reflection of the essence of Miriam Makeba.  Her portrait shown on the front of the dust jacket is fully alive.  You expect to hear her singing at any minute.  The use of light and shadow is extraordinary as is the use of blue hues to frame her face and upper body.  To the left, on the back, the final passage written by Kathryn Erskine is placed in vibrant text, like a marquee, over an African landscape with silhouettes of people along the bottom. (I am working with an F & G.)

The same lively shades of blue and purple color the title page with a nearly full figure of Miriam singing on the right side of the page.  Yellow, red and green are used in the title text. (I am wondering if the significance of these colors refers to the South African flag.)  White text is used on the following pages for the verso and dedication pages done in those same shades of blue and purple.

With each page turn readers view a double-page picture filled with color, mood and emotion.  It's as if we are walking in a gallery from painting to painting as the story visually unfolds.  You become involved on a very personal level.  You feel the joy of a little girl singing, the deep sadness when she cannot go swimming at the same beach as whites, the contemplation of a young woman listening to Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald protest songs on records, the sheer terror of being stopped by the police and producing a pass, the depth of grief from being banned from your county as tears become musical notes and the horror of Soweto as fallen bodies shift to barbed wire to protesters and then to a musical score. 

One of my many favorite illustrations is when Miriam Makeba is invited to speak at the United Nations.  She begins slowly and quietly but as she thinks about Nelson Mandela her voice becomes louder and louder telling truths.  Kathryn Erskine ends with the voice of Mama Africa being like the roar of a lion.  In an arc of deep blues beginning in the upper left-hand corner the members listening at the United Nations are seen in shadow moving to cover nearly half of the right side.  In the center of the circle are lighter shades and white.  This provides space for the text.  To the left a lioness roars over the figure of Miriam Makeba speaking.  Stars radiate up from Miriam through the body of the lioness. This is a stunning depiction by Charly Palmer.

Readers can't help but be grateful to author Kathryn Erskine and illustrator Charly Palmer for their work in celebrating the life of this woman in Mama Africa!  How Miriam Makeba Spread Hope With Her Song.  In an extensive three page Author's Note with quotations by Miriam Makeba Kathryn Erskine explains her connection to Miriam Makeba.  She says:

I hope that through reading her story you can understand that, even in the face of great odds, you always have a voice and your voice is powerful.

A selected bibliography of books and audio and video recordings, further reading of picture books and books for older readers is included.  A glossary is to be present in the final book released.  You will want to have this book on your professional shelves.  It will be an honor to make it a part of my personal collection.  Excellent picture books of this kind promote relevant discussions and further research.  (I have already spent hours researching Miriam Makeba and apartheid.)

To further acquaint you with Kathryn Erskine and Charly Palmer and their other work, please visit their websites by following the links attached to their names.  At the publisher's website you can view interior images.  Author, reviewer, and blogger Julie Danielson features Charly Palmer at Kirkus and follows with artwork at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast the next week.

Be sure to visit KidLit Frenzy hosted by educator Alyson Beecher to view the other titles chosen by bloggers participating in the 2017 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge.

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