If there is ever any doubt in your mind about one person's ability to effect change in the lives of many, all you need to do is read a picture book biography. Authors writing picture book biographies and illustrators creating the artwork for these volumes, immerse themselves in a particular person's life, taking note of the historical context in which they lived. Everything must be as if we are stepping back in time. And when we do step back in time through the pages of a book, we are captivated and amazed.
To know these people walked among us during our lifetimes, or the lifetimes of our parents or within Earth's history is to hope atoms of their essence have found a place, even a very tiny place, within us. You have to wonder about the inner spark which inspired them and fueled their passion. Secret Kingdom: Nek Chand, a Changing India, and a Hidden World of Art (Candlewick Press, February 13, 2018 written by Barb Rosenstock with illustrations by Claire A. Nivola is one of those picture book biographies which will leave you astounded at the accomplishments of a single human being.
On the continent of Asia, near the mighty Himalayas, in the Punjab region of long ago, sat the tiny village of Berian Kalan, the place Nek Chand Saini called home.
As a child Nek Chand Saini played as did the other children in his village. His father and mother wove stories in and out of his life no matter the season. His sisters and brothers filled his mind with visions of magical geese and fierce jackals and chattering monkeys. And during celebrated holidays traveling storytellers told their tales. These stories became a part of his art when he took what nature provided fashioning great buildings and landscapes fit for the characters he knew so well.
Nek grew up becoming one of many moving through life in his village. Farming was his trade. Tragedy struck in the form of a split in his beloved country. Part of his country became India and the other part became Pakistan. Hindus were not welcome in Pakistan so Nek and his family left everything behind traveling for twenty-four days to the new India.
Farmers were not needed so Nek worked his way forward to becoming a government road inspector and with this job he moved to Chandigarh.
Twenty-six villages were bulldozed flat to build Chandigarh, a sharp-edged city of colorless concrete.
Nek's heart was still in his village. He longed for that life.
Without the knowledge of the government (it was not permitted); he began to clear an area, a half-acre, outside of the city. He built a small hut and began to collect found objects, remnants from the previous villages. He did this for seven years! Then he started to build, recreating those places he remembered and loved.
No one knew of Nek's kingdom for fifteen years. When government officials found it, they threatened to destroy everything. People can sometimes surprise you. They did surprise Nek.
With each reading of this book my admiration grows for Nek Chand. Barbara Rosenstock takes factual threads of his life weaving them into an eloquent portrait. Her sensory words draw us into his world. The use of specific details heightens the authenticity. Here is a passage.
On the banks of the village stream, Nek built a world of
his own. He dug silt palaces and spilled waterfalls, molded clay
goddesses and planted stick kings. He found rocks shaped like
jackals, monkeys, and geese, and made them pounce, scamper, or fly.
The delicate flora with fruit, birds and a monkey nestled in the leaves framing Nek as he rides his bike on the front of the matching dust jacket and book case offers a hint of events to come. It also generates questions. Who is this man carrying an oil drum? Why are there broken pots, a bicycle wheel, and other abandoned items in this clearing?
To the left, on the back, a photograph of a portion of the secret kingdom is shown to readers framed in a very fine blue line and surrounded by pristine white. This same blue covers the opening and closing endpapers. Between areas of text on the title page one of Nek's statues is displayed with three birds resting on the arms and head.
Each illustration rendered in watercolor and gouache by Claire A. Nivola is an intricate, elegant work of art. Readers will find themselves pausing at the two-page pictures and single page images filled with details. Sometimes several smaller visuals will be grouped across two pages to convey the passage of time. Emotion is conveyed in the selection of colors for each depiction. A breathtaking four-page gatefold will have readers gasping in awe at the illustrator and Nek Chand.
One of my many favorite pictures is the one accompanying the noted text. A pale blue stream winds from the right and down across the bottom and up along the left side of a two-page illustration. On the sandy banks on the left two women are washing their vibrantly colored clothing. On the remainder of the sand Nek has made a city with elements found in this area. His attention to every single element is astounding.
To know this man was alive for most of my life causes me to feel a great gratitude for author Barbara Rosenstock and illustrator Claire A. Nivola for making Secret Kingdom: Nek Chand, a Changing India, and a Hidden World of Art. Without their efforts I might have never learned about this man's passion for art and his inspiring deeds. I highly recommend this for your professional and personal collections. You will want to share this as often as possible. There are two pages dedicated to an author's note and to an extensive bibliography.
To learn more about Barbara Rosenstock and her other work, please visit her website by following the link attached to her name. At both Penguin Random House and Candlewick Press, you can view interior images. Candlewick Press has a link to biographical information about Claire A. Nivola. Barbara Rosenstock wrote a post for the Nerdy Book Club, A Book's Job. You'll want to check out the links included for projects connected with this title. At author, reviewer and blogger Julie Danielson's blog, Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, she chats with Claire A. Nivola in one of her famous interviews in 2011. The link to the Nek Chand Foundation is here.
Don't forget to visit Kid Lit Frenzy hosted by educator Alyson Beecher to view the other titles selected this week by those participating in the 2018 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge.