Quote of the Month

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

Thursday, December 7, 2017

A Quest For Truth

When you finish a book, close the cover and sit in silence, it's a book worth remembering.  If this particular title should be a biography, you can't help but think, not for the first time, how much better our world is for this person having lived here.  If you are unfamiliar with this individual and their accomplishments, you send waves of thanks into the universe for the work of those responsible for this book.

Next to me as I write this post is such a book.  I am filled with wonder and immense respect for this man who is introduced to readers in Schomburg: The Man Who Built A Library (Candlewick Press, September 12, 2017) written by Carole Boston Weatherford with illustrations by Eric Velasquez.  If he had lived past his sixty-four years, what other treasures might he have discovered?

The American Negro must remake his past in
order to make his future . . .History must
restore what slavery took away.
                        ---Arturo Schomburg

You would like to think educators treat all students equally, lifting them up and realizing their potential.  For Arturo Schomburg, a fifth grade teacher did not lift him up.  She told him

. . . Africa's sons and daughters
had no history, no heroes worth noting.

This statement lit a fire in Arturo and it was never extinguished.  He dedicated his life to searching for and finding primary sources and facts to proclaim the truth of black heritage.  No child should ever hear what he heard in fifth grade.

As a boy his search began, reading everything he could.  Benjamin Banneker's words and achievements fueled his fire further.  At seventeen Arturo left Puerto Rico immigrating to New York. He became involved in political issues, taught Spanish as he was learning English and, regardless of a setback with his educational records, found work as a law clerk.  His book collecting started in earnest.

Arturo had a gift for finding items others might miss.  He was fascinated with Phillis Wheatley, learning more about her than he imagined.  For Arturo Frederick Douglass was a glorious example of the power of the pen.  The more Arturo searched, the more he found.  Toussaint Louverture, David Walker, Denmark Vesey, and Nat Turner were his heroes.

He discovered connections to Africa in the ancestry of John James Audubon, Alexandre Dumas, Alexander Pushkin and Ludwig van Beethoven.  By studying volumes he unearthed, he made connections to like-minded people such as Paul Cuffee, a wealthy African American (1759-1817) and Marcus Garvey, a well-known name in the Harlem Renaissance.  Now working as a mail room clerk Arturo was highly respected for his growing personal collection and knowledge.  He was asked to search for those items most likely to further instill black pride.  He brought to light one fascinating piece of information after another.

Eventually he had more books than his home could hold.  The Carnegie Corporation bought his collection for $10,000.  It was donated to the New York Public Library in 1926 becoming the core of the 135th Street branch and the Division of Negro History, Literature and Prints.  Arturo ventured out of New York to Fisk University for a year.  Eventually he traveled to Spain, Puerto Rico, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Panama, and Cuba.  Least you think he only collected books, he added art to the Division of Negro History, Literature and Prints.  A little more than two years after his death, the Division of Negro History, Literature and Prints was renamed the Schomburg Collection for Negro History, Literature and Prints.  What would this remarkable man think of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture found at 515 Malcolm X Boulevard in Harlem?

As readers turn each page in this title they will indeed feel respect swell for Schomburg as presented by Carole Boston Weatherford.  There is a passion for this man revealed in every sentence she writes blending his quotations and his personal life within her conversational, lyrical narrative.  We walk in his shadow as Carole Boston Weatherford shares with us his findings about specific individuals.  She weaves all these lives together with beauty.  Here are two passages.

But Phillis was most phenomenal as a poet.
If only Arturo could have been a gull
swooping and crooning above the waves
as Phillis crossed the Atlantic a second time,
bound for London to promote her book---
Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral---in 1773.
If only that same year Arturo could have witnessed
that stroke of pen granting Phillis her freedom.
If only Arturo could have looked over her shoulder,
seen her penning that praise poem
to George Washington during the Revolution.
Although she offered subscriptions
for a second book, her final manuscript
was never published or found.
If only, thought Arturo, I could find that

Art, he thought, might reach those
who would never read a rare book.

Rendered in oil on watercolor paper the illustrations on the matching dust jacket and book case (as well as all the interior images) by Eric Velasquez are luminous. In each one our eyes are initially drawn to Schomburg.  We focus on his current situation with respect to the text.  Notice how the light shines on portions of his face.  Then our eyes wander to the other elements noting the historical accuracy of the architecture, clothing and transportation.  I am particularly pleased to see how Velasquez has the books stacked in Schomburg's arms, exactly as he arranged them in his collections.

To the left, on the back, an interior illustration is featured.  It shows Schomburg standing, with arms crossed, in his collection, positioned between two acquired sculptures with book cases behind him.  The opening and closing endpapers are in a pale rustic red.  On the first is a book plate reading


On the title page is a picture of the 135th Street branch building beneath the text. Spanning from left to right is a row of books, color-coordinated, on the verso and dedication pages.  Full color pictures crossing the gutter create larger than life portraits of Schomburg.  Others are shown on single pages or portions of pages.  These visuals depending on their size provide columns for the text.  When Schomburg is learning about an individual person, the images are framed in fine red lines with a date tucked into the painting.  The people are depicted engaged in the activity Schomburg most admires.  These illustrations are like snapshots of history, accurate but emotional.

One of my many favorite pictures covers a single page and extends over the gutter to half of the right side.  It is the 135th Street branch building.  It rises into a blue sky dotted with clouds.  It is shown at an angle as if we are gazing upward at it.  In fact, Schomburg is standing in front of the building with his back to us, hands on his hips.  This historic building is like a treasure chest holding a man's life's work.

Schomburg: The Man Who Built A Library written by Carole Boston Weatherford with illustrations by Eric Velasquez is an outstanding picture book biography highlighting a fascinating life. This remarkable man never wavered in his quest.  At the close of the book a time line, source notes and bibliography are presented.  I highly recommend this title be a part of your professional and personal collection.

To learn more about Carole Boston Weatherford and Eric Velasquez and their other work, please follow the links attached to their names to access their respective websites.  At the publisher's website you can view an interior illustration.  There is an eight page teacher's guide.  They've also prepared several pages on Eric Velasquez.  Carole Boston Weatherford is interviewed at Book Q&As with Deborah Kalb.  Author, reviewer and blogger Julie Danielson highlights Eric Velasquez on her blog, Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.  Eric Velazquez is showcased at The Brown Bookshelf

Be sure to visit Kid Lit Frenzy hosted by educator Alyson Beecher to read about the titles selected by other bloggers participating in the 2017 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge.

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