Quote of the Month

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

Monday, February 25, 2019

An Act Of Charity

There truly is power in the written word.  There is our initial reaction upon first reading it or hearing it read.  It can be revisited again and again, giving us time to reflect on possible meanings, forming and revising thoughts and opinions.  No matter when written its purpose can extend far into the future, a future yet to be imagined.

On April 7, 2017 a master in the use of language passed away from our earthly realm.  There is no possible way to number the countless individuals who benefited from her written words.  What Is Given from the Heart (Schwartz & Wade, January 8, 2019) written by Patricia C. McKissack with illustrations by April Harrison is the last book by a beloved author and the debut picture book of a renowned artist.  The value of what these words and illustrations convey will not fade.

It was a rough few months for Mama and me.
We were already poor, but we got poorer last April, when Daddy went to sleep on the front porch and never woke up.

By the first of summer James Otis and his mama lose their farm and move to a tiny house, with rooms one behind the other in a row, in a low- lying area of land.  Their lives seem to go from worse to much worse.  One day their home is flooded, and the boy's dog runs away.  They survive through the holidays until February arrives.

In church on a Sunday near Valentine's Day, Reverend Dennis announces love boxes will be delivered to those in need.  People in the congregation are asked to give what they can.  One family in particular recently lost everything in a fire.

On the chilly walk home James Otis and Mama talk about what they can give.  The little girl, Sarah, is only seven, two years younger than James Otis.  He wonders what people with nothing can give to others with nothing.  That night in bed possibilities wander around in his mind but he dismisses all of them as he falls asleep.

In the morning James Otis is moved by his mother's act of love for the Temple family.  Every day he wonders what he can give.  Nothing seems exactly right until he remembers one of his cherished possessions.  Can he do the same for Sarah?  On the Sunday of the presentation to the Temple family a response warms all hearts.  A circle of charity (love) is completed when James Otis and Mama near their home.

Children, all readers, will wholly identify with the poignant voice of James Otis as his tale unfolds.  When Patricia McKissack writes this story allowing us to see the world through a child's eyes, it enters our hearts and stays there.  Specific sentences define the poverty with heart wrenching clarity. 

Mama cried and cried, 
'cause Daddy didn't have a suit to be buried in.

Strength of character is revealed in the words of Mama as she speaks with James Otis.  It's not just her words that move him, though, but her actions.  Patricia McKissack shows us how love evolves through the ponderings of James Otis as he struggles to find a gift for Sarah.  Here is a passage.

As time flew toward Valentine's Day, I fretted more and more.
I considered giving Sarah a puzzle.  It didn't bother me that two pieces
were missing but it might bother her.  Unh-unh, that wouldn't do, 
not even with a bow on it.  And neither would my capeless Superman
Halloween costume.

Looking at the open and matching dust jacket and book case readers are given views, two different views of expressed love.  Rendered

in mixed media, including acrylics, collage, art pens, and found objects

artist April Harrison through a blend of bold and delicate lines, various textures and muted, earth tones brings a natural warmth to her illustrations.  By featuring Mama and James Otis on the front, we can see how her strength literally and figuratively envelopes him.  To the left, on the back, a picture of Sarah allows us to see the gift James Otis gives her and her happy reaction.

The marbled background seen on the jacket and case is replicated on the opening and closing endpapers, verso (dedication) and title pages.  The images, full-page and double-page, bring a very real sense of place and time to the readers.  Details, a calendar and family photographs on the walls, artwork on the refrigerator and a blue ribbon hanging in James Otis's bedroom, further our connection to the characters.

The affection between a son and his mother is shown in their frequent embraces, facial expressions, and general physical closeness.  April Harrison brings us close to James Otis and Mama for some of the illustrations and moves us farther away in others.  This gives us an idea of the place where they reside. 

One of my many favorite illustrations is on the first evening when James Otis is awake in bed, thinking about what to give Sarah.  On the wall next to a tiny, narrow window hangs his blue ribbon and a family picture.  On his small dresser sits his shiny rock , whistle, and several books.  He is covered with a quilt made by his mama.  On a rug on the wooden floor is his puzzle, missing two pieces.  James Otis looks worried.  How many of us have spent hours in bed thinking and worrying and trying to figure out what is best?

When a book like What Is Given from the Heart written by Patricia C. McKissack with illustrations by April Harrison is read, it brings to each reader a message.  For some it will be the same and for others, it will be different.  What is certain is that this book will be remembered.  Love remains.  I highly recommend this title for your personal and professional collections.

To learn more about Patricia C. McKissack and April Harrison and their other work, please follow the links attached to their names to access their websites.  Patricia C. McKissack has several videos at her website you will enjoy watching.  April Harrison has an account on Instagram.  Here is the link to The New York Times obituary for Patricia C. McKissack.  The artwork for this book is highlighted at author, reviewer and blogger Julie Danielson's Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.  You can also view interior images at a publisher's website.

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