Quote of the Month

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

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Bordered By Water

Patience and Fortitude have been residing there since 1911.  It is the site of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s.  It is the home of the tallest building in the world, the Empire State Building completed in 1931until 1971.  Overlooking the East River, the accommodations for the United Nations have been there for more than seventy years.  It is here, in Times Square, each new year begins with a countdown.

The island of Manhattan has a recorded past dating back to the Lenape, Native Americans, at least 10,000 years ago.  Manhattan: Mapping the Story of an Island (Abrams Books for Young Readers, August 6, 2019) written and illustrated by Jennifer Thermes chronicles the growth of this incredible space from the earliest human inhabitants to present day.  It is a journey of blending people, places and designing spaces.

MILLIONS OF YEARS AGO when the glaciers melted, before anything had a name, the island lay sheltered in an estuary, where freshwater river met saltwater sea, anchored on bedrock far below the surface of the earth.

The seasons shifted and life on and around the island was abundant.  The Lenape called the island Mannahatta.  It means

"island of many hills."

These people fashioned an existence for themselves from the abundance offered by the island and the waters around it.  In 1609 Henry Hudson, an Englishman working for a Dutch businessman, arrived with his ship, Half Moon.  This marks the beginning of the island's transformation.  By 1700 the Lenape were no longer living on the island, unwillingly made to go.  (Did you know the population of beaver, on and around the island, dropped from 60 million to zero due to trapping?)

Slaves, eleven, were brought to the island to make canals, build a fort and a wall around the southern tip.  When the English took over the island in 1664 the name was switched from New Amsterdam to New York.  As the island developed forming more roads, filling in the canals, and constructing buildings, the horrific slave trade grew.  Some free Africans were able to settle at a place called The Collect Pond.  In reading this book you will discover why a national monument is placed near this space today.

After the long and treacherous Revolutionary War with the British, the island was home to the new capital of the United States of America for two years.  Did you know George Washington was named president here?  The population grew by thousands and the streets expanded and were renamed.  The buying and selling of humans as slaves grew.

In 1811 a man named John Randel Jr. was hired to design a grid system for the island.  It took him ten years to place all the grid markers.  People and structures were displaced by the grid which filled in faster than city planners believed possible. A large fire in 1835 and growing population pointed to the necessity for clean water and a place for peace, a park.

The development of the 843-acre Central Park was (and is) a haven to this day.  Did you know they planted twenty-year-old elm trees there?  Factories multiplied with workers enduring grueling conditions.  People from around the world came here to work and build a better life for themselves, entering at East River, Castle Gardens and Ellis Island.  Two separate places grew during the Gilded Age.  

It was a time of sharp contrast between those who had more than they needed and those who got by with very little.

Time on the island is marked when it stops as in the Great Blizzard of 1888 and Hurricane Sandy in October 2012.  In between those dates people saw the establishment of the remarkable subway system, astounding bridges and towering skyscrapers.  It's hard to believe it, but now on this island of Manhattan, 1.6 million people call it home.  (And you won't believe what came back after being absent for centuries.)

No matter how many times you read this title, each time the fascination grows.  Author Jennifer Thermes is an extraordinary historical tour guide with her words.  She includes vital information within a descriptive context bringing the past into the present.

With each page turn, there is a continuing narrative, but other columns include pertinent conversations about the good and not-so-good results of changes on the island.  Every two to four pages is devoted to a certain historical time period.  With the establishment of New York, New York, several pages discuss other time periods and events directly effecting people and the expansion of the city.  Here is a passage and a partial passage.

BY THE LATE 1800s, elevated trains (the El) chugged up and down avenues and over busy streets lined with restaurants, shops, and music halls.  Electric wires and telephone lines crisscrossed the island.  Lights blazed day and night.  The city on the island never slept!  But when the Great Blizzard of 1888 hit, all came to a halt.

Wind, ice, and snow slammed into the island---toppling poles, tangling wires, and cutting off communication with the outside world.  Water and gas pipes froze, leaving homes without steam heat.  The El stopped running, and fifteen thousand passengers were stranded on the tracks overhead. . . .

In a stroke of genius, the front of the dust jacket shows the island in three different historical perspectives.  The details seen here are prevalent throughout the book.  Every line is intentional.  Every color contributes to light and shadow.  Seagulls are frequent visitors in the illustrations, signifying the island's nearness to large bodies of water.  The text is varnished.

To the left, on the back, a portion of an interior image is used.  It is a view of the island after the Revolutionary War with labeled roadways, points of interest, important buildings, and slip and ferry locations.  There are a few labeled roads, at this point, beyond Collect Pond.  For page titles, artist Jennifer Thermes places the text within scrolled banners usually held by birds.

On the opening and closing endpapers is a highly detailed map of the island; a portion on each set of pages.  On the first set there are sixteen numbered highlights.  On the second set there are nine numbered places showcased.  In a separate image the island's bedrock is explained here.  Opposite and on the title page is the island, first in its natural uninhabited state and then as it is today.

Each page turn asks readers to pause, not only for the intricate elements but for the multiple perspectives, points of view, in these visuals rendered

using watercolor, colored pencil, and ink on Arches hot press paper.

There are labels and captions throughout.  From time to time, speech bubbles are added for information and emphasis.  All page turns reveal a double-page picture with the exception of eight full-page illustrations.  At times one illustration is placed within another image.  There is a feeling that these pages could come to life at any minute.

One of my many, many favorite pictures is the one dedicated to Central Park after its completion.  Framing the text along the top of the two pages are large treetops on the left and the right.  In the lower left-hand and lower right-hand corners are the bases of these trees. Across the center of the page is a map of Central Park bordered by roads.  Amid all the special areas are people enjoying the park.  Along the bottom of the page, left to right, are six circular images featuring close-ups of people boating, children playing with toy boats, horseback riding, strolling along the pathways, ice skating and cart rides by goat.

In a word, Manhattan: Mapping the Story of an Island written and illustrated by Jennifer Thermes is stunning.  It is a brilliant nonfiction work of bookmaking to savor for the information and for the splendiferous illustrations.  At the close of the book is a lengthy and highly detailed Time Line and Selected Sources.  These sources are books, websites, museums and a just for fun suggestion.  I highly recommend this title for your personal and professional collections.

To learn more about Jennifer Thermes and her other work, please follow the links attached to her name to access her website and blog.  Jennifer Thermes maintains accounts on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and Twitter. About a year ago Jennifer Thermes speaks in a podcast at The Manuscript Academy about her work.

Jennifer has been sharing process art on Twitter.  Here are some recent tweets.

UPDATE:  Jennifer Thermes is interviewed at Picture Book Builders about this book on September 3, 2019.

Please take a few moments to visit Kid Lit Frenzy to view the other titles selected this week by those participating in the 2019 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge.

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