Quote of the Month

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

Friday, October 22, 2021

Leaving Legacies---One Woman At A Time

Women, like all people, need to find their own path.  Numerous times the course they select is one never previously traversed.  They outwit obstacles and break through barriers.  In this way, they form an easier access for those who decide to follow them in the future.  These women are worth remembering.

At times, these exceptional woman seem to exhibit behavior so far from the expected and accepted norm, they are labeled as outlandish.  What Isabella Wanted: Isabella Stewart Gardner Builds a Museum (Neal Porter Books, Holiday House, September 7, 2021) written by Candace Fleming with illustrations by Matthew Cordell chronicles the life of one such woman.  This woman was the quintessential being listening to a different drummer.  

On a tree-lined street in Boston,
in an old mansion,

at the top of the stairs,

in a second-floor room,
empty frames hang,

waiting . . .

These introductory phrases prior to the title page pique readers' interest.  As the title suggests Isabella Stewart Gardner did whatever her heart desired.  Can you imagine walking zoo lions up a prominent street in Boston?  Life in this Boston was much too restrictive for Isabella, so she left.

She toured to grand cities in Europe and Asia.  There, in those cities, she found her personal form of adventure reflected in gorgeous and precious art and architecture.  Whatever medium an artist used, Isabella had a need to acquire it.  She now possessed paintings by Rembrandt and Vermeer.

Buyers for Isabella continued to purchase items, at times using questionable methods, on the other side of the Atlantic to be displayed in her home on Beacon Street in Boston.  Isabella eventually decided to create a museum for the public to enjoy all the collectibles from her travels and the efforts of her agents abroad.

Did she fashion this museum in her home on Beacon Street?  No!  Isabella purchased land and had a four-story home built.  She oversaw every aspect of the venture.  She placed every single item for viewing in a perfect Isabella space.   In 1903, there was a Grand Opening.  Isabella made sure everything stayed in its perfect Isabella space.

For twenty days each year for decades, Isabella welcomed people to her museum.  When she died, she left the museum for the people of Boston to enjoy as long as everything stayed in its perfect Isabella space.  And it was so, until one of the greatest unsolved art heists was committed by a devious duo.  To this day . . . waiting.

With every reading of the words written by Candace Fleming in this title, the story of this woman's life is just as compelling as the first time you read it.  You find yourself drawn into the narrative by the keen sense of time and place and specific descriptive incidents.  The recurring phrase of 

exactly as Isabella wanted

acts as a rhythmic bond between portions of this woman's life.  In fact, as you read this narrative, it is like reading a poem.  There is a beautiful cadence created by the word choices and sentence structure.  Here is a passage.

Every decision---choosing the land, drawing up plans, hiring the workers---
                                                                                           was hers.
And every day at the worksite she clambered up ladders,
scurried across scaffolding, hacked at beams,
plastered walls, supervised, complained,
gave orders to . . .

do and redo, set and reset,
brick and rebrick, build and rebuild
an Italian palazzo that rose up
on that empty swampland---
the Fens---
with courtyard,
and cloisters,
and intimate rooms,

exactly as Isabella wanted.

The pastel palette selected by artist Matthew Cordell for the dust jacket conveys the vitality of this woman's spirit.  Her uplifted arms depict the grandness for which she viewed life and art.  Here, on the front, she is shown with some acquisitions of art.  Do you recognize the two large paintings?

To the left of the spine, on the back, Matthew Cordell features a close-up of Johannes Vermeer's The Concert as it was displayed in Isabella's museum.  Viewers could sit in a chair to further appreciate its beauty.  This was, of course, by design by the amazing Isabella Stewart Gardner.  

When you remove the dust jacket the background scenes remain the same.  But . . . now Isabella is gasping in horror, eyes wide and hands to either side of her face.  All the objects on the front are gone, leaving the walls, frames, and tables bare.  On back, the frame holding the Vermeer painting is empty.  (It was a decision of the museum to do this after the theft.)

The soft yellow of Isabella's gown is the canvas color for the opening and closing endpapers.  Prior to the title page, the first words, as shown above, are placed on a modern-day view of the museum, the glass-covered center courtyard, an outside seating area, and inside room view.  The information on the verso, dedication, page is put inside frames.  Another view of happy Isabella inside her museum is on the title page.  

These illustrations by Matthew Cordell were

created using pen and ink (Hero 9018 fountain pen with Noodler's Black) and watercolor on Canson cold press watercolor paper.

The fine lines, a signature technique of Matthew's work, depict historical elements and fabulous facial expressions.  Even though he is not mentioned in the text, Matthew includes Isabella's husband, John Lowell "Jack" Gardner in some of the images.  He accompanied her on their extensive travels until his sudden death at the age of sixty-one.  Readers will want to pause on other pages to notice included elements like the food and beverage served at the Grand Opening in 1903.

The image sizes vary from page turn to page turn.  Their size is indicative of the narrative, elevating the pacing.  Some of the pictures are framed with fine lines.  Others extend page edge to page edge.  They are highly animated, as was Isabella.  The final two-page illustration is

exactly as Isabella

would have wanted it.

One of my many favorite illustrations is the left portion of a double-page picture.  Here Isabella is standing outside in a Venice courtyard.  Large square tiles are beneath her feet.  Gardens and sculptures surround her.  Extending above her are several stories with arched windows and separate balconies.  Her head is lifted in joy, a smile on her face.  Her arms are raised and spread open.  Her enthusiasm is contagious.

When you read this book, What Isabella Wanted: Isabella Stewart Gardner Builds a Museum written by Candace Fleming with illustrations by Matthew Cordell, one word keeps floating in and out of your consciousness---fascinating.  This woman's life was completely fascinating.  And the mystery of what happened to the artwork is equally fascinating.  In an author's note, Candace Fleming describes more about Isabella, her art collecting, and the museum.  She does address the theft.  And she recommends visiting the museum in person or virtually.  A bibliography and source notes are included.  I highly recommend this title for your personal and professional collections.

To discover more about Candace Fleming and Matthew Cordell and their other work, please visit their respective websites by following the link attached to their names.  Candace Fleming has accounts on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.  Matthew Cordell has accounts on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.  At the publisher's website is an educator's guide.  In accordance with this book, Matthew Cordell appears on KidLit TV Ready Set Draw! Draw a Self Portrait.  Candace Fleming speaks about the book in a video on the Holiday House Instagram account.

We have to eat to live, but what we eat is vital.  We look for balance and freshness in the ingredients.  Food preparation is essential to capturing the necessary balance and freshness.  It is also an art.  Many believe, the most important aspect, ingredient, is love.  Niki Nakayama: A Chef's Tale in 13 Bites (Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers, September 14, 2021) written by Jamie Michalak and Debbi Michiko Florence with illustrations by Yuko Jones tells us about a girl who believed in her dreams when others did not.  Her success supplies encouragement to all who know her story.

In a Los Angeles kitchen, a woman tells a story while cooking.  If you were to 
visit her restaurant, you'd be served thirteen dishes.

Each of the thirteen bites contributes to the whole that is her story.  Niki Nakayama was born in America to parents born in Japan.  Her home was the blend of two cultures, Japanese and American.  This was tasted in the food served.

Niki believed that food was only a part of the experience.  It was the group that sat at the table which completed the meal.  Niki loved to create her own recipes, but at the age of twelve she found herself working in the family business.  And it seemed as if her parents only supported her brother's successes, regardless of her hard work.

A trip to Japan after high school graduation changed the course of Niki's life and the promise of fulfilling her dreams.  She wanted to replicate what she discovered.  She needed to attend chef's school.  Despite her parents' objections, she did.  Hard work, study, and another trip served to expand her passion for cooking.

A request was granted, and a promise was made.  Niki Nakayama finally proved herself to her parents, but her deepest dreams were still not being met.  Courage fueled a decision.  Today Niki Nakayama has another restaurant, a restaurant where stories are told with her food.   

The technique used by authors Jamie Michalak and Debbi Michiko Florence to present the life of Niki Nakayama in thirteen bites is as inventive and unique as the cooking of Niki Nakayama.  It supplies a gentle tension and sense of anticipation for readers with every page turn.  Often, they will use the same phrase 

"I'll show them."

to signify her determination, again and again.  Those words were an impetus for her.  Here is a portion of the passage for bite six.

Each dish was a work of art.  Each bite burst with flavor.
The tomato's scent brought back memories of a long-ago picnic.
The corn soup tasted of a warm, lazy day.  Together, the courses
told the story of summer.
Niki learned this storytelling feast had a name:  kaiseki.

We can see on the matching front, ride side, of the dust jacket and book case Niki's love of food and food preparation at an early age.  Her zest for exploring her own versions of foods is seen in the tray stacked with wonton pizzas.  Behind her are ingredients for both the sushi and the pizzas.  On the dust jacket, to the left of the spine, on the back, Niki is peering through the doors of her present-day restaurant from the kitchen into the main dining room.  Here we read a short blurb and remarks about this book by Newbery Medalist, Linda Sue Park.

On the back of the book case a depiction is placed on the white background.  Four courses of the many served to Niki Nakayama in Japan are visible.  Each is an exquisite design, a blend of food and a season.  They are a tribute to our natural world and the stories found there.

On the opening endpapers we see thirteen separate kinds of food on individual dishes or bowls on a warm muted golden canvas.  The title text is positioned on a Menu on the right side.  With a page turn, a double-page picture holds on the left the dedications and publication information.  On the right side, the narrative begins.  The illustration is of Niki Nakayama in her restaurant standing in the opening between her kitchen and the dining room preparing food, knife in hand.  To the left, on the ledge, a potted orchid grows.

Each illustration by Yuko Jones takes readers on a charming journey.  She moves from double-page images to pictures placed inside serving dishes, and then to a single-page visual.  When Niki travels to Japan each location she visits is delineated on a map with loops and black and white dashes.  Circular pictures offer readers a view of her savoring different delectable foods.

Yuko Jones shifts her perspectives for emphasis.  Sometimes two separate points of view are woven into the same illustration.  At one section of the tale, we are looking down at patrons in Niki's restaurant.

One of my many favorite illustrations is a double-page visual.  Here Niki has decided what she will do after closing her successful sushi restaurant.  Spread across the two pages is a bright, sunlit sky with the sun and radiating rays on the left.  Beneath this is a sea of water, gentle waves rolling on a beach on the right.  On the left a high wave frames the back of Niki.  She, attired in her chef's hat, shirt, and apron, is stirring a bowl of pasta.  Three smaller circles holding images are tucked in the waves on the right.  They are portions of previous pictures, a reminder of the progress she has made.

This book, Niki Nakayama: A Chef's Tale in 13 Bites written by Jamie Michalak and Debbi Michiko Florence with illustrations by Yuko Jones, is a testament to perseverance, following your heart, seeking love and laughter, and bursting through boundaries placed on women.  At the close of the book under Ingredients is a two-page timeline of significant moments in Niki Nakayama's life.  The closing endpapers are committed to descriptions of Kuyashii and Kaiseki and the Wonton Pizza Recipe.  Timely and impressive, this title will serve to enhance both your personal and professional collections.

To learn more about Jamie Michalak, Debbi Michiko Florence, and Yuko Jones and their other work, please follow the link attached to their names to access their websites.  Jamie Michalak has accounts on FacebookInstagram and Twitter.  Debbi Michiko Florence has accounts on FacebookInstagram and TwitterYuko Jones has accounts on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.  This title is highlighted at the Nerdy Book Club, PictureBookBuilders, School Library Journal A Fuse #8 Production, and Jama Rattigan's Jama's Alphabet Soup.  At Macmillan Publishers you can view interior images.  You might want to look through Niki Nakayama's Instagram feed.

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