Quote of the Month

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

Wednesday, February 2, 2022

Lift Your Arms

Nearly thirty-seven years ago, I read a book with a collection of stories, many remaining in the coveted places of my heart.  Some of those narratives became a part of storytelling in my school libraries at the high, middle, and elementary levels.  In the past few days I reread the entire collection of tales found in the book authored by Virginia Hamilton with illustrations by Leo and Diane Dillon.  The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales is divided into four sections focusing on

animals, real, extravagnat, and fanciful, supernatural and other slave tales of freedom.

These stories are rich in tradition and cultural history, educating and entertaining us about a resilient, noble, determined, and hopeful people.  The last tale in the book takes the name of the title, The People Could Fly.  Without fail, each time I read this story tears well in my eyes.  These tears are jubilant for the people who could fly and heartbroken for those left behind.  

In her closing paragraph, Virginia Hamilton says:

"The People Could Fly" is a detailed fantasy tale of suffering, of magic power
exerted against the so-called Master and his underlings.  Finally, it is a powerful
testament to the millions of slaves who never had the opportunity to "fly"
away.  They remained slaves, as did their children.  "The People Could Fly" was
first told and retold by those who had only their imaginations to set them free. 

At the close of their newest collaboration, The Year We Learned To Fly (Nancy Paulsen Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, January 4, 2022) written by Jacqueline Woodson with illustrations by Rafael Lopez, Jacqueline Woodson makes reference to the words of Virginia Hamilton and the artwork of Leo and Diane Dillon in their 1986 Coretta Scott King Award winning title. (It also received a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Award that year.) For all those who find themselves in a time and place they would rather not be, this book reveals a gift.  It shows us how to use this gift, a gift we all possess.

That was the year we learned to fly . . .

It began in the spring.  Storms raged nonstop.  A sister and her brother were confined to their home.  Their grandmother advised them to

use those beautiful and brilliant minds of yours.

She continued telling them exactly what they needed to do.  They did it, leaving their home and exploring their city, now blooming with a glorious array of flowers.  

Summer arrived.  The twosome could not agree on anything.  It seemed the only thing they were good at was arguing.  Their grandmother, in her wisdom, repeated her words.  Holding hands, sister and brother, forgot their anger.

As the shorter days and longer nights of autumn came, the girl and boy knew they could leave whenever they desired.  Their grandmother had taught them what had been passed from generation to generation, beginning with the people torn from their homes in Africa and brought across the water on ships.  Dreaming was believing.  You were (are) never alone in needing to fly.

The family moved in winter.  Everything and everyone was different.  The new neighborhood children were not friendly, but the sister and brother used remembered the words of their grandmother.  Their generosity was contagious.

Although author Jacqueline Woodson takes us through a year, season by season, of boredom, anger, loneliness, and newness, the awakening of the children's gift through the wisdom of their grandmother could aptly apply in any given situation at any given time.  In fact, as established through her poetic words used to design a cadence, the grandmother makes reference to others who might be in the same circumstances as the siblings.  These beautiful poetic instructions are enhanced by the repeated mention of another phrase.  Both combine to fashion a text that lifts readers as high as they desire to go.  Here is a passage.

That was the autumn our rooms felt too big and lonely
with only us in them and the darkness coming on so fast.
But while we hugged ourselves against the too-quiet of it all,
we remembered
that we didn't have to be stuck anywhere anymore.

When you look at the girl gazing upward on the right side of the matching and open dust jacket, you wonder what has her attention.  Are her feet on the ground or is she already flying?  What does the background indicate to you as a reader?  The wash of pastel colors seen here on the front extends over the spine to the left, back, of the jacket and case.  There, along the bottom, are three brilliant butterflies.  Above them are excerpts from starred reviews for the previous collaboration by these creators, The Day You Begin.  The text on the front is slightly raised and varnished.

Readers will be intrigued by the opening and closing endpapers.  They offer, prior to the reading of the book, an opportunity for discussion.  Both sets of endpapers show the same tree in the same setting.  The tree is placed on the right side.  On the lowest, right-hand branch a single cluster of leaves hangs down.  That is where the similarities end.  The background colors differ, as do the hues used in the ground.  There are additions in the closing endpapers.  What do they indicate?  Do these endpapers refer to other images within the book with leaves in them? (Personally, I love the leaves whenever they appear.  I have my theories.)

These illustrations by Rafael Lopez 

were created  with a combination of acrylic paint on wood, pen and ink, pencil, and watercolor, and put together digitally in Photoshop.

Each of them, double-page pictures, are full of color, emotion, and the frustration and exuberance of any given moment.  We understand how confined the children feel as the storm batters their apartment building and the other buildings in their community.  We feel deep respect for the depiction of their grandmother dressed in shades of orange, red, and purple wearing a regal and tradtionally-patterned dhuku,  And when the children fly we are there with them, uplifted and enjoying the vivid hues of the flowers and trees.

Careful readers will notice one particular bird and butterfly which seem near to the sister and brother in many of the pictures.  Rafael Lopez includes a bit of humor through the family dog.  When the children cannot seem to decide who should feed the dog, the dog, holding his dish in his mouth, patiently waits.  In two of the double-page illustrations, Rafael Lopez includes imagery from historical events woven into first, the girl's hair, and second, as portraits placed in large leaves clustered near the ground on the left of the following picture.

One of my many favorite two-page visuals is for the words referring to autumn. (It is the text above-noted.)  It is in the evening.  The background is a wash of purple hues with a bit of green and black.  The children on the right, appear to be reading in bed.  The quilt extending along the bottom of the left goes up and over the shoulders of the girl.  The orange red leaves on the quilt start to float off and around the two children.  This creates a cozy, tent-like image.  The girl is seated.  Her brother, under the covers, is in front of her.  She is holding the book she is reading aloud in front of him.  It is The Day You Begin.  There is a golden glow around and above the shoulders of the girl.  

This book, The Year We Learned To Fly written by Jacqueline Woodson with artwork by Rafael Lopez, is a marvelous tribute and an invitation to everyone.  We all have 

brilliant and beautiful minds.

With them we can accomplish as much as we can imagine and more.  What will we do with this ability?  I highly recommend you place a copy of this title in both your personal and professional collections.

To learn more about Jacqueline Woodson and Rafael Lopez and their other work, please access their websites by following the link attached to their names.  Jacqueline Woodson has accounts on Instagram and Twitter.  Rafael Lopez has accounts on Instagram and Twitter.  At the publisher's website you can view the title page. and verso.

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