Dangerous Words: Reflections on Dave the Potter

I was at Kindling Words East earlier this year. KW is that wonderful organization that brings writers and illustrators and editors together to speak in community about the work we love. And I got to listen to Bryan Collier talk about Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave–a book that earned him the Caldecott Honor and the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award. His presentation, weaving his own artist’s journey into the story of how the art for this book came to be, left many in the audience misty-eyed.

9780316107310The genius of the text of Dave the Potter, written by Laban Carrick Hill, lies in its unwavering focus on the clay and the pots and the man who made them. Understandable to children, it nonetheless paints a picture of that most pernicious institution of American history–chattel slavery. Dave’s hands are dry and caked, his fingers chapped, the work unending, with the massive jar threatening to collapse, if not for the attention and skill of the man at the wheel. And yet, more than the massive pots, more than the life of the potter even, was a drive in Dave to add a final touch.

…before the jar
completely hardened,
Dave picked up a stick
and wrote to let us know
that he was here.

I wonder where
is all my relation–
friendship to all
and, every nation

This background from the New York Times review of the book:

Very few slaves could read or write, and those who displayed their knowledge risked punishment. South Carolina took the lead in banning the education of slaves, and in 1834 — the year of Dave’s earliest known poetry in clay — the state severely tightened its antiliteracy statute. Whites who taught slaves to read or write were subject to fines and imprisonment. Slaves caught teaching other slaves were “to be whipped at the discretion of the court, not exceeding 50 lashes.”

The text of the book is clear and simple, while the art is rich, deep, and moody, opening up the history to spiritual dimensions, bringing into the reader’s heart the wide sweep of imagination that led Dave to reflect on his own scattered family and yet settle on friendship, extended far out of his reach, to “every nation.” What a tribute to the triumph of love over hate.

This book is an incredible dance of words and images–the words of a white scholar who has devoted the work of his life to the study of African American history, and the art of an African American illustrator who felt that history in his heart and brought it to the page.

Let ‘Er Buck: Congratulations, Vaunda Nelson!

“Ask any cowpoke…”

It’s always a pleasure and a privilege to be part of a fellowship of readers who get to see a gifted writer’s work in progress.  This cowpoke’ll tell you, boy howdy, did she ever learn from Vaunda Micheaux Nelson! Over several months, Vaun shared versions of Let ‘Er Buck! George Fletcher, the People’s Champion with our writing group, in which I am the long-distance member who Skypes across time-zones and borders.

We read and loved and questioned the text. Over and over. We quibbled over words and sequence, over where the story began, where it should end. We watched in admiration as the story grew stronger, took root, grew into itself as its subject grew into himself.

And in the end, here is that beautiful book. Let ‘Er Buck tells the story of African American cowboy George Fletcher. In brief, voiced text, it reveals layers of history, while raising questions about meanness and generosity, about competition and what it means to win.

Leterbucksamplepage.jpg

Interior page, Let ‘Er Buck. Image source:  http://vaundanelson.com

Look at this sample page. Young George’s playful determination is captured in the rousing illustration by 2018 Caldecott honoree, Gordon C. James.  Here are the words that point to this soaring image: “It was plain as the ears on a mule he was born to ride.”

The facing page, not shown here, picks up the rest of the text in an unpredictable manner, and seems to foreshadow what’s yet to come with the turn of the page. Those illustration choices raise questions of their own–why one action and not another? Grist for a whole discussion on picture book text and how emotional tone can be employed to invite illustration rather than to dictate its specifics.

More about Nelson’s beautiful new picture book on her beautiful new web site.

Poetry and Claiming Voice

IMG_1335.JPGIn Vermont this January, when author-illustrator Don Tate signed a copy of his beautiful picture book for me, he wrote, “Love words.” I always have. For many of us it was words and their power that drew us to the uncertain and often unpredictable vocation of a writer. And no form distills words better than poetry.

In times of crisis, poetry gives us a way to claim voice, assert ourselves, protest injustice; it enables us to “live in the along,” as Gwendolyn Brooks put it. It helps us maintain a kind of necessary conviction that we will, in the end, be right, even if that juster, kinder end seems deeply endangered at the moment.

Don talked to us in workshop about how he went about the work of creating this glorious picture book about poet George Moses Horton. What a story this is! Here’s an excerpt from the entry on Horton on the University of North Carolina’s web site, Documenting the American South:

By the time he was twenty, George Moses Horton had begun visiting the campus of The University of North Carolina….There he sold students acrostics on the names of their sweethearts at twenty-five, fifty, and seventy-five cents. For several decades he “bought his time” from his masters through the sale of his poems and through the wages collected as a campus laborer.

Horton loved words. That’s where it all began.

I was especially fascinated by how Don has integrated the poet’s experience of words into the design of his book.

img_1337Here is the preacher’s soaring rhetoric.

 

 

 

 

 

img_1339Here are the alphabets floating into the boy’s understanding, as he’s drawn irresistibly to the empowering skill of reading, a skill forbidden to his people.

There are lessons in this book that arise organically from its story and fall gently upon the mind. They arise from love and family and community, and from a boy’s deep, abiding desire to know the written word. A compelling story, brought to the page with a loving hand.

Thank you, Don Tate and Peachtree Publishers.