In the Catholic faith, we are asked, during the month of November, to reflect on The Four Last Things: Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell. In the picture book world, I like the idea of using the first part of this month to read darker, haunting or semi-macabre stories (think fairy tales). In having a healthy respect for the supernatural while living as best one can in the state of grace, I really think we have no reason to fear darker themes. And when you treat things in their proper place and have a good understanding of all things ghoulish… kids I think, will too. I mean, my children and I are fascinated by the Martyrs of Otranto for example and on my “money-is-not-a-factor bucket list”, I hope to see their shrine someday, complete with the skulls on display. There is no “creepiness” in death really and ideally, it’s a glorious passage… but I digress.
I was checking to make sure that Anna Harwell Celenza hadn’t produced a book on Mozart (whom we are studying this term) and was reminded with happiness that she had just put out Vivaldi’s Four Seasons this summer… but my eye caught another new title I hadn’t seen before—produced just this August! And that was Saint-Saens’s Danse Macabre. We love Celenza’s books in this house (and accompanying CDs) and have purchased four of them now… to supplement our studies of composers.
To be honest, I don’t know anything about the Danse Macabre or much about Camille Saint-Saëns either, but I was intrigued by the cover and read up a bit about the history of that piece in particular. I learned a lot about the Dance particularly
here. ApparentlySaint-Saëns actually went a-loitering in the catacombs to get inspired for this piece! Anyway, during November, before settling down with the comforting, festive Thanksgiving stories, this would be an excellent book to read and composition to study. I unfortunately, have maxed out both my book budget for the month as well as my request for materials to be purchased at the library right now… so I don’t have a first-hand review of the book to offer yet. But I’m certain, like all of Celenza’s books, it’s excellent…
Lately, I’ve been enjoying the work of a wonderful author and illustrator—Frané Lessac. Her style is deceptively childlike: at first you see her paintings and think Psssh! My 8 year old colors like that! I guess anyone can illustrate children’s books. Then you look a little closer or turn a few pages and realize that her folk art is absolutely filled with thoughtfulness and detail… color and feeling. This is more than what most children can do— Lessac has a bright ability to make stories come alive with innovative attention to detail. And every new book I see illustrated by her, I inevitably love.
She spent part of her life living on the Carribean island of Montserrat and this has influenced her work heavily. The story My Little Island was the first encounter I had with her and I was struck with how fitting her style is with summery, beachy, island themes, similar I guess to the way that Jan Brett reallyshines brightest in her Scandinavian themed books. The flavors of island life practically jump from the pages in My Little Island. And they do this as well with Drummer Boy of John John which is a fun story about the upcoming festival of Carnival featuring lots of foot stomping, hand clapping onomatopoeia.
The next time I stumbled across Frané was when I picked up On the Same Day in March at the thrift store. What a gem! I really love LIVING social studies books and this one immediately went into my homeschooling basket for my 2nd grade and under crew. It examines different parts of the world at the exact same time of year. It is so fun to see the differences in weather and lifestyle!
Next I found Monday on the Mississippi at the library and marveled at how beautifully the text and pictures complemented each other. This book takes the reader from the headwaters all the way to the Gulf of Mexico… I immediately pegged it as a great companion to Minn of the Mississippi and any other studies of this river or rivers in general.
I really loved Lessac’s illustrations in Queen Esther Saves Her People by Rita Gelman also. I think it can be a challenge to translate many Bible stories into children’s books while retaining the story element. But this one absolutely brings the fantastic story alive and wonderful to kids while remaining faithful to the story of Esther.
Lastly, I want to highlight the best World War I picture book I’ve seen so far: The Donkey of Gallipoli: A True Story of Courage in World War I. How do you bring the horrors of war into a picture book without horrifying young children? I think the answer to this is in the art of storytelling and the way the pictures fill in the blanks. For example, while Patricia Polacco’s highly acclaimed Pink and Say is a moving story taking place during the Civil War, I removed it from our collection. I just had an aversion the graphic depiction of blood even if it was couched in beautiful sentiment. But the Donkey of Gallipoli is balanced beautifully. There are war scenes to be sure and the story doesn’t avoid the topic of death. Yet, the folk style of Lessac really helps to soften the harshness of what is being read and the lovely story really is one that all children will enjoy. The ending leaves us thoughtful and hopeful… not scared or disturbed. Highly recommended!
Frané Lessac is a wonderful artist whose style is a refreshing and quirky change on my bookshelf of classic artists. There are many other books she’s collaborated on not listed here which I am eager to get my hands on… and I understand she has many more in the works so keep your eyes open for her vivid bursts of delightful art.
How very sad that history is so tragically boring for so many students. I feel like I got the short end of the stick in growing up not interested in history. This is why I’ve made it my personal mission to bring people and cultures and events and pasts alive and relevant to my own children. Picture books are an amazing help in this category. Currently in the thick of the American Western Expansion as well as Ancient Rome, I’ve been glued to the stories my children and I read together. Who knew it could be so fascinating?! The story of mankind is downright riveting!
As it is, we utilize picture books a lot to learn about composers and music. The stories behind some of the greatest music in the world are tremendously compelling. The first dip into living music history has been brought to us courtesy of the books by Anna Harwell Celenza and I’ve even used her books as spines for which composer we study. (Still waiting on Mozart Anna! Will I have to settle for the nice but incomplete The Magic Flute: An Opera by Mozart? Or try to find a copy of the tragically out of print Mozart Finds a Melody?Thankfully, Diane Stanley offers us a good biography to start with: Mozart: The Wonder Child). Each of Celenza’s books doesn’t try to give a biographical sketch of the composer (like some other good picture books out there) but rather focuses on the individual story that inspired a particular piece of music, e.g. Beethoven’s joy and then dissilusionment about Napoleon with The Heroic Symphony or the homesick musicians who put their feet down with Haydn’s Farewell Symphony, etc. Her latest installment is Vivaldi’s Four Seasons which is at the top of my wish list!
As it is, finding picture books on some of the less famous composers is much more difficult. This is why I was particularly delighted to read Lauren Stringer’s newest book: When Stravinsky Met Nijinsky. The story is my favorite kind for my multi-aged family. Simple and easy for my 6 year old to understand and enjoy and with comprehensive end-notes for my 10 year old to research further into it. Stringer illustrated the book in her typical bold colorful way but with added meaning:
Dance and music were not the only arts undergoing colossal change at the beginning of the twentieth century. All of the arts were exploding in new compositions, colors and dimensions. In celebration of that change, I have made reference to many of my favorite paintings from that time throughout this book. To illustrate when Stravinsky and Nijinsky first met in 1911, I found inspiration in elements of The Red Studio by Henri Matisse, painted in the same year. Cubism took the art world by storm in 1907… several of my illustrations reflect cubist influence on that angular, flattened choreography of Nijinsky and the fractured, dissonant chords of Stravinsky’s music…
The story is about The Rite of Spring and how that came to be. The extraordinary thing about this is how one 34 minute ballet could cause a riot in 1913 Paris! The audience was so taken aback by the very novelty of the music and dancers that they protested and argued and threw punches over whether it was a disaster or brilliance!
My kids, so saturated in such a wide variety of music and dance nowadays found this to be quite perplexing and amusing. Stringer’s website provides an activity guide for this book that makes the entire story an excellent cornerstone for a unit study. History is thrilling indeed!