by Laban Carrick Hill, illustrated by Bryan Collier. Unpaged. Little Brown Books for Young Readers, September, 2010.
This is a verse biography of a man named Dave. No one knows his last name because he was a slave who was born around 1801. In addition to being an artist, whose skill was of value, he was also literate. It was the poems that he inscribed on his pottery that set his work apart.
The verse, spare and evocative, focuses on the creative spirit that fueled Dave's talent. I liked much of the the figurative language, but have one quibble. I am not a potter, but I always thought that the clay in the dirt that was used in pottery was wet and clumpy, not the "gritty grains (that) slip between your fingers." I have trouble growing trees around my house because of the high clay content of my soil. When I dig down deep, the soil is wet and heavy and dense. But, I could be wrong. I saw no other criticism of this, until I heard Judy Freeman mention the same thing at her winners workshop. She also pointed out that a potter's hands are not dry when they are throwing pots.
The illustrations pack the main wallop for me. I'm already a fan of Collier's. Here, Dave and his work jump off the page. There's power exuded on every page, whether it is the strength of his hands or his intellect or his spirit. This is a book that I find myself flipping through again and again. I love the earthy colors, the drape of Dave's shirt, the extra little details such as stacked wood or a view out a studio window.
The back-matter and author and illustrator notes provide more poignant information about Dave and what historians have been able to, ahem, unearth. I rarely read books written for adults, but have ordered through ILL, a book mentioned int the bibliography, called Carolina Clay. The recommended websites include a link to an educator's guide, an online biography and the website of the author of Carolina Clay. I can envision multiple subject teachers using the book to introduce a unit or inspire reflection or further research. The educator's guide has a number of ideas at a number of grade levels.
This book won a 2011 Caldecott Honor and The Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award. I am so excited because I am attending ALA Annual in New Orleans in June and will be attending the Coretta Scott King Awards breakfast, where Mr. Collier will be accepting his award. He will also be accepting his Caldecott Honor at the Awards Banquet, but only the winners of the Newbery and Caldecott make speeches.
This is a first purchase for middle school libraries. There is much to be mined here for language arts and social studies teachers.