Month: March 2012

Island Fruit

Georgia in Hawaii: When Georgia O’Keefe Painted What She Pleased
By Amy Novesky
Illustrated by Yuyi Morales
(Harcourt Children’s Books, New York, 2012, $16.99)

Best known for her erotic paintings of orchids and other flowers, Georgia O’Keefe also created one memorable and equally sensual fruit painting. In 1939, The Hawaiian Pineapple Company, hired O’Keefe to create two paintings to showcase the pineapple’s exotic beauty and pique American interest in the fruit. The company gave O’Keefe a tour ofHawaii. Although she drank in the islands’ beaches, blossoms, and sugar fields, O’Keefe resented being told what – and how – to paint.

O’Keefe’s time in Hawaiiis the subject of Amy Novesky’s Georgia in Hawaii. Novesky’s prose evokes the islands’ lush beauty. She writes of “volcanoes that rose thousands of feet into the sky” and “black beaches reached only by boat.” And with few words, she conveys O’Keefe’s independence: This was a woman who “carried a paper umbrella when it rained” and “went where she wanted, when she wanted.”

Yuyi Morales’ illustrations invites readers to experience some of the delights Hawaii held for O’Keefe. Large pink and yellow flowers and green vines rise out of the pages. In one especially startling spread, O’Keefe faces away from readers, a piece of red coral held behind her back. In the background, something glows red – perhaps lava from the volcanoes she admired. Opposite, a Hawaiian cowboy drives cattle through green waves. It is beautiful and overwhelming just as the islands must have been to O’Keefe. Paintings of Hawaiian blooms, silhouetted against a blue background, grace the book’s frontispiece and endpiece, making the picture-book biography itself a work of art.

Georgia in Hawaii is more than a book about an artist; it allows young readers and listeners to see the world through O’Keefe’s eyes. It is also a story about discovery and the tensions between freedom and obligation.

 Dorothy A. Dahm

Jazz on the Farm

Acoustic Rooster and his Barnyard Band
By Kwame Alexander
Illustrated by Tim Bowers
(Sleeping Bear Press, 2011, Ann Arbor, $15.95)

Acoustic Rooster and His Barnyard Band is a work of fiction, but, like the best picture-book biographies, it is a playful introduction to ideas and real-life figures. In lively rhyme, Kwame Alexander tells the tale of Acoustic Rooster, a guitar-strumming fowl with jazz aspirations. Preparing for the Barnyard Talent Show, he encounters such jazz luminaries as Duck Ellington, Mules Davis, and Bee Holiday, animals with the same talent and personae as their human counterparts. Acoustic Rooster soon forms a band and throws himself into the competition. Along the way, he discovers the joys of collaborating and entertaining and learns something about the true nature of success. Tim Bowers’ exuberant illustrations bring the Jazz Age to the barnyard, and a glossary and timeline offer information about jazz and the artists who inspired the book.

A Noble Scientist

Alfred Nobel: The Man behind the Peace Prize
By Kathy-Jo Wargin
Illustrated by Zachary Pullen
(Sleeping Bear Press, 2009, Ann Arbor, $17.95)

 The man whose name is now synonymous with diplomacy and humanitarianism invented dynamite. Swedish scientist Alfred Nobel intended the explosive as tool for building bridges and railways; he never imagined it would become a deadly weapon. For giving the world dynamite, Nobel became one of Europe’s richest men. But Nobel was not to enjoy his fortune: seeing people use his invention to maim and kill others depressed him. Through his will, he tried to reverse this inadvertent legacy. He established the Nobel prizes to honor achievement in science, literature – and peace.

In Alfred Nobel, Kathy-Jo Wargin tells the inventor’s tale. Simple enough for young children, yet sophisticated enough for middle-grade readers, the picture-book biography is also a poignant musing on responsibility and legacy. Zachary Pullen’s illustrations capture Nobel’s loneliness. In two spreads, a solitary Nobel regards a bird: here, at least, is someone who doesn’t associate him with dynamite’s destructive qualities. Pullen makes Nobel himself palpably human: his hair and beard appear coarse and touchable; his eyes have bags, presumably from long hours of research and self-recrimination.

Biographies are among the few books in which children encounter adult protagonists; as such, they help kids relate to people of all ages. More than an educational text, Alfred Nobel humanizes the scientist and solidifies his humanitarian legacy.

Dorothy A. Dahm