by Sam Juliano
This afternoon’s post considers two biographies of women who are not likely to be immediately recognized either by name or deed. Yet both books are exceedingly beautiful in execution and aesthetic appeal, and for more than one reason are firmly within the radar of what it takes to win Caldecott recognition. Katherine Olivia Sessions died in 1940 at 83, the exact same age when beloved children’s book author and illustrator Barbara passed on. But Sessions and Cooney are linked by more than age, and all book lovers who first laid eyes on H. Joseph Hopkins (writer) and Jill McElmurry’s (illustrator) sublime work The Tree Lady were no doubt envisioning Cooney’s celebrated classic Miss Rumphius, which features the life story of fictional Miss Alice Rumphius, a woman who sought a way to make the world more beautiful and found it in planting lupines. In style, theme and overall temperament, The Tree Lady sustains the spirit of Miss Rumphius, and brings a real-life horticulturist to the ‘love of nature’ fraternity. Sessions to be sure did not plant Lupines as her fictional compatriot, but populated the San Diego landscape with trees. Indeed as Hopkins explains in the author’s not at the end: “In 1892 Kate made a deal with city leaders to use land in City Park for a plant nursery. In exchange she promised to plant one hundred trees in the park every year and give the city three hundred more trees for planting in other places. People loved Kate’s trees, and by the early 1900’s one in four trees growing in San Diego came from her nursery.” Kate was primarily known for her work in City Park, renamed Balboa Park, and to this day it’s a prime attraction for those who relish the opportunity to take in the wide variety of trees, vines and flowers.
Ms. Elmurry’s ravishing art produced in gouache on watercolor paper is a real feast for the yes, and almost as a homage to Cooney, her work bears astonishing similarity to the famed illustrator, both in the expansive two page spreads of the outdoor wonderment and in the facial expressiveness of the book’s characters. My own two favorite two pagers in this wonderous book are firstly the arresting one of sessions lying down in a forest clearing in her beloved woods. Hopkins’ beautiful words frame it perfectly: Kate felt the trees were her friends. She loved the way they reached toward the sky and how their branches stretched wide to catch the light. Trees seemed to Kate like giant umbrellas that sheltered her and the animals, birds and plants that lived in the forest. Not everyone feels at home in the woods. But Kate did…. …the second is a page that features twelve different tree varieties, among which include the yucca, the eucalyptus, the Italian cypruss and the palm tree. Yet another magnificent spread features the opening of the San Diego Fair at Balboa Park. Mssrs. Hopkins and McElmurry have honored the former teacher and principal Katherine Sessions here with a beautiful picture book. Caldecott voters are well-advised to take notice.
And those same voters should be taking a second-look at the marvelous Tanya Lee Stone/Marjorie Priceman collaboration on Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors? based on Elizabeth Blackwell, the first American female to attend medical school, and take up a practice afterwards. Elizabeth was actually born in England, but her father moved the family to the US when she was only 11. The feisty young Elizabeth, who ultimately dealt a lethal blow to sexism in the country at a time when girls were only to be wives and mothers (and as the narrative suggests – “or maybe teachers or seamstresses) is shown as a brave and resilient young women who stays steadfast to her goal, even with the unlikelihood of changing the world. After a series of earlier setbacks, her big break comes when she is admitted to a medical school in Geneva in upstate New York largely because the student body was “amused” with the prospects of a woman attending the institution. Shortly thereafter some regretted this decision, but Elizabeth graduated in 1849 with top honors in her class. One raging male chauvinist angrily greeted the news that she was to become the first woman doctor in America with “I hope, for the honor of humanity that she will be the last.”
Priceman’s illustrations are utterly delightful, and artistically even more than that. She has the very impressive distinction of having won two Caldecott Honor book citations for her flowing free-stroke watercolor illustrations in Zin Zin Zin A Violin and Hot Air: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Hot-Air Balloon Ride. She employs the same “gauche and India ink on hot-press watercolor paper medium in Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors? The result is a keeper of a book, and another in a line of great work from one of children literature most gleefully identifiable illustrators.
Page replications (below) of the Elizabeth Blackwell books: