by Sam Juliano
Note: This is the fourth review in the 2015 Caldecott Contender series that will be published at this site over the coming months, up until the January 11th scheduled awards date. The books that will be examined are not necessarily ones that are bonafide contenders in the eyes of the voting committee, but rather the ones this writer feels should be. The order they will be presented is arbitrary as some of my absolute favorites will be presented near the end.
Floyd Cooper, the resident neo-realist of children’s literature brings to bear his inimitable artistry to a defining event in African-American history. Juneteenth for Mazie, was released a few months before the 150th anniversary of Freedom Day on June 19th, when soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas to declare the end of the Civil War and an official acknowledgement of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Currently, 43 states observe the day as one worthy of special attention, and just last year another book about this celebratory date – All Different Now was published by Angela Johnson in collaboration with E. B. Lewis. Johnson’s book chronicles the cathartic effect the declaration has on a community of slaves, and how suddenly their lives were to be forever altered. Cooper’s book is more intimate and soulful, focusing as it does on a single young girl who grew up learning that a proper upbringing often involved parental refusals, and how she is told the story of how her great-great-great Grandpa Mose witnessed a life-changing announcement from the balcony of a hotel. Grandpa Mose she is informed worked hard in the cotton fields from dawn till dusk, forced by their masters to toil until near exhaustion, with only a dream of freedom to push them forward. They prayed for a time of equality for whites and blacks, while some escaped to the north where the laws allowed them a good measure of their yearnings. After the monumental law was enacted by the President, there was as Cooper describes a celebration like no other in his statement from father to daughter in recollecting that awe-inspiring event:
Grandpa Mose heard nothing but cheers, saw nothing but happiness, and felt nothing but pride shared by those all around him. The cheers became dancing. The dancing became celebrating. It went on and on into the night…..Grandpa Mose and the others had found freedom. They continued to work, but this time they were paid for their hard work. So they worked. And they saved. And they never forgot the moment they heard – the moment that changed their lives forever.
The father goes on to explain that Juneteenth wasn’t an overnight panacea to the racial problems that would malign American for well over a century to come. The peace marches and rallies, the lobbying for schools in the black community, uniform voting privileges, equal job opportunities – these would be the most urgent concerns for an America in transition, a nation that wasn’t so willing to break with their racist past. Still, the day of atonement would be celebrated for as long as our species walked the earth, even as African-Americans “learned, grew, forgave” as they walked down the road to excellence and achievement. Like a number of their white compatriots they too produced their heroes.
Mazie is extolled to honor the day her forefathers have long been commemorating with her own measure of hoopla – enjoying barbecue hot dogs and strawberry pop, waving flags while marching to the beat of drums, but above all to remember for the rest of her life the true meaning of a day etched into the souls of the African-American conscientiousness. There is no children’s book illustrator as adept as Cooper in plumbing the depth of one’s emotions. His art is created by “mixed media application,” which has been referred to as a subtractive process that yields sensory textures. The result is life-like, recalling the cinema of the Italian neo-realists, who stressed emotional intensity, a point of view negotiated without fluffy or unrealistic conclusion, employment of conversational dialogue and a documentary feel. All his books include one or two illustrations that leave the reader overwhelmed, and in the final narrative tapestry in Juneteenth for Mazie the girl kneels meditatively in a grassy field under the stars, eyes closed, fully attuned to the reverence of this day that seemingly shakes her to the core of her being. It is of course the defining moment of the book, one that is meant to be metamorphic and a somber reminder of all the blood, sweat and tears that underlined being a black person in socially backward America prior to the Civil War.
Cooper never shows his happy campers as immersed in over-the-top gleeful delirium as they might be at a rock concert or victorious political rally. In one powerful tapestry we see a woman holding a muted pink umbrella, while in the background we see a partially sketched woman with her hand over her heart. In the forefront, fully formed others straddle the line between genuine euphoria and the melancholia connected with the realization that such a human tragedy could ever happen on this earth. One middle aged woman cries, while another clasps her hands in prayer. The shame of racial disparity is powerfully conveyed in the double page spread of gas station workers, where the aching pain is masked behind their bewildered faces in close-up. The spirit of resilience is strikingly created in the march scene, where African-Americans remind the nation they too are citizens who are fully entitled by law to equal privileges and benefits. The expressive painting of churchgoers forgiving their oppressors is wholly stirring and you can’t help but feel that the carnival like atmosphere of the celebration is far deeper than a family picnic., and came after an unconscionable period of strife and injustice. Cooper’s telling of a real-life event has all the elements of a Cinderella story with its long odds and its illustrator’s rightful fondness for dreamy nights under the stars and symbolic rainbows.
The solemnity of the final brown spread of the American and Texan flag and the dirge-like encapsulation of the facts surrounding this day are sparingly applied to a solid brown background, which is afar cry from the book’s beautiful cover, suffused as it is is with the exhilaration associated with the relief from suffering. With hands upraised, Mazie is in dance mode, wearing red, white and blue beads and white top with flower and butterfly pattern. One of the most incredible statistics about the Caldecott awards is that Copper -who has won many other significant prizes for his work- has yet to win even a honor book citation. Last year’s A Dance Like Starlight: A Ballerina’s Dream was one of the most magnificent picture books in years, and this year with his encore, the deeply-moving Juneteenth for Mazie the renowned author-illustrator has well earned the committee’s studied consideration.