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Archive for January 17th, 2019

by Sam Juliano

     Richard Nathaniel Wright is widely and justly regarded as one of the greatest African-American writers of all-time, indeed one of the most towering American men of letters who ever lived.  Like Harlem-bred Langston Hughes, and James Baldwin he achieved international prominence after being reared in near-poverty, and went on to publish two of the supreme masterpieces of American literature, Native Son and Black Boy.  The latter is an autobiographical novel covering the author’s difficult childhood, intellectual coming of age (young Wright was named class valedictorian at completion of his Junior High School years) and his later involvement and abandonment of the communist party.  Published five years earlier than Black Boy in 1940, Native Son is often considered one of the first successful attempts to explain the racial divide in America in terms of the social conditions imposed on African Americans by the dominant white society.  The book’s publication is regarded by many literary critics as a culture-altering event, and to the present day numerous polls by critics and readers have placed the book high among the finest ever written from any country.  Yet the last years of Wright’s short life (he passed at age 52) featured an output too often relegated to a lower position in the pantheon.  His prolific output of “Haiku”,  a traditional form of Japanese poetry consisting of three lines represents one of the most impressive of all outputs committed to the form.

It would be difficult to imagine a more piercingly beautiful, effervescent and nature-attuned pictorial homage to this extensive productivity than the extraordinarily moving and buoyant Seeing Into Tomorrow, a photo collage miracle by Nina Crews which immediately takes its place among the best photographic picture books ever created.  So far this oddly neglected kind of craftsmanship hasn’t scored yet from the Caldecott committees, but has attracted effusive praise from picture book critics.  Previously artists like April Pulley Sayre and the team of Helen Frost and Rick Lieder have published extraordinary books wedding poetry with photographs.  It is mind-boggling to ponder the kind of interpretive application needed to achieve seamless fusion of word and image, but also as in the case with Ms. Crews, the ability to visually document the spirit and essence of transcendent verse that for its iconic writer sixty years ago afforded him a new kind of inspiration, beauty and kinship with nature which had eluded him while his focus was on social justice and politics.  Wright’s daughter Julia explains in a 1998 prologue to her father’s luminous volume Haiku: This Other World that Wright’s verses were “self-developed antidotes against illness and that breaking down words into syllables matched the shortness of (Wright’s) breath.”  The novelist and essayist was also able to find a new form of expression and inspiration at a time when the Grim Reaper was laying siege and when he was finally able to appreciate the Earth, which early in his life was seen the enabler of suffering.  Wright’s success at what Julia opines “to spin these poems of light out of the gathering darkness” is given metaphorical heft by Crews who names her picture book for the final of a dozen haiku choices selected from over four thousand written.  Crews’ approach is sensory and it zeros in on moments some might think are disposable, but in fact when linked together etch a profound sense of time and place, in fact also in accordance with the title bring contemporary substance and ornamentation to timeless writings.

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by Sam Juliano

The final message of the soulful picture book Thank You Omu! is unmistakably Capra-esque.  The entire premise and rousing finale of the beloved 1946 film holiday jewel It’s A Wonderful Life asserts that no man is a failure if he has friends.  In the Capra film a plethora of longtime friends who had been on the receiving end of George Bailey’s generosity, came forward with cash that would save that film’s famed protagonist from financial ruination and thus prevent the darkest of resolves he had pondered without realizing how many people he has moved.  Similarly in a third-season episode of the classic The Twilight Zone television series, “The Changing of the Guard” an elderly English instructor at a Vermont boy’s school, Professor Fowler is forced to retire and concludes he meant little to the world.  He plans to commit suicide on Christmas Eve, but the ghosts of a number of the boys whose lives he molded appear to tell him how much he meant to them in teaching them valor, loyalty and kindness among other traits.  Fowler, like George Baily, opts for life after receiving the greatest compliment one can earn in their lifetime.

While the lower-keyed debut work by author-illustrator Oge Mora may seem more philosophically simplified, it’s principle is no less resonant, it’s moral no less powerful, it’s sense of community no less ingrained in the story’s dynamic.  Thank You Omu! will remind many young and adult readers of Marcia Brown’s classroom staple Stone Soup, a folk tale about a trio of soldiers who trick villagers into crafting soup from stones, but with ongoing deceit coax them into coming forth with the ingredients that are actually what make such a full and delicious meal.  There is no such subterfuge in Mora’s book, which was inspired by the female role models in her life, especially her culinary-gifted grandmother.  Omu, a miracle of acrylic collage, china markers, pastels, patterned paper and old book clippings is a story of magnanimity, gratefulness and the adage that in the end one will be treated as they treat others.  To be sure the book is a study of sacrifice and how the most noble in our ranks will think of themselves only after they’ve thought of everyone around them.  For Mora it permanently ensconces a love for her grandmother, showcasing how in a world often on narcissist mode benevolence can be transferable. (more…)

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