Wednesday, August 24, 2011

My Hands Sing the Blues by Jeanne Walker Harvey

"You put down one color, and it calls for an answer. You have to look at it like a melody." - Romare Bearden

My Hands Sing the Blues is the story of the artist Romare Bearden, told in his voice, as he thinks on his time in North Carolina and his move to Harlem, New York.  The story is a gorgeous poem starting with Bearden snipping "a patch of color" to make a collage from a picture when a train comes into memory.  He follows that train, incorporating it into his artwork and telling us the story of his trip North.  

Bearden and his parents leave for New York City in 1914, because of the discriminating Jim Crow laws.  And while they are moving North to make a better life for themselves, the sadness of leaving his great-grandparents is palpable.

There are many things I love about this story.  The first is Ms Harvey's writing.  I wrote about her book, Astro the Steller Sea Lion on this blog and what struck me while reading My Hands Sing the Blues is how varied her story telling is.  She writes a musical poem - filled with rhythm and capturing the great sounds of a train - for Bearden's story, all the while telling a great story in his voice. In Astro the Steller Sea Lion she incorporates facts about a sea lion into a touching narrative.  In both books she captures these two different beings' stories using different forms of writing. 

I also love the illustrations.  This is Elizabeth Zunon's first illustrated picture book and the pictures are stunning.  As a mother of young children, I spend lots of time looking at picture books.  I am always impressed at the way the illustrators bring out the words, enhancing emotions or highlighting a character or a scene.  Ms Zunon does this beautifully on every page.  You will taste the tomato slices Bearden shares with his great-grandma as they sit on her porch swing in North Carolina.  You will feel as though you're on the train headed to Harlem.  And you might just try your hand at a collage.

Which brings me to the third thing I love about this book. It is a chance for us to not only read a touching story, but to try and work through a memory of our own using art.  When Hadley and I read this story together, we talked about collages and what they are and then I asked her if she'd like to make one of her own.   We went through some summer pictures and she picked out this one (which happens to be my favorite):
We put it on a larger piece of paper and talked about what kinds of things she could add to the paper.  She began talking about what she remembered about this day: it was a birthday party, it was sunny, there was cake and presents, she named people who were there, etc.  I wrote down some words in block letters and cut them out, and Hadley glued them onto the page where she thought they'd look nice. 

I also told her that with a collage, you could rip paper to make images instead of drawing something and cutting it out.  She thought that was pretty cool.  I think getting things "just so" can get overwhelming for her....I wonder where she gets that from.  Anyway, she loved ripping paper to make a sun and clouds.

Finished product:
What I hoped I was able to do here was give Hadley a chance to own this memory.  That's why I kept my mouth shut and didn't say what I remembered about this day: there was a pinata, a Little Mermaid cake, that Harper and Hadley looked so cute swinging on the swings eating lollipops in their bathing suits, that there was a major brawl when we had to go home.  It's not that I don't want Hadley to remember what I remember, but I wanted to give her a chance to process through this event by herself.

I love this from the book:
"Like a flower, I have roots in my Carolina past,
roots sunk deep in my childhood long past.
The people and the places are in my art to last."

How easy it would've been to read "heart" in place of "art."  But I love that Walker chose to write "art."  To me, she (and Bearden) are saying that the events in our childhood - in our lives - can be molded into art whether it's collage, paint, photography, writing, dance, perhaps even baking.  We can take these events and shape them into something so that everyone can see the melody.

When people read My Hands Sing the Blues, I hope they will be inspired to "put down one color" and wait "for an answer."  I know Hadley and I were.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Road Map

I did a guest post over here and I thought I'd share it on the ol' Sit a While blog. 

Recently, my family of four took a trip from Washington DC, where we live, to Chicago, where I grew up.  This is not a fun trip.  Oh, it’s fun once we’re there, but getting there is a marathon with a 2 and 4 year old.  There’s DVDs to put in and then fast forward, there’s straws to be put in juice boxes while driving 70 mph, there’s all the turning around and reaching for some toy that dropped and the girls insist they need instantly. 

Since we make the trip a lot, I have some tricks up my sleeve that I find useful.  My daughters, Hadley and Harper, each have kid sized backpacks with their names on them.  I fill them with coloring books and crayons.  They also both have small Dora the Explorer lunch box type purses that fit perfectly in their backpacks.  I fill these with small toys – Polly Pockets, miniature dinosaurs, stickers, etc.  These keep them entertained for at least the amount of time it takes for my Starbucks to cool down to drinkable status.

The other thing I do is raid the dollar aisle at Target.  You can find great things to fill travel bags for the kids here.  I usually buy several items then surprise the girls with them while we’re in the car, thus giving me adequate time to drink half of my Starbucks coffee.

This last trip, however, I wanted to do something more.  Something creative.  Something educational.  Something awesome.  Something that would allow me to drink all my coffee while it was still drinkable.  So here’s what I did: I made a map for my oldest daughter, Hadley, to follow.

 I printed out our travel route from Google map, cut it into large chunks and glued it to file folders.  After highlighting state lines, and different cities we’d travel through, I put several stickers in an envelope, then bound it all together with a ring.  This way the stickers would be handy-dandy for Hadley to retrieve when we drove through one of the locations.

Hadley loved it.  It was a fantastic tool for a little person who loves checking off things with stickers.  It also helped Hadley look closely at the signs to see whether the letters matched what was on her map.

There was one thing I neglected to think about while planning this bodacious activity.  That is, Hadley gets carsick.  Specifically, Hadley gets carsick somethin’ awful on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.  It is best for everyone if she does nothing except sleep or look out the window during this part of the trip.  Looking closely at a map and then trying to match that to words on green signs while slaloming in the middle of mountains?  Not a great idea.

Needless to say, we were pulled over on the side of the road before you could say, “Change of clothes.”  And that is why the rest of the map was filled out in this outfit while we were at a rest stop in Indiana.

The thing is, moms, I don’t really know what I’m doing.   But I do know this – I love my girls.  I love pointing out the Chicago skyline to them as soon as I can see it.  I love watching them play in the neighborhood parks that I used to play in when I was a kid.  I love listening to them talk and play with their grandparents.  And while I don’t look forward to dealing with a bored, tired, throwing up kid, I’ll deal with it.  With or without a map.