Alice B. McGinty | Two picture books deserving of accolades

Alice B. McGinty | Two picture books deserving of accolades

Excitement over the recent American Library Association Awards is still in the air, and here are two more noteworthy picture books that received honors.

Receiving a Caldecott Honor was "Alma and How She Got Her Name" (2018, Candlewick Press, written and illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal, ages 3-8).

Child-friendly graphite pencil drawings with splashes of red invite us into the story as we meet Alma Sofia Esperanza Jose Pura Candela — who had a long name. "Too long, if you asked her."

"It never fits," she complains to her Daddy.

"Let me tell you the story of your name," he tells her. "Then you can decide if it fits."

Her father takes a photo album from the bookshelf and begins to tell Alma about Sofia, her grandmother, who "loved books, poetry, jasmine flowers and, of course, me."

"I love books and flowers ... and you too, Daddy!" Alma responds, as the illustration shows her sitting atop a pile of books sniffing flowers, in an echo of the photo (also an illustration) of her grandmother.

"I am Sofia," Alma states.

Then, Daddy introduces Esperanza, Alma's great grandmother, who had always hoped to travel, and Jose, her father's father, an artist who woke early each morning to paint.

Peeking into the photo of her grandfather, Alma notes that she wakes up early and draws a lot, too.

"I am Esperanza." "I am Jose," she states.

Next, Alma meets her great aunt Pura, who believed the spirits of her ancestors watched over them, and Candela, her other grandmother who stood up for what was right.

"Now tell me about Alma, Daddy," she begs. "Where does that come from?"

"You are the first and only Alma. You will make your own story," her father responds.

As she clutches a book labeled "Mi historia," Alma is proud of her long name, which fits just right, and is ready to tell her own story.

An author's note rounds out this beautiful tale, telling of the author's experience with her own long name, given to her in Lima, Peru, where she grew up. "Little did I know that later on, after I moved to the United States, it would feel unique and remind me every day of where I came from."

"Before She Was Harriet" (2017, Holiday House, written by Lesa Cline-Ransome, illustrated by James E. Ransome, ages 4-9) was a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor book.

The story opens with a detailed watercolor illustration in which we see Harriet Tubman's face, worn by the years, with wise, tired eyes.

"Here she sits/an old woman/tired and worn/her legs stiff/her back achy," we read.

Then we turn the page to see a younger woman, "but before wrinkles formed/and her eyes failed/...she could walk for miles/and see clearly/under a sky lit only with stars"

The free verse gives no punctuation, and flows as richly as the warm watercolors.

With each page turn, the text takes us further back in time. Before she was an old woman, Harriet was a suffragist, with a loud angry voice rising above injustice. Before that, she was Gen. Tubman, armed with courage as she ferried slaves to freedom, and before that, a nurse, caring for those hit with "bullets and hatred and fear."

As we keep traveling back in time, we see Aunt Harriet, helping her parents flee their master and find their way to freedom. Next we see her as Moses, a conductor on the Underground Railroad "with no trains/and no tracks/just passengers/traveling to freedom."

Then we go back further to her days as a slave, punished with lashes that "broke her back/but not her spirit" and as a young girl "taught by her father/to read/the woods/and/the stars/at night/readying/for the day."

Finally, coming to a close, remembering her days in each of these roles, we see Harriet Tubman boarding a train in an integrated world, as the text recalls her as a child "who dreamed/of living long enough/to one day/be old/stiff and achy/tired and worn and wrinkled/and free."

These beautifully written and illustrated books are both winners, exploring identity and personal journeys, each in their own special way.

Alice B. McGinty (http://www.alicebmcginty.com) is the award-winning author of over 40 books for children, and the recipient of the 2017 Illinois Reading Council's Prairie State Award for Excellence in Writing for Children. Each summer, Ms. McGinty runs a writing camp for teens, called Words on Fire.

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