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Reviews of the 2014 Sibert Award winners

parrots over puerto ricoWinner: star2Parrots over Puerto Rico by Susan L. Roth and Cindy Trumbore; illus. by Susan L. Roth
(Lee & Low)
This gorgeously illustrated history of the critically endangered Puerto Rican parrot, along with the settlement and development of Puerto Rico, underscores the environmental consequences of human populations on indigenous animal species. The beautiful green and blue parrots witness early human settlement on the island, then suffer a decline in numbers over centuries of human population growth, colonization, and wars; invasive species that compete for resources; and natural disasters. The parrots were down to a population of only thirteen in 1975; conservation efforts, located first in the El Yunque rainforest and then spread out to other locations across the island, have increased parrot numbers to several hundred. With stunning paper-and-fabric artwork on each spread, the book is laid out vertically to best give a sense of height. Ruffly feathered parrots, colorfully clothed people, and a series of Puerto Rican landmarks are located within dense, intricate illustrations in which layer upon layer of branches, leaves, ferns, and other greenery capture the lushness of the landscapes. An afterword includes additional details about conservation efforts, several color photographs of the parrots and the people working to save them, and a timeline of historical and environmental events in Puerto Rico. DANIELLE J. FORD

A Splash of RedHonor: A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin by Jen Bryant; illus. by Melissa Sweet
Horace Pippin drew and painted from an early age, but as the eldest son in a working-class African American family he was not afforded the luxury of pursuing an education or career in art. Instead, beginning at age fourteen he worked a series of menial jobs to help support his family until he enlisted as a soldier in World War I. There, he sketched and recorded what he saw. When he was shot in the right shoulder, he sustained an injury so grave that he was discharged from the army; it also weakened his right arm to such an extent that it ended his ability to draw or paint. But years later he felt inspired to create art, and he realized he could do so if he supported his right hand with his left one. He went on to create dozens of paintings, based on memories from his childhood and wartime experiences, stories his grandmother had told, stories from the Bible, and scenes he saw around him. Bryant’s well-researched, articulate account of Pippin’s life is interspersed with direct quotes from him, most of which are embedded directly into Sweet’s expressive gouache, watercolor, and collage illustrations. Although only five of Pippin’s actual paintings are reproduced here (and only on the back endpapers), Sweet includes her own versions of many of them, created in the “simple colors” Pippin was fond of—black, white, browns, greens, yellows—but usually including a touch of bright red. KATHLEEN T. HORNING

locomotive1Honor: star2Locomotive by Brian Floca; illus. by the author
Talk about a youth librarian’s dream come true: a big new book about those ever-popular trains from a bona fide picture-book-nonfiction all-star. Striking cinematic endpapers lay the groundwork, describing the creation of the Transcontinental Railroad in the 1860s. Then, in a sort of historical-fiction-meets-travelogue narrative, Floca zeroes in on one family’s journey from Omaha to San Francisco. Floca excels at juxtaposing sweeping panoramas with intimate, slice-of-life moments: here a widescreen shot of the train chugging across the Great Plains; later a vignette at a “dollar for dinner” hash house (“If the chicken tastes like prairie dog, don’t ask why,” cautions the narrator). Varied font sizes and styles on the large pages beautifully capture the onomatopoeia (“Hisssssssss”; “huff huff huff ”; “chug-chug chug-chug chug-chug”) of the train and the feel of the Old West. One spread finds the train precariously crossing a trestle (“The train is so heavy, the bridge is so narrow, and rickety rickety rickety!”); the concluding ricketys are displayed in an appropriately jarring shadowed font alongside a picture of passengers shaking — and praying — in their seats. Luckily, our family makes it safely to its destination: “the country’s far corners have been pulled together…thanks to the locomotive.” An author’s note and thorough discussion of the sources used are included, and don’t miss the back endpapers — the steam power diagram would make David Macaulay proud. SAM BLOOM

greenberg_mad potterHonor: The Mad Potter: George E. Ohr, Eccentric Genius by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan
(Porter/Roaring Brook)
“Eccentric” is an apt word for Ohr, a Mississippi blacksmith’s son (1857–1918) who reinvented himself as a potter: though he began his distinctive works on a potter’s wheel, he then reshaped them into “pronounced curves and free-flowing forms” and would “twist, wring, pummel, and fold” for effects “witty, rhythmic, and sensual.” Thus, literally and figuratively, a form’s original center was shifted in order to create a unique (and usually nonfunctional) sculpture, rather than the teapot or bowl its shape might suggest. Mostly self-taught and way ahead of his time, Ohr was undeterred by his lack of worldly success; a shameless self-promoter, he billed himself as a “Mad Potter” and priced his works high even when they hardly ever sold, though he did make utilitarian items to keep his large family afloat. There’s not much here about that family. They valued his work so little that “his grandchildren and great-grandchildren used a few bowls as targets for their BB guns”; a son burned all of Ohr’s papers. Fortunately, the pots themselves—whimsical, fantastical, downright beautiful—were rediscovered in the 1970s. Soon they were selling for tens of thousands of dollars, inspiring other artists, and being displayed in museums, including one especially built for them in Ohr’s native Biloxi—designed, appropriately, by Frank O. Gehry. Once again, Greenberg and Jordan (Ballet for Martha, rev. 7/10) have produced a magisterial portrait that’s both a character study and an appreciation of their subject’s oeuvre. Precise, vividly descriptive language; excellent, scrupulously sourced photos; full notes and bibliography; and useful back matter (on the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art in Biloxi, “How to Look at a Pot,” “And How to ‘Boss’ One of Your Own”) all contribute to this inviting, eye- and mind-opening biography. JOANNA RUDGE LONG

cate_look upHonor: star2Look Up!: Bird-Watching in Your Own Backyard by Annette LeBlanc Cate; illus. by the author
Author-illustrator Cate begins with a confession: “I’m not an expert birdwatcher—not a single pair of my binoculars even works properly! I just really love birds.” Her desire to share this passion with a new generation of nature enthusiasts shines through in this delightful and thoroughly detailed introduction to the hobby (some might say addiction) of birdwatching. The book starts by encouraging children to sharpen their awareness of their natural surroundings and, in doing so, to notice the presence of birds in any setting, pastoral or urban. Next up are the basics of bird identification, guiding readers through consideration of bird color, shapes, behaviors, and songs (including helpful discussions of the challenges of differentiating among birds that are brown, the peskiest color, and among sparrows, the peskiest species). Once mastered, it’s on to the more intermediate characteristics that distinguish one species from another: habitat, range, and migration. The discussion is lighthearted; Cate and the birds, portrayed in cartoonlike illustrations with speech balloons, poke fun at themselves and one another as they teach bird observation. Even when amusing, however, the asides and comments are full of scientific information. Cate also suggests that readers document their observations through sketching and drawing, providing tips on the art as well as the science of birding. DANIELLE J. FORD

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