On this Election Day (thank goodness we have early voting so I could Do My Civic Duty as early as possible), I bring you something completely different from the headlines: People Getting Along With Other People. Try that ten-second mindfulness training that’s been on the internet: Look at that cover, close your eyes, clear your mind, and think only of your breathing. Breathe in 2…3…4…5 and out 2…3…4…5. Now look at Mira, that happy girl on the cover with a paintbrush in her hand. All better now.
This is the true story of muralist Rafaél Lopez and the community murals he draws and paints with members of his community. Does it work as a picture book? Well, yes, it does, quite nicely. The story arc starts with those drab and gray opening endpapers and ends with a bright colorful scene of the same buildings, but this time a colorful bird flies on the now-brilliant blue horizon. (I might add that this bird is carefully placed so that it will never be covered by an enthusiastic librarian armed with book tape and a laminator!)
Like the real community murals, these illustrations are bold and bright. Color is the order of the day. As people receive little paintings from Mira, their lives are brightened, and the city is, too. But it’s not until the artist comes to town, his pocket full of paintbrushes, that the city (and the people in it) really bursts into color … and life. He is so tall and so full of color and life that the illustrator draws him as tall as possible … and that requires the reader to turn the book so that it is tall, too. Lopez does this twice in this joyful story, and both times it makes perfect sense: this artist bursts out of a small page and his dreams need more space. Like the murals he creates, where the painters have to stand on ladders and reach, reach, reach to the top of the building, his ideas are bigger than traditional pages allow. Though he is wearing straight stripes, he creates swirls and flowers and encourages others to do the same. And they do.
I was surprised to see that Mira allows a grumpy (and slightly sinister-looking) police officer to paint with them. (He asks first, and she invites him to join.) Soon he is dancing along with everyone else. Given current events, this might be a bit optimistic, but it suggests openings for the police to work with the community in new ways.
Certain motifs (the sun, the bird, flowers, and dance) are repeated throughout the book, creating a continuous story thread. Many of these motifs reminded me of Matisse cutouts, both in color choice and shape. Most children have put a smiling sun in the pictures they paint, and the fact that Lopez includes an iconic sun in many of the spreads will allow the reader to look for them and appreciate the (sunny) message they spread. But it’s the colors that the reader will remember.
Perhaps a little child somewhere will be inspired to design her own mural in her own city. We can certainly hope so.
For now, this uplifting true story will inspire many to look for ways to look on the bright side, even when the current news conspires to keep us from doing so.
Another fine way to brighten your Election Day is to look at the always fantastic New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Books of 2016. I love seeing what they choose because their list always introduces me to a few titles I have not seen yet … or even heard of! I especially love reading about outstanding books from outside the USA. We are blessed with an abundance of riches, aren’t we? I think I will spend my Election Day at the bookstore and library catching up. (Don’t worry, folks, I voted early!)