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Firebird: A Guest Post by Sam Bloom

firebirdIs it possible for a guy who has won three BGHB Honors, four Coretta Scott King Honors, and one Caldecott Honor (in 1998, for Harlem) to be underrated? Why yes, yes it is. Christopher Myers continues to fly under the radar every year when it comes to Caldecott buzz, but I’m guessing the real committee will take a good look at this one.

Julie Danielson interviewed illustrator Myers and author/ballet dancer Misty Copeland at Kirkus a while back; it’s a great piece that is definitely worth a look. In it, Myers talks about how he decided on collage because it allowed him to “choreograph across the page,” using color and texture to reflect the juxtaposition of the “riotous energy” and “careful attention to detail” that constitutes the essence of dance. Keeping this in mind when reading Firebird, I would contend that Myers nailed the “appropriateness of style” criterion…but I would argue that he scores nearly as well with the other criteria, too.

Myers’s illustrations are like intricate puzzles for the reader to take apart and put back together, over and over again. For instance, look at the first full-page spread: the young, unnamed dancer gazes up from the bottom left corner as adult ballerina Misty leaps across a night skyline. In the background, buildings twinkle above a frothy-looking river spanned by a bridge. Misty’s white outfit makes a striking contrast against the lovely midnight blues and deep purples of the sky and river. But don’t stop there: look closer. Note first the texture of the collage, the overlapping pieces of cut paper used to make the night sky, the white-washed blues and blacks of the river below. Now zero in on that skyline. The building above Misty’s outstretched right calf…is that a picture of someone’s hand resting on a gray table, cut into a building shape? And the building above her right knee looks to be a shadowed photo of a brick wall… or is that a fence? All of this is barely noticeable when viewing the spread as a whole, but the bizarre (yet lovely) details become apparent when you lean in for a better look.

In Jules’s piece, Myers talks about how he focused mostly on color and texture to show emotion, and to my mind he succeeded completely. To give just one example, the endpapers are a fiery mix of reds, golds, and oranges, extending that Firebird motif from the front cover. This is some abstract stuff, but young readers will no doubt respond to the hot colors (forget that they are normally referred to as “warm”; these hues are habanero-smoking hot) and texture. To be sure, reading Firebird is an extremely tactile visual experience. Looking closer at the endpapers, I see feathers, the bumps of a diamond-studded (I think) strawberry, a fabric of some sort, and either a shag carpet close-up or a sea anemone. And here, as throughout the book, the reader can clearly see where each piece of cut paper ends and the next begins.

I hate to bring up the typography because I find the book to be practically perfect in every way, but the two fonts are not perfectly chosen. The text is a dialogue between the two characters, with the young girl’s words appearing in a bold italic font and Misty’s words appearing in a bold Roman font. I wish there was more differentiation between the two type styles, because I had to look twice on many occasions to see who was talking. It’s a lovely text, though, and Myers does a fabulous job with his interpretation.

Speaking of interpretation, my own interpretive skills aren’t terribly great, so I’m always curious to hear what others think. What do you all think is going on in some of those spreads? Especially intriguing to me is the final spread, where Misty and the young girl dance together wearing matching white tutus. Silhouetted dancers leap and twirl in front of multi-colored backgrounds, including what I believe is a male dancer to the extreme right. The spread itself is a stunner — it’s absolutely gorgeous — but I don’t completely understand it. Thoughts? And in more general terms, what does everyone think? Are you all high on Firebird, too?

About Sam Bloom

Sam Bloom is a former elementary and middle school teacher. He is currently senior children's librarian at the Blue Ash branch of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County in Ohio.

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Comments

  1. Unfortunately I do not have the book in front of me -I took a very good look at it two weeks ago at Books of Wonder, but didn’t yet buy it- so I am unable to respond to your scene-specific questions Sam, but certainly the power, style and color of the collage spreads have stayed with me. The story embraces the spirit of Alan Parker’s film FAME and last year’s Caldecott honor book FLORA AND THE FLAMINGO. The employment of the reds and the golds are arresting and the book leads to a breathtaking coda. Your wonderfully intricate and celebratory review is a perfect companion piece for those who own or will own the book. Great stuff!

  2. Robin Smith Robin Smith says:

    Thanks for the great write-up, Sam!
    When this one first came to me, I had that panic that I sometimes have when a topic is waayyyyy out of my area of expertise. Like, say, dance. I have (deep shame upon my head) never attended a real ballet, just the dance recitals of my second graders. (though I did watch Fame religiously, Sam J.)
    So, I had to shake it off and do a little research. I pulled up some videos of Misty Copeland herself. I am glad I did.
    At first, the illustrations looked stretched to me. Out of proportion. But, seeing the videos and pulling up still shots of Copeland, I instantly knew that Myers did not exaggerate a thing. This ballerina is just as long and expressive and beautiful as the illustrations.
    I loved the background collages too, but my very favorite spread is the one where the curtain is just about to rise and the ballerina is almost lost in the color of the red curtain, allowing the white of her tutu and tights to make her Every Ballerina.
    I have to admit that I did not notice the two typefaces at all until you mentioned them, Sam. It was easy to tell who was talking by the content and I did not even notice it was different. I am not sure what that means for my powers of observation.
    This was an eye-opening book for me that sent me on a pleasant path of research. Maybe I add “see a real ballet” to my to-do list.

  3. Sam Bloom says:

    The curtain spread – I’m so glad you mentioned that, Robin! It amazes me that he was able to get that deep red with pieces of cut paper. And hopefully other folks are able to overlook the font thing, or not even notice it (as in your case), so that they can focus on those lovely collages.

  4. Eric Carpenter says:

    Just read this and was blown away by it on my initial look through (page by page, ignoring the text). It’s aesthetically wonderful for ask the reasons Sam enumerated. Unfortunately after going back and reading (and rereading) the book I think the writing, especially the rhythm and page turns created by said writing is so lacking in comparison to the art that it makes for an overall unbalanced read. I know that caldecott is about the art, but I have trouble supporting a book, even one as beautiful as Firebird, when that art supports a less than sublime text.
    On the other hand those red curtains!!

    Staying with ballet, it’s like comparing the films The Red Shoes and Tales of Hoffman. The former is a perfect movie. Beautiful, engaging, powerful, and awe inspiring. The latter is a beautiful collection of images and moments strung together by a narrative that doesn’t capture the audience.

  5. Jill Keller says:

    I think the author’s note at the end, where she writes about Raven Wilkinson, influenced my interpretation of the final spread. At least one of the female silhouettes is derived from a portrait of Ms. Wilkinson (as seen here: http://www.blackpast.org/aah/wilkinson-anne-raven-1935). Another is Lauren Anderson. My assumption would be that the male silhouette is a portrait of Alvin Ailey, although I couldn’t find the specific picture online. The portrait on the far left also eludes my basic Internet research. I see it as Ms. Copeland’s tribute to the African-American dancers who showed her that ballet didn’t belong exclusively to white people.

    I also felt the artwork in this book was masterful. The textures that Mr. Myers used throughout were absolutely perfect, from the amazing red curtain that was made up of all kinds of exotic, sequined, mesh, pleated, painted fabrics, to the page before that, where I’m pretty sure at least two of the white fabric textures he used came from SOCKS! I love that! It was also pretty brilliant in that spread to use these plain textures in the white side behind the young girl, and then fancy textures, like lace/mesh hosiery and shiny Lycra in the black side behind the grown-up Misty. It’s sophisticated and subtle. And in this lovely book about dance, you just love seeing these tiny glimpses of hands in the scraps of paper. (There’s one in the small red panel underneath the diamond-studded strawberry in the last spread.) Plus, there are a couple of scraps where you can see silky blond hair, which I think may hint at the overwhelming feeling that a young African-American girl might have, that ballerinas don’t look like her.

    I have to say, I was rather heavily influenced by the author’s note at the end, rather than the actual text of the book. I think Mr. Myers artwork outperforms Ms. Copeland’s writing. But the artwork is amazing. It conveys motion and depth. I love how many hues there are in the children’s faces on the “spinning wishes” spread. This is a really stunning book, even if the text is a little light-weight.

  6. I like THE TALES OF HOFFMAN more than you Eric, but I completely agree with you on the THE RED SHOES, one of the cinema’s crowning glories. 🙂

  7. Barb Outside Boston says:

    Wonderful and accurate (IMO) description of the artwork. I also found the text lacking, it seemed uneven. I thought some phrases (“the space between you and me/ is longer than forever”) worked well, but others (“soon with the same practice/ you’ll join me/ in this dancing dream”) prosaic.

  8. Sam Bloom says:

    Well said, Jill. I think I’m a little more forgiving of the text than you guys, but the more I look at it the more I’m coming around to your view that the text isn’t quite ready for prime time. And thanks for the info on that last spread, I love being able to see that picture of Raven Wilkinson.

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