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Her Right Foot

Dave Eggers’s Her Right Foot, illustrated by debut artist Shawn Harris and clocking in at over a hundred pages, is a picture book receiving a fair amount of Newbery buzz. Heavy Medal, School Library Journal’s mock Newbery blog, has placed the book on their long list. In two separate posts they, and their commenters, have weighed in on the writing. We here at Calling Caldecott, of course, are considering the illustrations.

This is a book that leaves a lump in my throat and mist in my eyes. (Okay, fine. They are tears. TEARS, I tell you.) Eggers spends the first half of the book sharing the history of (and some facts about) the creation of the Statue of Liberty, her transfer from France to the United States, and what she symbolizes. That is, he writes about the symbols people most often talk about and what they mean (Lady Liberty as a whole, her torch, the spikes on her crown, etc.). But then, midway through the book, Eggers shifts his focus (and his tone) to one particular part of the statue – her right foot. Look closely, he implores readers. She is in mid-stride. She is on the move. For the rest of the book, he writes about what that means: “If the Statue of Liberty is a symbol of freedom, then how can she stand still?” It’s a timely book, given the worldwide refugee crises we read about in the news and given our current administration’s immigration policies.

Harris’s minimalist illustrations are rendered via construction paper and India ink. I love to see construction paper at work in picture books. (Children find it accessible and may even be inspired to get out their own paper and scissors to tell their stories.) I like how — particularly on the book’s endpapers, which feature Lady Liberty’s torch, as if we are standing right inside of it, looking out over the railing — you can see Harris’s tiny scissor cuts and the imperfections in the construction paper. This medium also adds a subtle visual depth to many moments in the book, such as in an early spread featuring a Parisian sipping coffee outside of a café, the statue high about the city. (Fact: she was first assembled in Paris!)

But back to those endpapers: both the opening and closing endpapers feature the close-up view of the railing of the statue’s torch, but the opening ones are brown and the closing ones, green. I love this. In the book, Eggers writes about how the statue was originally brown, yet over the years, the copper has oxidized, leaving her the blue-green color she is now. The book’s turning point, during which Eggers shifts to discuss her raised foot and what it symbolizes, includes a spread with merely text; the left side of the spread is brown, and the right is green. In fact, the dominating color for the book’s entire first half is this brown, and the second half features much of that green. Perfect.

Many aspects of the medium and Harris’s style are perfectly matched to (and support) Eggers’s text, as well as his tone — so much so that I can’t envision any other medium at work here. (Imagine if this were illustrated in, say, lavish oil paints. Um, nope.) I love the simplicity of the compositions and what Harris draws our attention to on the page. In an early spread — “You may have also heard of something called the Statue of Liberty” — we see only Lady Liberty on the left, and she is surrounded by fluffy white clouds (and a few birds). Nothing more is needed there. In another spread, composed of three short sentences, where Eggers prepares readers for his theory about why her foot is mid-stride, Harris illustrates two birds up in the bright blue sky — a stirring choice for what follows: musings on immigrants looking for freedom from oppression.

There’s also much humor in the first half of the book. As but one example, there’s a spread where de Laboulaye and Bartholdi discuss the statue’s design. Harris illustrates the two men dramatically discussing it over a meal, Bartholdi brandishing a banana in the air as if it’s a torch and holding his menu the way Lady Liberty eventually holds the book in her hand (which is featured on the book’s cover, so be sure to lift the dustjacket!). All the subtle moments of humor are balanced in the book’s second half by the more contemplative tone that dominates; at one point (“Liberty and freedom from oppression are not things you get or grant by standing around like some kind of statue”), Harris illustrates a Red Crescent refugee camp. And that closing spread, where we see Lady Liberty meeting the poor, the tired, and the struggling to breathe free right there “in the sea”? She strides through the water to greet them, “not content to wait.” There’s that lump in my throat again.

I’ll be curious to see in a little under two weeks now if this book got a foot in the door with the Caldecott committee — and even the Newbery committee. It’s almost show time, everyone. (The countdown clock is up and running!)

 

Read the Horn Book review of Her Right Foot here.

Julie Danielson About Julie Danielson

Julie Danielson writes about picture books at the blog Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. She also writes for Kirkus Reviews and BookPage and is a lecturer for the School of Information Sciences graduate program at the University of Tennessee. Her book Wild Things!: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature, written with Betsy Bird and Peter D. Sieruta, was published in 2014.

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Comments

  1. “I’ll be curious to see in a little under two weeks now if this book got a foot in the door with the Caldecott committee — and even the Newbery committee. It’s almost show time, everyone.”

    Julie, this book was being touted for great things as far back as September when all the Newbery and Caldecott speculation commenced. I remember an early prediction by Elizabeth “Betsy” Bird who at one juncture was suggesting it had a real path to Newbery supremacy, and was poised to pull another “William Blake’s Inn” and more recently “Last Stop on Market Street.” I do love, love, love the book pretty much as much as you do, but for whatever reason it has now lost momentum for either award. Mind you, as you remind your readers, nobody has any idea what the committee is thinking, and any prediction then AND now should be taken with a grain of salt. It is an amazing work, and when you add both components TOGETHER and consider how they interact, not to even mention how aesthetically beautiful this captivating and unique India Ink and construction paper design is as distinguished as any book this year. I am not sure exactly why it seems to have been eclipsed, but as you know Brian Selznick’s “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” came roaring back to nab the Caldecott Medal when the zero hour procrastinators had all but ruled out that possibility for all its wide critical acclaim. Dave Eggers is a master craftsman, and each turn of the page yields a new pictorial adventure.

    My hometown, which is also where my school district is located is maybe a 22 minute ride to Liberty State Park in Jersey City, New Jersey. Over the years, including field trips organized by my boy scout troop I have lost count how many times I have boarded the ferry with my charges to take the short cruise to Liberty Island. Ever the territorial vigilantes my students always asked me WHY the Statue was technically the possession of New York, when geographically is was far close to the New Jersey. shore. After getting a good chuckle I would tell them New York State (and particularly the Boroughs of Brooklyn and Manhattan) had more “political clout” but that the ownership question will just as inconclusive as the Falkland Islands tug of war. Over the years repeated repairs have made it difficult to access the torch and even on occasion the crown was off limits. The perfect textual segue into this discussion could be an outgrowth of THIS:

    “Wait. No. She is facing southeast. So she is not going to New Jersey. But she is going somewhere. But where? Why is she moving?”

    Anyway, I much enjoyed this fantastic assessment of this book’s artistry, the mention of how humor is marvelously sustained (and how interrogative posings keep it all moving with marked reader resolve. You offer a fabulous delineation of the end paper metamorphosis, and the fact that it was chosen is to my eyes rather a stroke of genius. Yes that superlative melting pot finale is indeed tear-inducing, and one of this pictorially rich work’s most searing tapestries.

    The bottom line is that you can find a better resource than “HER RIGHT FOOT” in teaching students about Lady Liberty. Rarely has construction paper been so brilliantly employed, and just as unusual is the remarkable chemistry between language and art. I do wish it had done better with my Mock Caldecott voters, but I attribute this to grade level, not lack of interest. I tend to overuse the word masterpiece but this is one for sure. Thank you for this tremendous essay! Yes BOTH committees should be holding this front and center.

  2. I reversed the author and illustrator in my comment. My bad. Of course the art is by Shawn Harris, and the text by Dave Eggers.

  3. Jules, what did you think of the flow from spread to spread? I felt like I was looking at a sequence of posters–nice ones, but not creating a sequence.

  4. Compelling page turns are hard in a book whose first half is filled with facts. I think I know what you mean. But the second half accomplishes this, particularly with the she-is-on-the-go spreads, where we’re eager to turn the page and see where exactly she’s headed. That is more compelling sequencing.

    (Am I getting at what you’re asking?)

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