Subscribe to The Horn Book

Seeing Into Tomorrow

Seeing Into Tomorrow is a marriage of two unique talents of different eras: the text is by Richard Wright, author of Native Son (1940) and Black Boy (1945); the art is by Nina Crews, known for her picture books pairing texts with photographic collage and featuring diverse children. In this latest work, Crews has taken Wright’s haiku, written near the end of his life, and paired it with photographic collage, featuring black boys in lush and cheerful natural settings. It’s a sight for sore eyes. Who knew how much we needed this?

Crews’s illustrations use photographs, each representing part of a landscape, to create outdoor scenes by patching them together with the edges overlapping to extend the ground (the grass field of a park, the wood planks of a porch) outward and the trees upward, with some photographs rendered with a slightly different hue, focus, or angle. The effect of the collage technique is to add visual depth and imaginative possibility to the scene. In each scene, a boy — the only element of the scene that is whole and not pieced together — stands as an observer of the possibilities surrounding him and a creator of his experience.

The ample white space surrounding each photo collage forces the viewer’s mind to fill in missing patches of ground and sky; this act of participating in the creation of the scene draws us into the experience. We are with the boy writing his name in snow on the porch; we are on the woodsy trail with the boy holding up his bike, smiling at us; as a crow caws, we are torn between gazing at the sky with one boy or play-fighting with his friends. The effect Crews achieves is the appearance of magical realism.

In fact, there is magic in these collages. When was the last time you saw a black boy enjoying nature, focused solely on the object in front of him, no societal or political meaning imposed upon him? Wasn’t this the magic of that seminal book The Snowy Day?

A special meaning behind the pairing of these liberating illustrations with these haiku is that Richard Wright spent his adult life fleeing and investigating racism — he moved to France in 1947 and traveled extensively, writing about other countries’ struggles for freedom — while his most well-known works center on the experience of being a black boy and man in the United States during the indignity of segregation, which defined him as nothing else. In the last year and a half of his life, these haiku he wrote in the French countryside must have been a reprieve for him.

Similarly, for us, these images of black boys in nature is a reprieve from a world in which they are often either vilified or victimized, presumed to be trapped in the ghetto, the concrete jungle. How fitting the title — Seeing Into Tomorrow — for a work that looks forward to a freer future for black boys while simultaneously looking backward to youthful days when wonder at the natural world could be all-consuming.

This “seeing into tomorrow” could also be a way of imagining a world in which we hadn’t been captured from African soil and trapped in a society that pitted us against the earth by forcing us to work it for free.

And let’s talk about that last spread: “A spring sky so clear / That you feel you are seeing / Into tomorrow.” On the verso, a young boy looks up at a sky composed of blue rectangles of paper, flying away toward the final page-turn, with more white space than color on the recto. There in the middle of the recto is a piece of white paper floating amongst the blue pieces. On the white paper are three lines of words typed with a typewriter, so small one must look closely to read them. The words are those of the haiku on the spread, but the point is that the poem, made to look like a thought floating from the boy, is a possibility, a way for the boy to make sense of his world — to make art of his world, of his life. This boy can stand and ponder, and then jump into the white space of the next page and run off to create his life. The world is his; his life is what he makes of it.

Haiku are so simple that one might think a children’s book would need fancy paintings to make them interesting to children. But here, Crews may have done her best work by using photographic collage to highlight the observed piece of nature and the observer — black boys representing the young Richard Wright and all of their infinite possibilities of creation. The more we see concrete images of black boys as creators of their own destinies, attached to the infinite possibilities of the world, the more these ideas can settle into our minds as real and not imagined. What a gift to a society in need.

Autumn Allen About Autumn Allen

Autumn Allen is an educator, writer, critic and independent scholar of children's and young adult literature.

Share

Comments

  1. Sam Juliano says:

    “In fact, there is magic in these collages. When was the last time you saw a black boy enjoying nature, focused solely on the object in front of him, no societal or political meaning imposed upon him? Wasn’t this the magic of that seminal book The Snowy Day?”

    Actually Autumn, we need to look no further back than last year to find a book about an African-American boy enjoying nature with singular focus without societal or political meaning imposed upon him. The work is “Where’s Rodney?” by Carmen Bogan and Floyd Cooper and like the collage gem you review so brilliantly here it is wholly soulful and exhilarating. Wright, who is my own favorite African-American writer ever altered the literary landscape with “Native Son” and “Black Boy” and his late-life Haiku was surely an inspired choice for this type of art. We’ve seen some fabulous work from the Helen Frost/Rick Lieder team and April Pulley Sayre on this front and with this powerful visualization Crews joins them, deserving every bit of Caldecott consideration as the conventional artists. Surely Wright himself would be proud of this photographic adaptation which captures the spirit of his Haiku and offers up as you insight-fully note the interactive experience. I have found it increasingly deeper and resplendent on repeated visitation. You really peel off the gauze here with some fascinating analysis in this qualification essay.

  2. Susan Dailey says:

    Is this the book that will capture the Caldecott for photography finally? Perhaps! As the reviewer noted it has a fresh feel. The use of collage allows the addition of white space that enhances the photos visually. And it allows for creative placement of text. Wonderful!

  3. Susan, if that happened, I (for one) would be thrilled. This is one of my top-three favorites this year. And Autumn captured this book so beautifully in this post.

  4. Paula Guiler says:

    Is this book eligible for the Caldecott? Mustn’t the text be original-never before published?

  5. Paula, great question. The criteria state:

    “The term ‘original work’ may have several meanings. For purposes of these awards, it is defined as follows: ‘Original work’ means that the illustrations were created by this artist and no one else. Further, ‘original work’ means that the illustrations are presented here for the first time and have not been previously published elsewhere in this or any other form. Illustrations reprinted or compiled from other sources are not eligible.”

    Elsewhere, the criteria state: “There are no limitations as to the character of the picture book except that the illustrations be original work. …”

    So, though we hear about this a lot — re, say, the Newbery Award — for the Caldecott, it must mean illustrations alone. I don’t see anything in the criteria about text needing to be original.

  6. Plus, CASEY AT THE BAT, whose text was published in 1888, received a 2001 Honor. (There are probably other examples of this, too.)

Comment Policy:
  1. Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  2. Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  3. Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through (though some comments with links to multiple URLs are held for spam-check moderation by the system). If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.

We accept clean XHTML in comments, but don't overdo it and please limit the number of links submitted in your comment. For more info, see the full Terms of Use.

Speak Your Mind

*