A Girl Like Me

I’ve always loved how Nina Crews’s photocollages juxtapose photographic realism with compositional flights of fancy in ways that indulge children’s frequent interest in seeing other real kids in books, as well as their propensity for imaginative play. Crews’s art for Angela Johnson’s poetic text in A Girl Like Me capitalizes on that juxtaposition. The illustrations excel in their “recognition of a child audience” by delivering a message of girls’ empowerment through playful art that moves from dreamscapes to realistic settings.

Johnson’s first-person title invokes one girl, and Crews’s jacket art depicts a solitary Black girl striding confidently over a collaged city skyline. The expression Crews captured on her face is so joyful that you can almost hear the giggle the girl must’ve made as she struck a pose for the camera. With her placement on the cover, readers are encouraged to read this girl as the titular “Me,” centering her as the presumed protagonist.

But then Crews performs an artistic sleight of hand, easing readers into endpapers and front matter devoid of photographs. Instead, they’re decorated with circular patterns that dominated the jacket’s background, momentarily distancing readers from the title’s “Me.” This distance allows readers to absorb the sight of not one girl, but three, on the first spread of the book proper, their eyes closed as if asleep. The text begins, “I always dream.” The “I” of the text thus gives way to the “we” of the page, a visual interpretation leading to an ultimate message of group empowerment.

Ensuing spreads offer fantastic visions of these three girls living their dreams. One girl flies like a superhero. Next is the girl from the cover, saying, “I used to dream / I walked over tall buildings / in flowing scarves and a cowgirl hat.” The third girl dreams of swimming in the ocean, where she sees “everything deep, / cool” and where she is “part of the waves.” Crews’s art makes each girl large enough to dominate the page as she dreams and flies, walks, or swims through fantastic vistas.

Each dreaming girl encounters naysayers who bark admonishments, starting with the phrase “A girl like you …” Though Crews now logically renders them smaller on the page to symbolize their vulnerability to such attacks, the girls’ stances and expressions are anything but diminished. “A girl like who?” each seems to be thinking. “A girl like me?” their faces exclaim with incredulity, rejecting the limitations that others would put on them and their dreams.

And who are the others who try, and fail, to discourage them? In a brilliant pictorial interpretation of theme, Crews denies them individuality. They are low-on-the-page, monochromatic, flat cut-outs, easily ignored when contrasted with the vibrant, full-color photos of the girls—and utterly absent, save their words, from the third scene. Never mind them, the art seems to say. So, we don’t.

How could we when the girls are so dynamic and bold, so individual? This individuality is another area where Crews’s artistic achievement is clear: she chose her diverse subjects well to provide a broad, inclusive vision of girlhood—and, especially, of Black girlhood. The text never names race, but most girls appear Black (others join the initial trio in later pages) and have a range of skin colors, hair textures, and facial features. They fly, walk, swim, and dream in their particularity, and Crews thus works in the tradition of Black artists and scholars who’ve used photography to—in the words of Henry Louis Gates Jr.—“disarm a public that had grown used to encountering black stereotypes in every medium, at every turn.”

This line is from Gates’s Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow, in a chapter about W. E. B. Du Bois. I had just read this book and was listening to David W. Blight’s biography Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom when I first saw A Girl Like Me. A post at the Library of Congress “Frederick Douglass and the Power of Pictures” by Melissa Lindberg notes: "More than a half century after Douglass had his first portrait made in 1841, W. E. B. Du Bois, a great admirer of Douglass, similarly used photography for social effect when he compiled hundreds of images of well-dressed African American children, women and men for his ‘American Negro’ exhibit at the 1900 Paris Exposition. Like photographs of Douglass, these images revealed the individuality and humanity of each sitter, counteracting the notion of a single African American type."

Learning more about Du Bois's and Douglass’s use of photographic portraiture to challenge the racist, anti-Black media that proliferated in American society (and proliferates still) helped me appreciate how Crews’s photocollages achieve “appropriateness of style of illustration to the story, theme or concept.” If we read “style” as encompassing media, I’m struck by not just the appropriateness but the rightness of photocollage for this book’s theme.

[Read the Horn Book Magazine review of A Girl Like Me here]

Could another medium have been appropriate for Johnson’s text? Sure. But I’m convinced Johnson’s call for real girls to claim their power is rightly illustrated with photographs of real girls. Back-matter pages with headshots of each photographed girl, coupled with her own words about her dreams, reinforce that they are real children and make the message of empowerment they help deliver even more compelling and accessible. To paraphrase the quotation above, given that most depicted girls appear Black, these images reveal the individuality and humanity of the flying, walking, swimming, dreaming girls, counteracting the notion of a single African American girl type.

But their individuality doesn’t translate into isolation. When the initial trio leaves their dreamscapes, they meet on a sidewalk. Their expressions are conspiratorial, vivid, and open, as big, bold accompanying text reads “So… / Yesterday” and prompts the page turn. First, they encounter more girls, and some go to what the art depicts as Harlem’s Heaven hat shop to buy “a cape and more hats,” things first referenced in dreamscapes and now carried into a realistic setting. Notably, the girl whom Crews depicts as the shopper is the one from the trio whose dream did not feature these items, an artistic choice suggesting a transference of dreams between the girls. Likewise, the girl who dreamed of walking “over tall buildings / in flowing scarves and a cowgirl hat” isn’t among those who borrow scarves in a subsequent home setting.

The next spread depicts a veritable girl-power parade as a dozen girls walk past (rather than over) tall buildings. They progress toward the page-turn, which reveals the first of three culminating scenes at the ocean. Instead of swimming underwater as one dreaming girl did, the final spread shows them playing, dancing, posing, and smiling on the sand. Every girl is smiling. There’s palpable joy here, which underscores the notion that the girls haven’t abandoned their dreams by foregoing flying, walking over buildings, and swimming in the deep; they’ve instead made "everything / better than / the dream.” How? The art shows they did so by finding each other and sharing the best of their dreams, together in the real world.

With this remarkable picture book, Crews has shared the best of her artistry with us. It’d be a dream-come-true scenario, indeed, if the 2021 Caldecott committee were to recognize her achievement and not only award, for the first time, photocollage as a medium, but also make her the first Black woman ever to win the Caldecott Medal.

Megan Dowd Lambert
Megan Dowd Lambert

Megan Dowd Lambert is an instructor at Simmons University’s Center for the Study of Children’s Literature. For nearly ten years she also worked in the education department of the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art.

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Julie Danielson

Thanks for this deep dive, Megan. I'll remind Calling Caldecott readers that, back in 2017, Elisa Gall and Jonathan Hunt had a Calling Caldecott chat about photography as a medium: https://www.hbook.com/?detailStory=hell-hasnt-photography-won-caldecott. (I know Crews is working in a photocollage style, but still, I figured people may want to revisit that.)

Posted : Oct 05, 2020 02:25


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