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I fully believe there's such a thing as a literary Zeitgeist. How else to explain why certain topics, although old, are suddenly hot, as with the recent spate of Jane Austen movies and new covers, or two novels about teens with incurable leukemia out at the same time or this year's surge of Helen Keller books or (today's topic) the release of two spectacular picture books about the Statue of Liberty?

On May 13th, Candlewick Press released the stunning Lady Liberty: A Biography by Doreen Rappaport, illustrated by Matt Tavares. The title is no misnomer: this picture book tells the life history of the Statute of Liberty. And yet, it could as well be called "Lady Liberty: A Book of Biographies" for it tells the story of Lady Liberty by means of short, biographical portraits of (or more accurately, attributed to) various people involved in the twenty-one year process of building her, ending with some recorded impressions of immigrants' feelings on first seeing the Lady in the harbor. Each two-page spread features a 4-7/8" wide strip, in which the text is housed, and a single outstanding painting by Matt Tavares.



The book is beautifully rendered, tracing Liberty from her days as the notion of Edouard de Laboulaye in 1865, through Auguste Barholdi's initial rendering of her all the way through to her grand unveiling in 1886. Here she is, with Bartholdi gazing out of the observation deck in her crown, ready to loose the French flag draped across her face:



The artwork in this book is spectacular and evocative. The prose is spare and simple, telling the story of the many people involved in her creation and of the manner in which funds were raised in order to construct her through first-person accounts of those who thought her up and sculpted her, to Joseph Pulitzer, who used the press to call for funds, to Emma Lazarus, who wrote "The New Colossus", the poem associated with Lady Liberty, to a little girl in New Jersey willing to send her pet roosters in order to raise funds for the statue, to José Marti, a journalist and poet, celebrating the notion of liberty on the day of the unveiling after having been deported from Cuba.

Given that the book profiles ten different people, two of them (F. August Bartholdi and Joseph Pulitzer) twice, with two sections attributed to the author, Doreen Rappaport, I found the decision to omit a table of contents and provide page numbers puzzling, as regular readers will recall was my beef with one of my favorite nonfiction titles of the year (so far), We Are the Ship by Kadir Nelson and with one of my favorite poetry collections from last year, Animal Poems by Valerie Worth, illustrated by Steven Jenkins, which should have had a table of contents and page numbers. (Laurie Halse Anderson's recent release, Independent Dames, didn't have one up front, but included an alphabetized list of the women profiled at the end of te book, with page numbers for each mention of any particular "dame" for ease of reference.) But I digress.

Rappaport's profiles of the many people involved in bringing the statue to "life" are written in spare prose, lending a poetic feel to the text. (The publisher calls it "poetic vignettes", but it doesn't quite rise to the level of actual poetry. Nevertheless, her words work well to invoke the events and emotions attached to the creation of the statue called only "Liberty" throughout the book (although the timeline at the end notes its full name in English, Liberty Enlightening the World.) Following the conclusion of the text, the book includes a page providing dimensions and weights for various elements of the statue and her base, a timeline of important events, author's and illustrator's notes, and a bibliography that details some of Rappaport's sources, and suggests further reading suitable for children.


Tavares's illustrator's note is exceptional, and in it he succinctly captures what the book is about and shares some of his grandfather's history as well. In addition, he puts the creation of the statue in its proper historical context:

This story is told from several different points of view, and the characters all share a common bond: to them, liberty was not some abstract concept. American had just made it through the Civil War. Slavery had just recently been abolished. France was ruled by an emperor. They knew what it was like to live without liberty. To them, liberty was very real, and it was something worth fighting for and something worth celebrating.


Naming Liberty by Jane Yolen, illustrated by Jim Burke, was to have come out on May 29th from Philomel Books, but as I was putting the final touches on the post (having written the entire blasted thing!), I checked Jane's blog and learned that due to a printing error, it won't be available until July. Le sigh. The F&G version that I read had no problem at all; ah well.

As in Lady Liberty, the book is told through the use of two-page spreads; however, in this case each two-page spread includes 4-1/2" of white space at the outside of each page (in which the texts are typed), and two paintings toward the center of the page. Oh - you caught my use of the word "texts", did you? Let me 'splain:


Yolen has chosen to tell two ultimately-interwoven stories about Liberty in this book. Three, in a way, but only because one story contains two Liberty-related threads.

On the one hand

On the left-hand side of head two-page spread is the story of an immigrant family coming to America. The narrator for this portion of the story is Gitl, and young Jewish girl from a shtetl, most likely in Ukraine (since Kiev is specifically mentioned along the way, and they are eager to escape the pogroms that have come to (or near) their village, and based on information in the author's note at the end of the book). Gitl's brother Shmuel is the first sent to America, where he establishes a residence and works to earn money to send to his family. His letters tell them that he has selected an American name, and is now called "Sammy". Gitl details their plans and their journey, which is marked with horrible travel conditions throughout. Along the way, Gitl tries to select an American name for herself. This portion of the story tells two tales: her family's journey into the land of Liberty, and Gitl's search for her own American name.

On the other hand

On the right-hand side of each two-page spread is the story of the Statue of Liberty from the perspective of Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, told in third person. Each page bears a place and a date. The story tells Bartholdi's biography, including an account of his several journeys to and from (and across!) America, and providing more in-depth detail about the meaning or significance of the elements of the statue, like that the face is the face of Bartholdi's mother. And what the rays on the points symbolize. Or how many train cars were required to carry Liberty from Paris to Rouen prior to shipping her across the Atlantic. Another key point made clearly in Naming Liberty, and fudged over a bit in Lady Liberty, is how much money and labor the people of France contributed in order to create the statue and send her to the U.S. (The Rappaport book focuses more on American funding, whereas the Yolen book emphasizes the multinational fundraising efforts.)

Now, I could see as how trying to read both stories at once might be confusing to some readers. You're asking them to hold two separate narratives in their head, and that is at least one story too many for a lot of readers (and not just young readers either). But the illustrations clearly show both stories (and, in one case, there's a two-part illustration showing both stories combined). And Burke's illustrations are evocative, full of sepia tones and folk-art influences.

At the back of Naming Liberty is a two-page author's note entitled "What is true about this book", capped with a facsimile signature from Jane Yolen. Within the note, Yolen reveals some of her family history (some of which was borrowed for the pages on the left-hand side of the book). Also within the note is a list of books detailing the immigrant journey and about Lady Liberty, additional information about M. Bartholdi, and additional factual information about the Statue of Liberty, including a reference to Emma Lazarus's poem on the statue's base.


And now, for a very difficult call. Both of these are highly recommended for libraries and for readers interested in Americana, American history, and New York City. But if I could only pick one, I'd be hard-pressed to make a decision. Not to channel Tevye (again), but on the one hand, the art by Matthew Tavares is breathtakingly stunning, so I tend to favor that book. On the other hand, Yolen's book tells a straight-line narrative of Bartholdi's efforts to create the statue, including conception, meaning and fundraising that is easier to follow than Rappaport's multi-viewpoint narrative, which the reader must aggregate on their own. On the one hand, Rappaport tells only one nonfiction story, although utilizing ten different narrators to do so – one story is probably easier for young readers to follow than two; on the other, Yolen tells us two separate stories — one nonfiction, and one historical fiction — but she better incorporates the immigrant experience within her book; and that immigrant story happens to work on multiple levels as well, making it a rich story indeed. On the one hand, Rappaport's book has better reference materials at the back (height and weight of the statue and her base, length of fingers, etc., plus a timeline and cleanly written bibliography). On the other hand, Yolen's book explains the timeline better within the text, and also explains the symbolism of various elements of the statue much better. On the one hand, both books have much to commend them. On the other hand . . . WAIT! There is no other hand!

No, Chaveleh, you really should look at them both. And then decide for yourself.

Stops on the Summer Blog Blast Tour for Wednesday:

Delia Sherman at Chasing Ray
Ingrid Law at Fuse #8
Polly Dunbar at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast
Tera Lynn Childs at Bildungsroman
Siena Cherson Siegel at Miss Erin
Barry Lyga at A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

Here Thursday for the SBBT: Charles R. Smith, Jr.




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Comments

( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
ex_kmessner
May. 21st, 2008 02:51 am (UTC)
Thanks for the great reviews, Kelly - I'm a sucker for the Statue of Liberty (It's that whole "huddled masses yearning to breathe free" bit that gets me every time...) and I think I need both of these.
kellyrfineman
May. 21st, 2008 03:03 am (UTC)
I am certain that you are correct. I really can't pick just one "winner" here.
ex_lgburns
May. 21st, 2008 05:49 am (UTC)
How many fabulous posts can you muster in one week, darling? Thanks for these reviews; I've added both books to my Must Read list ...

kellyrfineman
May. 21st, 2008 05:36 pm (UTC)
I'm not sure they'll all be fabulous, but I hope for at least two more, since I have interviews here tomorrow and Friday!
jeannineatkins
May. 21st, 2008 12:33 pm (UTC)
They do both look like fabulous books from your description.
And, after all, we do have two hands.
kellyrfineman
May. 21st, 2008 05:37 pm (UTC)
I only wish I could've found an interior spread from Naming Liberty so you could've seen a bit more of it. It's really well layed-out (but then, they both were: excellent book design all 'round, apart from the lack of a TOC and page numbers in Lady Liberty. And that's just my own pet peeve, probably.)
jmprince
May. 21st, 2008 05:23 pm (UTC)
Most awesome reviews!
kellyrfineman
May. 21st, 2008 05:38 pm (UTC)
It's easy to write a good review when you like the books and the books merit them!
(Deleted comment)
kellyrfineman
May. 22nd, 2008 01:41 am (UTC)
I was being Tevyeh. And yeah, synergy works too. But boy do I love the word Zeitgeist, as representing the spirit of the age. But in Dutch, it means "the mind of the time", which pretty much is what I was thinking about.
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )

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