of the Center for Children's Books:
Each month we offer a focus on a particular author or artist. Sometimes we use this space to discuss a rising new talent or an established star, but we also like to celebrate those who now live on only in the rich legacy of their books. See the archive for focus pieces from previous months.
True Blue - Michelle Edwards
Gryphon Award-winning author/illustrator Michelle Edwards has a subtle and dexterous hand with character, building memorable protagonists through a blend of understated prose and accessible, often fanciful illustrations. What's even more remarkable is Edwards' ability to create those protagonists in compact spaces, resulting in easy-reader and picture-book characters with depth and dimension. With additional boosts from pithy, emotionally resonant dialogue and evocative illustrations, she establishes memorable characters in situations ranging from Israeli kibbutzim to American classrooms.
Edwards' picture books feature reassuringly familiar yet complex characters like Chicken Man, a kibbutz dweller who has a fair gift with fowl, but whose rotating job schedule means he must eventually leave his brood of chickens. Chicken Man's familiar, folkloric textual rhythm finds a punchy partner in visuals spiked with the title character's startling visage, including a shock of red hair and beaky nose that give him an added sheen of realism and specificity, as well as suggesting his kinship with chickens. Michelen of A Baker's Portrait paints 'em like she sees 'em, even if her subjects are fat, warty, or cross-eyed, until her latest subjects, a pair of corpulent bakers, share their secret terms of endearment-chocolate cake and challah-and Michelen decides to paint the couple as baked goods. "It is really us!" they exclaim. Finally, in Eve and Smithy, elderly neighbors share a touching and symbiotic relationship-Smithy dispenses helpful gardening tips, and Eve always thanks him with a painting. The understated warmth between these neighbors is conveyed through their kind, crinkly eyes when they share a smile; meanwhile, the green vines that wend their way through the tale suggest intertwined lives and an intricate economy of give and take.
In her early chapter book series, Jackson Friends (which currently comprises Pa Lia's First Day, Zero Grandparents, The Talent Show, and Stinky Stern Forever), Edwards shifts her attention to youthful protagonists. An unlikely trio of friends who meet in their second grade class at Jackson Magnet School form tight bonds with one another while pursuing their individual passions. Sturdy, accessible prose is complemented by pen and ink, ink wash, and white paint illustrations conveying distinct and quirky faces and bodies-Howie (short for "Howardina") is appealingly round "like a soft, cuddly teddy bear," lanky Pa Lia has warm, thoughtful eyes behind her spectacles, and Calliope's freckled face and gap-toothed grin suggest her outgoing, friendly demeanor. Borders and backgrounds echo the repetitive and reassuring rhythms of school, while revealing the internal musing and passions of the protagonists: Pa Lia fantasizes about making new friends alongside curlicues, butterflies, and flowers, while the imaginings of the more pragmatic, mathematically inclined Calliope tend toward interlocking shapes and repeated geometric patterns, and Howie's fantasies for talent show glory are literally star-studded.
Though Pa Lia, Calliope, and Howie are the focus of the Jackson Friends series, "enemy of the second grade" Stinky Stern is always there, like a pesky mosquito buzzing around the tight cocoon of friendship the girls build. His death in Stinky Stern Forever brings the series to an unusual crossroads, raising the issue of how to grieve the loss of a disliked classmate. A moving classroom session of shared memories about Stinky includes the pleasure he took in his pet hedgehog and the humor he never failed to find in toilets, as well as an unflinching look Stinky's propensity for cruelty. Nevertheless, the loss of Stinky is a profound one; by the end of the sharing session, Pa Lia is finally able to speak of Stinky's death, vows always to remember him, and lays her fold-and-cut snowflake on his desk. The rest of the class follows suit, repeating "Stinky Stern forever." This movement from isolated sorrow to shared memory is reinforced through Pa Lia's doodlings, drawn during the classroom sharing session, and transformed in the final chapter, as one snowflake becomes a shower of snowflakes laid gently on Stinky's desk.
It is perhaps not surprising that an author/illustrator so skilled at creating memorable characters can elicit, in the loss of an unlikable one, such a powerful mix of grief, anger, and hope. Edwards builds characters so stealthily, we almost don't realize they've come to life until the final page has turned and the cover is closed. Once conjured, however, Edwards' vivid, three-dimensional characters live on in memory even after the story is over-much like Stinky Stern lives on in the memory of his classmates.
óLoretta M. Gaffney, Reviewer
A Baker's Portrait.. Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1991. (BCCB 2/92)
Chicken Man. Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1991. (BCCB 5/91)
Eve and Smithy. Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1994.
Pa Lia's First Day. Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1999.
Stinky Stern Forever. Harcourt, 2005. (BCCB 5/04)
The Talent Show. Harcourt, 2002.
Zero Grandparents. Harcourt, 2001. (BCCB 7/05)