Sunday, April 12, 2009

A Review of Mama Says: A Book of Love for Mothers and Sons by Rob D. Walker and Leo and Diane Dillon

The more poetic type of concept book has lost ground in recent years. At a recent SCBWI conference I attended, it was clear that editors were hungry for action-packed, TV-esque plotting in children’s books. I’ve also heard it from my own editors: “This is lovely, but it’s not commercial enough.”

A concept picture book is centered around an idea rather than a plot. Or plot may be hinted at, but only because the concept conveys a certain degree of chronology or simply because pages are being turned. Alphabet books and books about colors or opposites are well-known examples, but the best concept books may be less obviously educational: take a look at Charles G. Shaw’s dreamy cloud book, It Looked Like Spilled Milk; Laura Vaccaro Seeger’s First the Egg; and Margaret Wise Brown’s The Important Book, for instance.

So what does it take to get a concept book published these days? Well, in the case of Mama Says: A Book of Love for Mothers and Sons, it takes the grand lions of illustration and a message the world seems to be in need of. Rob D. Walker is a fairly new author, but I hope you’ve heard of the formidable husband-and-wife illustration team, Leo and Diane Dillon.

Memorable concept books read like poems, and Mama Says is no exception. Each spread shows a different mother teaching her son, with her words presented as an unpunctuated seven-line poem. The lines are brief, as you’ll see in my favorite stanza:

Mama says
Embrace the moon
And marvel at the sun
Mama says
To study stars
And make a wish on one
This is about as specific as it gets, which isn’t what you want to see in poetry. Most of the stanzas sound like proverbs or the types of pat advice parents give their children, e.g., “Mama says/To put my heart/In everything I do.” But saying this does the book a disservice because Mama Says works better as a whole than in parts. One of the strongest messages of the book is that we live in a global community. Each spread represents a mother and son from a different part of the world, and each stanza is also given in translation from the corresponding language: Cherokee, Russian, Amharic, Japanese, Hindi, Inuktitut, Hebrew, English, Korean, Arabic, Quechua, and Danish (key at the back of the book). I also noticed that some of the messages seemed particularly relevant to the culture being depicted, another thoughtful aspect of the book, e.g., inner peace relating to meditation practices in India.

If the “showing” is not given in the words, it is provided in the illustrations, done in the Dillons’ signature soft-edged style. The idea of “sharing” sounds pretty vague, but it becomes clear as a Russian boy gives a loaf of bread he and his mother have just baked to an elderly man. The Japanese boy who is told to be true and put his heart in everything he does is shown in a smaller left-hand illustration confessing to having broken a vase, then repairing the vase with his mother’s help in the larger illustration on the facing page.

Good poems tend to conclude with a bang, and the last line of this book, in conjunction with the illustration, gets it right. The ending ties everything together with uncommon grace.

While I’m presenting Mama Says right now partly so you can think about ordering it as a Mother’s Day gift, I did wonder about the role of fathers and wish for a book like this for them, too.

There is more than one reference to God in Mama Says, which some readers might not relate to, but then again, the references are presented as being culture-specific and furthermore seem appropriate in a book about teaching children values in different countries. The mercenary, splintered, and combative nature of the modern world is a source of worry to many parents. Whether you’re religious or not, I believe you’ll find inspiration in this beautifully made book, Mama Says: A Book of Love for Mothers and Sons.

Because of the importance of Leo and Diane Dillon in the picture book world, I want to add a brief note about their other books. They are best known for winning back-to-back Caldecott medals, in 1976 for Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears (author Verna Aardema) and in 1977 for Ashanti to Zulu: African Traditions (author Margaret Musgrove). They have won numerous other awards and created a lot of jacket art, along with many picture books. Recent books include Jazz on a Saturday Night (a Coretta Scott King Honor Book), Mother Goose Numbers on the Loose, The People Could Fly: The Picture Book (also a Coretta Scott King Honor Book), Earth Mother, and Whirlwind Is a Spirit Dancing. My personal favorites are out of print: two books by poet Nancy Willard—Pish, Posh Said Hieronymous Bosch and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice—and Wind Child by Shirley Rousseau Murphy.

But the most gorgeous book by the Dillons, which is still in print, is their rendition of To Every Thing There Is a Season, the famous verses from Ecclesiastes. A precursor to Mama Says in terms of both design and the theme of universal human truths, the book uses a different culture to represent each couplet, yet each spread is done in a different art style, from different periods of time (with a key at the back). If you don’t own this book, you should. It’s a real showpiece, one of my picture book treasures.

Note for Worried Parents: Mama Says includes one scene where a child’s dead male relative, presumably his father, is shown. The image is presented in the context of Hindu burial customs and is perfectly tender, but I realize some of you may shy away from the book for this reason.

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