Retro Review: “We’re Still Listening, Nathaniel”
Eloise Greenfield’s THE GREAT MIGRATION: JOURNEY TO THE NORTH is recognized as a Coretta Scott King honor title. The illustrator of this book is Jan Spivey Gilchrist. The author is honored with this particular award, but the illustrations are so much a part of what makes this book special that the words and images become a sort of symbiotic relationship.
With first-person poems offered by multiple narrators and mood-setting illustrations, Greenfield and Gilchrist set the scene and provide a snapshot of resolve for each sojourner during the “great migration” of the early 20th century that saw nearly 1.6 million African Americans making their way from the south to the north in an effort to get away from the increasing violence in the southern states. Eventually, this number would grow to 6 million as historians recognize the “great migration” lasting up through the 1940s and 1970s.
The poems and pictures in this book speak to the experience of many through the voices of a few. This is the power of the poem. Good verse gets inside the reader’s mind and stays there, lines lingering long after setting the book back down.
The Greenfield and Gilchrist combination is not some new mash-up like we see in popular music. In order to capture the gift that is the Greenfield/Gilchrist combination, we go all the way back to. . .
NATHANIEL TALKING wins the Coretta Scott King Award. Eloise Greenfield is the author/poet. The illustrator—Jan Spivey Gilchrist.
Twenty-two years before THE GREAT MIGRATION: JOURNEY TO THE NORTH would win the Coretta Scott King Award—on the 22nd no less—this book would set to solidify a long-standing relationship between author and illustrator that would work together to create no fewer than eighteen books together in a relationship beginning in the late eighties to the most current title released in 2011. The Coretta Scott King Award for NATHANIEL TALKING was given for the illustrations.
In this long-standing relationship between two highly-talented ladies (Greenfield was the 1997 NCTE Excellence in Poetry for Young Children award recipient), both have now been recognized for their contributions as writer and illustrator as individuals and as a partnership.
I’d like to share NATHANIEL TALKING with The Nerdy Book Club this week. The book is out of print now, but used copies are available. I actually found my beautiful hardcover copy of this book at the local Friends of the Library Sale. Set in an urban neighborhood, one might assume that Nathaniel is a generation or two removed from the “great migration.” And now that he is here, he has some things to share with the reader about his life.
Nine-year-old Nathaniel peers out from the cover of the book with a sense of plucky confidence that comes of youth. With his red hoody and blue and gold baseball cap, he seems to be looking his shoulder inviting the reader, “Oh, you want to know my story? Come on then. . .”
Like a contemporary troubadour, Nathaniel uses the forms at his disposal, rap, the blues, free verse, and elegy to weave a story that must be heard. “Nathaniel’s Rap” and reprise of this rap bookend this collection of poems that follow our young hero:
I can rap Rested, dressed and feeling fine I’ve got something on my mind Friends and kin and neighborhood Listen now and listen good Nathaniel’s talking Nathaniel B. Free Talking about My philosophy
Nathaniel muses about who he will be at ninety-nine years of age, with a piece called “Knowledge” where he senses he will know “almost/everything about everything.”
And this is lot to look forward to when his current situation compels Nathaniel to share two poignant pieces about his dead mother. In “Missing Mama” we get a sense of from where some of Nathaniel’s artificial assuredness may be coming:
my uncle he said you going to get past you going to push on past this pain and one of these days you going to feel like yourself again
Gilchrist’s black and white drawings appear throughout a book that comes with a full color cover. The juxtaposition of images and words are readily seen in a world that is seeming painted black and white. Messages of “be good,” and “you’ll get over this” guide this child through familiar issues of childhood that are really shades of gray, which Gilchrist quietly builds into each page.
The full-spread illustration that accompanies “My Daddy,” a blues-inspired piece give the reader a sense of Nathaniel’s anchor in his world:
he sings “’Thaniel, ‘Thaniel, ‘Thaniel boy I love you deed I do” he signs “’Thaniel, ‘Thaniel, ‘Thaniel boy I love you deed I do well you’re a mighty fine fella and song I’m proud of you
And because of an attentive and nurturing uncle, a knitting and knowing grandmother, a caring and affirming father, we get to see Nathaniel, a young boy that could be any one of our students anywhere in any one of our learning communities, celebrate in one of the final pieces, “I See My Future”:
I see my future clear as I don’t know what not all of the things around me not furniture or houses or sidewalks and stuff I just see me my serious man face thinking my laughing man face my big Nathaniel me moving through the world doing good and unusual things.
1992. . .
2012. . .
A relationship born out of words and images, Greenfield and Gilchrist provide mentor texts for what it means to be young, what it means to be a part of a larger world, even when the landscapes and circumstances are beyond one’s control.
Greenfield and Gilchrist continue to produce works that encourage readers to know that one’s voice is big enough to fill the ambient space of another’s ear. To know that a line on a page becomes a horizon for character and reader alike.
To know that when you talk. . .someone’s listening.
Paul W. Hankins hangs around libraries and social media forums in the hopes that an author might be there already or show up soon. As a response to some higher calling, Paul teaches English 11 and AP English Language and Composition at Silver Creek High School in s. Indiana. You can follow him at Facebook and Twitter (search Paul W. Hankins). He does not have a regular blog as of yet. . .this blog alone took a lot out of him. In fact, you be best served–if you wanted to find him today–to look in the big green chair at Hankins Ranch. He’ll be the handsome man with a cool, wet cloth on his forehead.