Review of the Day: Her Right Foot by Dave Eggers
Consider your country, America. Consider what our teachers have been charged to do. Facing a future where the children of America are inadequate in the realm of nonfiction, our educators have been told to get them to read more factual fare. And slowly, not overnight but within just a few years, nonfiction trade publications for kids have become more and more interesting. The trickle down effect to children’s librarians (who love the literature but have only come into the briefest contact with terms like “expository nonfiction”) is that everyone is becoming more and more educated in the rules that regulate informational books these days. There may have once been a time when something like Her Right Foot by Dave Eggers was slotted into the fictional picture book section due to its tone alone, but those days are past. I am not blind to the irony that a fiction writer for adults is rocking the nonfiction book world for kids. But I am also not blind to the fact that nonfiction for kids these days has gotten awesome. Now we’ve seen nonfiction picture books research subjects completely ignored by adult titles (Day-Glo Brothers, for example) but this is one of the few times that I’ve seen a casual true-to-life observation with larger implications conveyed in a meaningful way to a young audience. Sincere, earnest, and genuine in its care, Her Right Foot stands far above other Statue of Liberty books, conveying something particularly important and necessary to the times in which we live.
There is a place called France (presumably where the naked ladies dance, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves) where once a present was made. A lady. A rather tall lady capable of being seen from far distances. From France, Edouard de Laboulaye and Frederic Auguste Bartholdi created, shipped, and sent Lady Liberty to American shores. Once brown, now green, she stands outside of New York City . . . or does she? As it turns out, the one thing the Statue of Liberty is not doing is merely standing. And if she’s moving, why? To whom? Who needs her most? Eggers spills all.
There is a kind of children’s book that makes me wary. It’s not the celebrity picture book. With very few exceptions those books are almost always ludicrously awful. Rather it’s the adult author that starts writing for children. I watch them cautiously with wary eye. Jane Smiley makes horsey books for 10-year-olds while Brad Meltzer reinvents the picture book biography with unique subjects. All well and good. Some folks knock it out of the park from the get-go, like Louise Erdrich and her Birchbark House tales. But Eggers made me edgy. Sure he founded 826NYC, a not-for-profit writing program that focuses on kids ages 6 to 18. That proves he cares about children. But he also wrote the adult novel version of Where the Wild Things Are called The Wild Things, which skews him sharply into the McSweeney’s hipster world of writing. He wrote a piece for Who Done It? but that was more YA than anything else. In short, there was no guarantee that Her Right Foot wouldn’t be precious, patronizing, or self-conscious to its core. That it isn’t is as much a credit to the subject matter as to its writer.
There is a predecessor to this book, of course. This Bridge Will Not Be Gray is very much a companion nonfiction picture book to Her Right Foot. It has a similar style, voice, size, and like the publisher of this book (Chronicle Books) was put out by a small arty press (McSweeney’s). That said, This Bridge faced criticism that Her Right Foot appears to have largely eschewed. Kirkus was particularly aggrieved, saying that Eggers is, “Striving for whimsy when he’s not being patronizing.” I should mention that other journals like Publisher’s Weekly and School Library Journal were far kinder in their critiques. To my mind, the two books differ the most in intent. This Bridge is, like Her Right Foot about a famous landmark. Or, as PW put it, it’s about the fact, “that situations and objects that appear unchangeable do, in fact, come from somewhere, and that adults can squabble even more foolishly than children.” Fine points but the whole reason folks go gaga for Her Right Foot is that it’s coming with the right message at the right time. Where This Bridge was given lukewarm praise like, “a labor of love” and “pleasing”, Her Right Foot is being called “indisputably timely”, “a must-purchase”, and “crucial and timely”. This time Kirkus is calling the book “heartfelt” and no one could really disagree.
In an interview Eggers conducted in conjunction with this book he explained its origins. Like most New Yorkers, Eggers made no effort to go to the standard tourist destinations when he actually lived in town. After moving away and returning for a visit, however, he went on a visit to the Statue of Liberty and was shocked when he discovered that she is posed mid-stride. Now we’ve seen a plethora of picture books for kids discussing immigration coming out in the past two to three years. These range from specific (My Beautiful Birds by Suzanne Del Rizzo) to esoteric and vague (The Journey by Francesca Sanna) but very few successfully reinforce for young readers the fact that immigrants are essential to the health of this great nation. Nimbly Eggers loops old-time Italian, Polish, Norwegian, and Glaswegian immigrants to more contemporary Cambodian, Estonian, Somalian, Nepalian, Syrian, and Liberian immigrants. Then he punches you squarely in the gut with the lines, “It never ends. It cannot end.” I don’t really consider myself a particularly patriotic individual normally, but this is where I tear up. This conversational style that Eggers has perfected feels less teacher to student and more like a really good friend telling you about this amazing thing he discovered on vacation. In this life you get people, children even, to remember things by weaving a story. If this book is capable of reminding even a small percentage of its readers that people are people are people, it will have done its job tenfold.
Of course some adults don’t care for the tone. I’ve encountered this already. They find Eggers’ conversational manner to be akin to an intrusive and unwanted narrator. I’ve heard his writing style compared to that of Lemony Snicket, which is just rather odd when you think about it. I understand their points. Eggers seems incapable of resisting the urge to include at least one Nico reference in his picture book (we would have also accepted Neko Case). But what I don’t think these adults have done, and this is key, is read this book aloud. Preferably to children. Preferably to willing children. As someone who had to read aloud many picture books to many children in my capacity as a children’s librarian, I learned real fast that some books are destined to be readaloud classics, while others slot far more neatly into the one-on-one slot. And while reading Her Right Foot in my head sounded one way, reading it out loud to my children was an entirely different experience. So much so that the bloody book now makes me choke up when I read it. Almost every time. And far from sounding like it’s coming from some smug adult writer’s Sholes and Glidden (a criticism This Bridge Will Not Be Gray faced repeatedly) there’s an honesty to the writing. I don’t doubt for a minute that the author believes what he says. Also, I don’t doubt for a minute that the author believes that what he says is important.
In all this talk about voice and narrative nonfiction and big green ladies walking into the sea it’s odd that it has taken me this long to commend the artistry of Shawn Harris. He’s a debut picture book illustrator, with loads of record and poster art to his name. I’m not sure who the art director at Chronicle was for this book but fair play to them. Looking at this title there is no way I would have thought this was Harris’s first. The design, layout, and general sense of humor smack of an old hand in the biz. Apparently the whole lot of them were constructed in construction paper and India ink. That’s it. Now I don’t think anyone’s necessarily going to reach for this book because of the art. It does a good job in keeping the focus squarely on what Eggers is saying, but is by no means a primary draw.
And yes. I’ll admit it. When I think of the Statue of Liberty walking I think of Ghostbusters 2. If you lived in during the 80s and 90s and claim you don’t think of that as well then I’m not sure we can be friends anymore. Of course, now I’ll have something else in my brain, battling for domination, whenever I think of Lady Liberty on the move. Heck, I haven’t even properly addressed the fact that the “Further Reading” section isn’t just the same rote Statue of Liberty titles, but books like We Came to America by Faith Ringgold, Grandfather’s Journey by Allen Say, Iggy Peck, Architect by Andrea Beaty (that one’s a bit of a stretch) and more! Even the endpapers, subtle though they may be, are carefully crafted. Every element of this book feels intentional. But more than that the book is actually really interesting to kids. They like the voice of the narration. They like the mystery element to the statue’s foot. And quite frankly they like knowing that they live in a country where there’s this gigantic symbol of freedom, beckoning immigrants 24/7. We live in times where people doubt our leaders’ abilities to live up to Liberty’s promise. At least we have her there. Always on the move. Always ready to do more.
On shelves now.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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