Review of the Day: Undefeated by Kwame Alexander, ill. Kadir Nelson
Kids learn American history through a process of osmosis, long before they’re taught the basics in elementary school. They pick up bits and pieces of it in a million different places, but never in any kind of a linear fashion. Thanks goodness WWI and WWII were consecutive, since otherwise my children would have no idea which happened when. Of course, when it comes to the history of race in America, the disjointed nature of what children learn is complicated incredibly by any number of factors. It is far from uncommon to have kids learn the name “Martin Luther King Jr.” long before they’re taught a word about systematic racism and oppression. What that means on the children’s book publishing side is complicated. For mainstream publishers, there’s no real obligation to lay down history in any kind of a systematic way for young readers. The result then is that you’ll get a lot of collective biographies or picture books about a specific moment in time. But there’s another way of tackling it, and that way is laid out in Kwame Alexander and Kadir Nelson’s, The Undefeated. Here, the past is presented in service of placing young readers in the context of history. If there are heroes on display here, it is so that they provide a framework for what today’s kids will accomplish tomorrow. By its very nature, a project like this could tip easily into pablum, boredom, or adult-centric meaningfulness. Instead, it’s amazing. Just that. Amazing.
Black words on white backgrounds. On the first page, a tribute. “This is for the unforgettable. The swift and sweet ones who hurdled history and opened a world of possible.” On the opposite page, Jesse Owens isn’t looking at us. He’s mid-leap, arms stretched, body suspended in the air, already moving out of the frame. The next page scales back. The people that squint in the bright sunlight are also framed against the white background, like they’re posing for a family portrait. They’re looking right at you and from their clothes you know they’re from the past. Even the baby doesn’t blink. The words read, “The ones who survived America by any means necessary.” And from here you need to put aside what you think this book is going to do. It couples the regular people with the superstars. The inspirational figures are on display, but so are people that survived without history remembering their names. There are moments that acknowledge slavery, bombings, police brutality, but after those moments are the people who fought and fight against those systems. The last page is of Black kids today. “This is for the undefeated. This is for you. And you. And you. This is for us.”
A librarian is, by its very nature, a resource for finding information. As such, a good librarian attempts to have at least a working knowledge on a variety of different subjects. Now I run a children’s book list committee out of my library. Each year we choose 101 great books for kids published that year, and every year I struggle to find enough sports books to fill the list. I don’t follow sports much myself but I know there are loads of kids that read and enjoy sports, so I try to find them great books. Now when I discovered this book I was perfectly willing to accept the explanation that it was just a poem that Mr. Alexander had wrote in 2008 for his second daughter and President Obama. But in the back of the book the Editor in Chief of ESPN’s website The Undefeated (“the premier platform for exploring the intersections of race, sports and culture”) writes, “We are proud that this poem has now become a book bearing our name.” And, indeed, on their site you can find a video of Kwame Alexander reading the sports sections of this poem. It’s a little tricky to piece together, but I think what we have here is a case where Kwame wrote the poem, the poem was given a title and recorded for ESPN, and then expanded and turned into a book for Kwame’s new HMH imprint Versify. An intersection of history and Black pride and poetry and sports all coming together at once. And like a poem, this book started in a million different places at once.
I think there is a mistaken belief in some circles that adapting a poem to a picture book is a simple matter of figuring out where the page breaks go. I suppose that would be true of a bad book, but if you want your material to carry any weight then you have to consider a million little details. For example, one choice the book makes early on is to present its subjects without naming them. When you read this book, the words pair with the images and even if you don’t have the ability to name the people on these pages, they’re still interesting to you. If the verses retain your interest, the art solidifies it. The names of the famous people are systematically listed in a section called “Historical Figures and Events Featured in The Undefeated” in the backmatter, and I couldn’t help but feel happy that that was where this information was kept. If this information had been worked into the art it would have left everything feeling cluttered. Even if it were just the names of the subjects, it would have distracted.
If you wanted to present this poem simply as a poem it would stand strong. But if you want it to be a picture book then you need just the right artist. Now, as a general rule, Kadir Nelson doesn’t slot neatly into a nice little box like other illustrators of children’s books. He’s an Illustrator with a capital “I” firmly in place and an Artist with an even more prominent capital “A”. Years ago when he wrote and illustrated his ode to the Negro Leagues in We Are the Ship I just figured the fact that he was a marvelous writer on top of being one of the best living artists of our times was a bit on the unfair side. Why should one man have that much talent? But Nelson hasn’t ever been just a children’s book illustrator. He’s a portrait artist one day, a New Yorker cover artist another, and a painter first and foremost. The last time he illustrated a book for kids it was the art for Sarvinder Naberhaus’s Blue Sky, White Stars, two years ago. It was a fine book but didn’t really tap into what makes a Nelson a Nelson. With this book, Kwame has managed to stir something deep and abiding in Kadir Nelson’s paintbrush. You’re not just feeling his talent with this book. You get the distinct impression that this project means something to him.
If Nelson has a cinematic equivalent, it is director Barry Jenkins. Jenkins has a technique he likes to use in his films of focusing the camera squarely on the face of a character, allowing them to look you, the audience, dead in the eye. It was shocking when he first did it with Moonlight and still arresting in If Beale Street Could Talk. But Mr. Jenkins didn’t invent the method and, quite frankly, sometimes it can feel like he’s treading in the shadow of Kadir Nelson. Subjects staring at the viewer dead on without shame or blinking or turning away? The man practically built his books We Are the Ship and Heart and Soul on the method. Then there is the fact that Nelson is unafraid of dark skin. We could get into a BIG discussion about race, skin color, and how those colors are represented on the pages of children’s picture books, but that’s a talk for another day. It is enough to simply say that when Kadir Nelson paints skin, he embraces the deep shifting tones. And, once again, like Barry Jenkins, he knows how to present his subjects. A Kadir Nelson book feels like a work of cinema or photography in that it indulges in a fascination with light and shadow.
So how do you use this book? Where does this book go once it has been sold? A bunch of ideas come to mind. As I mentioned before, the art and the text make it sufficiently fascinating for a one-on-one lapsit read. I can imagine a kid pointing to the different faces asking who they are, while the parent answers and gives context. How about reading it to large groups? The nice thing about reading a book written by a poet aloud is that you’re in safe hands when it comes to group settings. Not only will these images be visible from a distance, but the words will ring strong and true. What if you’re a teacher? Well, after doing an initial read to a class (I am very opposed to picking this book apart before you do this initial read, since you must allow the kids to experience the book as it was meant to be experienced) you could show the pictures and identify the people in them. Or you could separate out the different sections (art, history, sports, musicians, etc.) and explain why each person shown was important. Oh! How about examining the language? Let’s look at all the “un” words. Unforgettable, undeniable, unflappable, unafraid, unspeakable, unlimited, unbelievable. Think of what each one means and how he’s used it here. And if you’re truly creative you could do more, a lot more, with this book. Because if I’ve learned anything from teachers over the years it’s that if they’re passionate about a book, they’ll find a way to teach it in class. The trick is finding a book worthy of that enthusiasm. This book? Check and mate.
If you are a librarian or a bookseller, this is not the first book you’ve seen offering praise to Black heroes of the past. It’s just one of the best. Much of this has to do with the pitfalls it has adroitly avoided. This is not a rote accounting of names that mean little to child readers. If these people grace these pages it is because there is a larger meaning to their inclusion. Of course, I think the selection of Kadir Nelson was necessary to this book’s publication. When that man illustrates someone he makes them beautiful. What’s fascinating is that this beauty is produced as a kind of inner glow, as if the subject’s soul is radiating out of their very skin. Kwame says that when he wrote this poem for his daughter (and, in a way, for President Obama) he did so to remind everyone to never give up. Kwame Alexander’s words are grand. Kadir Nelson’s art soars. But when you put those two things together, and they work in tandem, they bring out the best in one another. Unrelenting, undeniable, unavoidable. Fail to read this book at your peril. I hope it is only the beginning.
On shelves April 2nd.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
There is a note on the publication page of this book that reads, “This poem is an ode, as Kwame writes, to ‘the doers and the dreamers.’ Those who beat odds, stared down fear, made this nation better. We are proud that this poem has now become a book bearing our name, The Undefeated. To our children, and to others who have faced setbacks and disappointment, we say: Keep rising!” It is signed by Kevin Merida, Editor in Chief of ESPN’s TheUndefeated.com. So I checked out the website and lo and behold found this video. Enjoy:
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