Review of the Day: Blue by Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond, ill. Daniel Minter
Blue: A History of the Color As Deep As the Sea and As Wide As the Sky
Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond
Illustrated by Daniel Minter
Alfred A. Knopf (an imprint of Penguin Random House)
On shelves April 12th
Yeah. I’m just going to jump right into it.
Folks, let’s talk about decentering whiteness (bet you didn’t see that one coming). What does that look like? Okay, let’s just take a random example. Um… got it. So let’s say I had a nonfiction picture book in my hands and it was all about the human history of a single color. Now if this book were to come out in America, no one would bat an eye if most of the characters seen on the pages inside were white. I mean, that’s how most of the nonfiction picture books you find on your library and bookstore shelves look. Generally speaking, if a book is about Black history or advocacy or biography, then they have Black characters as the predominant race. But if you get away from that and talk about nature or science or math or art, then white becomes the default. And if you’re a white person like me, you don’t even notice. You don’t so much as bat an eye. Oh sure, there will be the occasional nod to other races, but whiteness is centered. Now pick up a copy of Blue by Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond, illustrated by Daniel Minter. Here we have a book about the science and complicated history behind this marvelous color. The writing is excellent, the art jaw-dropping, but it is the fact that the text and the art shift the focus from the typically all-white worlds of picture book nonfiction into something different, that really catches the eye and makes you start to think. Because maybe, just maybe, there’s a future out there where white doesn’t automatically become the default all the time. Blue is giving us a glimpse of just that and it’s teaching some other valuable lessons along the way.
When you find blue in nature, only rarely can you touch it. You can’t touch the sky, after all, and if you cup the sea in your hands, the water there isn’t blue. Yet throughout our history we’ve tried to capture the color for our own. Whether it was the Egyptians wearing lapis lazuli, dyers crushing snails to get a single drop or two, or the blue threads of a Jewish tekhelet, blue carries significance in its hue. So when indigo from India and West Africa started to be traded, it was linked to slavery. The cash crop led to misery in India, Bangladesh, and the United States. A chemical blue, discovered in 1905, helped make it universal. Yet when you think of someone being blue, or the music of the blues, is it any wonder that it’s had such a complex history? With deft wordplay and meticulous art “Blue” redefines the color we take all too often for granted.
What Brew-Hammond has to do in this book is so complicated. Essentially, her job here is to first do the standard move of providing history and context. She covers Egypt and the Phoenicians, Mexico and Liberia. Then, roughly halfway through the book, indigo makes its appearance and everything shifts. With indigo comes cheaper dyes. With cheaper dyes comes increased demand. And since we’re talking about the past, slavery appears and the story has to encompass that aspect. Here in America, slavery is so frequently linked to cotton that our kids could be forgiven for being surprised that another crop would cause the same levels of misery. A synthetic blue is eventually developed, but the book doesn’t just forget about the history that has dogged the color. There’s this elegant shift to “the blues”, and Minter cleverly presents a blues singer with indigo flowers woven into her hair and embroidered on her dress. And you could end it all there, but then blue becomes associated with good things again, blue ribbons and surprises that come “out of the blue”. It’s a marvelous melding, in both the art and the words, of the good and the bad together.
It was with great satisfaction that I watched as Daniel Minter won a 2020 Caldecott Honor for Going Down Home With Daddy. Though I’d read previous books of his (like So Tall Within) it was that book that stood out for me. But when I look at his work in Blue, the book it resembles most closely is definitely Minter’s The Women Who Caught the Babies, by Eloise Greenfield, which is another nonfiction picture book about midwives. Maybe it’s because of the prevalence of blue in both books, but I think it also has a lot to do with the ways in which Minter tackles nonfiction subject matter. This is a man unafraid to make facts pretty. His art always presents more than you’d find in the text. Some (many) nonfiction illustrators take the text at face value. If a page were about the blue found in the belly of a shellfish, they would draw the shellfish. When Minter does it, however, he breaks the page down into a range of different parts. In the center he places a Phoenician statue of a dog with a snail in its mouth. To the sides are white outlines of people and wonderful reeds and birds and leaves. There’s only one spot of blue on the whole page, but your eye goes right to it. Minter stands out because when he accessorizes a scene, what he adds only embellishes. It never detracts or distracts. It’s a fine line that he walks like a friggin’ tightrope walker.
A couple years ago I remember listening to an episode of the podcast Radiolab named Why Isn’t the Sky Blue? It took a deep dive into the color, noting that in ancient texts like The Odyssey or The Illiad there are no mentions of the color blue. In the course of the show you learn that across all cultures, words for colors appear in stages. And blue? Blue always comes last. Maybe it has to do with the sheer difficulty of capturing it and stabilizing it. And while on the outset they haven’t much in common, there’s another 2022 picture book release that I wouldn’t mind pairing alongside Blue. Lindsay Ward’s Pink Is Not a Color doesn’t take as deep a dive into its shade as Blue does, but both books revel in upsetting expectations and upending the myths surrounding their colors. Tonally they couldn’t be more different, but it’s that very difference that might make them a good pairing together. For the enterprising art teacher it’s something to consider.
To understand why I think that this book has a chance to make a difference in this world, you need only look at how the book ends. The final line in the book sticks the landing and sticks it hard. It reads, “Maybe because blue has such a complicated history of pain, wealth, invention, and recovery, it’s become a symbol of possibility, as vast and deep as the bluest sea, and as wide open and high as the bluest sky.” So the book is acknowledging this complicated past, but ending on a note of hope for kids. Right now, we’re living in an age where certain people in this country are attempting to remove any books that touch on our country’s complicated past. Books like this one are the antidote to such simplistic thinking, in more ways than one. I can only hope and pray it gets into the hands of the kids out there that need its message. Which is to say, all of them.
On shelves April 12th.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
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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