October 2011
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A Peek Into Kadir Nelson's Heart and Soul

By Jules

(Click to enlarge and see in detail)

What can I add to the discussion about this already much-lauded book, Kadir Nelson's Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans (Balzer + Bray, September 2011)?

The book takes on nothing less than African American history from the founding of America to Barack Obama's Democratic nomination for President. Actually, I didn't have enough coffee before breakfast today and I take that back: Nelson, as noted in the book's closing timeline, goes back in the first chapter ("Declarations of Independence") to 1565 when Africans first arrived in North America as slaves of Spanish colonists. An elderly African American female serves as the book's narrator--"You have to know where you come from so you can move forward...it's important that you pay attention, honey, because I'm only going to tell you this story but once"--and she takes us back to when her own grandfather, Joseph ("Pap"), was captured in Africa in the year 1850 at the age of six and brought to America.

President George Washington and slave, Mount Vernon, Virginia
(Click to enlarge and see in detail)

Mostly told in an intimate and conversational colloquial tone ("[The colonists] talked about not wanting to be slaves to the king. Slaves? Chile, what in the world could they ever know about that?"), the book lays out with honesty and drama the history of African Americans in a prologue, twelve chapters, and an epilogue. Laced with Nelson's detailed portraits in oil, rich with emotion, of both nameless and well-known Americans and African Americans--some as glorious double-page spreads--it is a breathtaking achievement. As in, get this book pronto into the classrooms of all primary and secondary educational settings, since these are precisely the portions of American history that don't often get told in your average textbook.

As I read it, I felt at times as if the very authentic and vigorous voice of the narrator dropped away a bit, making some portions of the book read slightly dry (once you hear her voice, you don't want her to disappear), but this is a minor objection. What we have on our hands here is nothing less than a stunner, a visual tour de force and a powerful narrative that tells the stories of discrimination, sadness, and triumph that make up the history of African Americans.

Given that I'm a review nerd and like to quote them a lot here at 7-Imp anyway, let's take a look at what the professional reviewers have had to say about this title thus far:

       •Kirkus (starred review)--"Ambitious" with "bold and arresting" illustrations, both intimate and dramatic.
        Publishers Weekly--Graceful: "In jaw-dropping portraits that radiate determination and strength, Nelson paints heroes like Frederick Douglass and Joe Louis, conferring equal dignity on the slaves, workers, soldiers, and students who made up the backbone of the African-American community. The images convey strength and integrity...."
        •Booklist (starred review)--"Handsome...."
        •School Library Journal--" Provocative and powerful": "Nelson's oil portraits and tableaux consistently display technical virtuosity, drama, and dignity.... [He] varies the viewpoint and contrasts light and darkness to tell a riveting tale."

Kadir received the Silver Medal from the Society of Illustrators for the 2011 Original Art award for this title, and many a time has the word "Caldecott" been muttered when this book has been mentioned.

Magnificent. Powerful. Simply don't miss it.

Slave ship
              (Click to enlarge and see in detail)

To see more spreads and hear Kadir talk about his process and research:


HEART AND SOUL: THE STORY OF AMERICA AND AFRICAN AMERICANS. Copyright (c) 2011 by Kadir Nelson. Published by Balzer + Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins, New York. Images used with permission of publisher.

julesThis and many more of Jules’s adventures in books, kids’ lit and illustration can be found at the Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast blog. Visit often. You will be rewarded for doing so.

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