Sky Painter: Louis Fuertes, Bird Artist

author: Margarita Engle  
illustrator: Aliona Bereghici 
Two Lions / Amazon Children’s Publishing, 2015
grades 1-3 
Puerto Rican

How many children know the name of Louis Agassiz Fuertes, whom Engle calls “the world’s greatest bird artist”—the New York-born Puerto Rican artist who painted birds in the wild and whose work helped encourage wildlife conservation all over the world? Now, because of Engle’s amazing picture biography in verse, more will.

Like John James Audubon, Fuertes had a talent for drawing and a particular interest in birds. But unlike his predecessor—who killed his “subjects” in order to pose them “naturally”—Fuertes taught himself how to paint living birds in flight, in their own habitats. As Engle writes in his voice, “I practice/ painting quickly, while wings/ swoop/ and race/ across/ wild/ blue/ sky,/ so swift,/ and so alive!”

Engle’s brilliant economy of words is matched only by her affection for her subjects. In a series of free-verse poems, she tells Fuertes’ story in the first person, so young children will identify with the boy whose passions and talents would not be reined in by his parents’ staid ambitions for him. Engle writes, “Papi scolds in Spanish, and Mama scolds/ in English; but they are both proud/ of my serious/ bird art.”

As a young man, Fuertes travels the world to observe and paint his beloved birds. In Alaska:

I whistle.
Birds answer.
I follow.
Blue shadows.
White snow.
Clear ice.
The beauty
of flight
like a dance
in the clouds,
a graceful ballet
of wild swans.

And as an adult—now an accomplished and famed artist—he invites neighborhood children, who call him “the Bird Man,” into his studio, where he regales them with stories of his travels and invites them to draw “their own funny/ wild/ silly/ strange/ beautiful/ birds.”

Bereghici’s lovely illustrations, rendered in watercolor and ink on a palette of bright natural colors with lots of white space, both highlight the details of Fuertes’s wild bird paintings and leave room for the birds’ common names, each penned on its own ribbon banner.

Young readers will be enticed by other illustrations as well, such as a wild crow on the windowsill, holding young Louis’s paintbrush. Or a not-so-bemused Eastern Screech Owl chick, loosely tied to a table leg, “posing” for Louis. Or Louis’ having bandaged the wing of an injured bird, while a cat, aghast at a missed opportunity, looks on.

Throughout, Bereghici’s illustrations complement Engle’s story of a boy, then a young man, then an adult, always with an expression of wonder at what he’s been given to do. I especially like the scene of Fuertes’s children, with that same wondrous look on their faces, as their father paints a portrait of a captive loon who’s been given temporary residence in the family bathtub. After all, how many children get to host a wild loon? In the bathtub?

After reading this lovely book, I hope that teachers and librarians will plan field trips—even in the city, even just around the block—so that children can appreciate (and draw, if they want to) elements of the natural world all around them, including, but not limited to, “their own funny/ wild/ silly/ strange/ beautiful/ birds.” The Sky Painter is highly, highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 2/13/15)

Mountain Dog

author: Margarita Engle
illustrators: Olga and Aleksey Ivanov 
Square Fish / Macmillan, 2013 
grades 4-6 
Cuban American

In Engle’s elegant free verse, Mountain Dog relates the story of 11-year-old Tony, whose mother is imprisoned for running a dog-fighting ring in Los Angeles; and his partnership with his Tío, a forest ranger in the Sierra Nevada, with whom he is sent to live; and with Gabe, Tío’s search-and-rescue dog. In alternating narratives by Tony (“the boy”) and Gabe (“the dog”), young readers see how the boy slowly grows from a confused, distrustful, fearful young person to someone who has learned to deal with conflict, inherited his great-uncle’s passion for rescue—and is beginning to know his path.

Tony begins his narrative matter-of-factly:   

In my other life there were pit bulls.
The puppies weren’t born vicious,
but Mom taught them how to bite,
turning meanness into money,
until she got caught.

As he deals with his sadness, Tony’s suffering is palpable, but as Tío Leonilo and Gabe welcome him into their lives, the healing process begins. Here, Tony learns how to navigate the wilderness:

I learn how to estimate
the temperature of soil
at a 6-inch depth
by counting beats
per minute
in the song
of a cricket.
Fast insect music
means the earth is warm.
Slow bug songs come only
On long, cold cricket nights.

And Gabe, in his dog way, learns about Tony:

My nose has wishful moods
when the nostrils imagine sniffing
adventure smells that I can’t quite name
with my dog words.

Tony, you look wishful too.
Does your boy nose dream
of exploring wild scent trails
in unknown air?

On many levels, Mountain Dog is a story about a boy’s recovering from the traumas of child abuse and learning to trust again, about discovery, about making life-affirming choices and finding his path. And in this, it succeeds, beautifully. As well, Engle has a plethora of details—about wildlife and wilderness, about physical survival in a harsh environment, about selecting a puppy and training a search-and-rescue dog, and about the absolute necessity of mastering mathematical calculations—seamlessly woven into this emotion-filled story of a boy’s coming to terms with his past life and opening himself to the possibilities of moving forward.

Olga and Alexsey Ivanov’s black-and-white, pen-and-ink illustrations are appealing and evocative. Some are simply rendered and, where needed, hatchlines add detail and perspective to humans, domestic and wild animals, and the wilderness. On the frontispiece (repeated on an interior page), for instance, we see Gabe’s head leaning into Tony’s left hand, while Tony’s body, drawn in far less detail, faces the other direction. It’s clear that Tony is barely allowing Gabe to make contact—and Gabe is doing what he’s been trained to do, being there, being available, waiting to see what more is required of him. Opposite the first page of text, we see Tony, looking almost directly at the reader. His large eyes are mistrusting—he’s been through a lot—and he’s thinking, as the chapter title says, “no no no maybe.” The book’s final illustration is of Tony’s new puppy, whom Tony will train to be a rescue dog. The puppy’s eyes are also large—open to all the possibilities that await him with his new family.

My one problem with Mountain Dog is Tío’s brief story of his childhood and early teenage years in revolutionary Cuba (“the troubled island”): “Strange rules. Censored books./ Rationed food. Secret police./ Neighborhood spies”; his escape from the secret police on a homemade raft during hurricane season, and his subsequent rescue at sea by a fisherman.

In truth, the Cuban people had to protect their revolution and defend their tiny country to the death—to prevent CIA-funded counterrevolutionaries, giant US corporations, and organized crime, from taking back the island. At the beginning, life was very difficult and people fled because of the US embargo, which strangled the Cuban economy and caused serious shortages and the rationing of food. As some say today, “teníamos hambre”—“we were hungry.” But, absent any historical context, Tío’s story will lead young readers to think of Cuba as a regimented, controlled country that oppresses its people.

To lend balance and encourage discussion, teachers and librarians might supplement this section of Mountain Dog with George Ancona’s beautiful photo-essay, Cuban Kids (Cavendish, 2000), which gives an honest picture of life on the island. “Despite the hardships, the shortages, and the embargo,” Ancona writes, “Cuban kids are growing up with a love of their country, traditions, and culture. Their many skills will contribute to making a better future for Cuba and the world.”

Mountain Dog is highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 2/12/15)

Call Me Tree / Llámame árbol

author: Maya Christina González  
translator: Dana Goldberg 
illustrator: Maya Christina González
Children’s Book Press / Lee & Low, 2015 
all grades 
Mexican American

Using watercolor, ink and pencil on a gorgeous, vibrant palette of mostly pinks, oranges, blues and greens, González constructs double-page spreads full of magical realism. In this inviting scenario, there are children and trees, in some places leaning into each other; in some places, so close they actually enjoin. The clouds are pink cotton-candy puffs, the roots are curlicues, and different patterns of leaves and bark imply different species as the children’s faces imply varying ethnicities. 

It’s not much of a stretch to imagine the children as the trees and the trees as the children; rather, they are a part of each other, hair/ leaves blowing in the wind, little feet reaching down into the earth to join with the roots, arms/ branches open wide to take in new experiences; at one with each other and the world. For children, Call Me Tree/ Llámame árbol is about knowing who you are and your place in the world; for adults, it’s about appreciating children for the amazing little beings they are.

González’s spare text in English and Goldberg’s Spanish version are both lyrical and expressive, so young hablantes and English learners, as well as English speakers and Spanish learners, will appreciate both.

Some sing songs / Some sing along / All trees have roots / All trees belong

Unos cantan canciones / Otros se unen al coro / Todos los árboles tienen raíces / Todos los árboles tienen un lugar

“Some sing songs, others join the chorus; all trees have roots, all trees have a place.” What a lovely and loving message for all children!

By portraying the children as gender-neutral in addition to multi-ethnic, González opens up more possibilities for child readers and listeners: young children who identify as girls or boys or both or neither can see themselves in everyone. In this sense, Call Me Tree/ Llámame árbol may be a first. It’s brilliant, loving, compassionate, and a thing of beauty—a treasure to be savored, over and over.

This beautiful little book brings to mind something that the great Cuban revolutionary, José Martí, said: “Trabajamos para los niños porque los niños saben amar, porque los niños son la esperanza del mundo.” (“We work for children because children know how to love, because children are the hope of the world.”) Call Me Tree / Llámame árbol is highly recommended. Thank you, Maya and Dana.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 2/6/15)