Balzer & Bray Imprint – HarperCollins, 2011

Heart and Soul is an absolutely gorgeous book. Kadir Nelson‘s artwork is riveting.

And don’t ask me where I’ve been while he was winning Caldecott Honors, or an NAACP Image Award.

Or while he received a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award, a Coretta Scott King Author Award (and Honor books, besides), and made the New York Times bestseller list.

Were you and I in the same place? Missing all that good stuff?

Heart and Soul is equal parts text and images, but it’s hard not to start with talk of the artwork.

The text, however, is remarkable as well, drawing the reader into “The Story of America and African Americans”, which is the book’s subtitle.

“I wanted to share these stories in the way that I heard and saw them, through the words and family photos of an elder African American,” Nelson states.

So he created “a grandmother-like figure who would allow me to focus on major historical milestones that affected both her family and the rest of the country.”

Of course, readers know that real people experienced the events that we read about in history books.

But having an actual narrator, with a family and a set of experiences and memories (complete with thoughts and feelings and a sense of humour): well, it just brings that idea off the page.

The first image in the text contains only a single black face, that of an older man, gazing at a painting that does not have one black face in it.

This reflects the fact that there is not a single black face in all the paintings and sculptures in the Capital in Washington D.C., which only accentuates the importance of a work like Heart and Soul.

Those artworks in the Capitol “ain’t telling the whole truth”; the twelve chapters in Kadir Nelson’s work can help to fill in the gaps.

Just a glimpse inside

And the reader becomes, like this man leaning on his cane, the viewer and the listener.

Each chapter begins with a short quotation or two, followed by about three pages of text, and as many images (usually full-page, sometimes double-spread).

Sometimes the figures in the paintings (these are oil paintings, which offer astonishing richness) are famous and immediately recognizable.

More often, they are images of ordinary people, like you would imagine peering out of photographs, not on the wall of a public building, but from a fire-place mantle or dresser-top.

In “Hard Times and World War II”, one of the quotations is from Jackie Robinson: “I learned that I was in two wars, one against the foreign enemy, the other against prejudice at home.”

(If I’d been paying attention, I might have recognized this from Nelson’s earlier work, We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball.)

There are four images that accompany this chapter’s narrative; “Out of Work”, “Heavyweight boxer Joe Louis Barrow”, “My youngest brother, Joshua, a Tuskagee pilot”, and “My younger brother James, with the 761st Tank Battalion, Germany, circa 1944”.

Not only are the images striking to look at, and the faces luminous, but the detail in the figures (the clothing — and the way in which it drapes and settles — the signage in the background, the military gear) is worth noting.

This is the sort of book which is a pleasure to read, but it’s also a book that I hope is being used in classrooms and in community programming in public libraries.

It’s the sort of book that reminds you what a pleasure it is to learn. If you are the kind of reader who has missed a lot of good stuff and is keen to fill in those gaps.

Need more? There’s a trailer here.

What do you think?