Each of these books is illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon. Do you know their work?
(They’re the husband-and-wife team who have claimed awards ranging from the Caldecott to the Hugo to the Coretta Scott King Honor.)
This is remarkable not only for the quality of the work but because of the contrast between these two particular volumes: it’s fascinating.
The People Could Fly is an extended version of a story that was originally published in a book by the same name in 1985, which included 24 folktales.
This standalone edition was published as an act of remembrance, following the death of Virginia Hamilton in 2002.
The artists write: “We were privileged to work with her on many projects over a span of twenty years. Her lively tales and colorful characters offered a wealth of images for us as illustrators.”
They, in turn, have created rich and vibrant artwork that brings a further intensity of meaning to this tale.
Even the endpapers of this volume are evocative, black on black feathers, glossy on matte.
Anything more elaborate would have interfered with the beautiful images that the Dillons have created for the pages between.
Each of the pages has a border, in tones evoking the artwork on each pair of pages; the frame binds three sides of each page, with the fourth side, the uppermost, being left open, presumably so that the characters in the images truly can fly out of the narrative.
The full-page images that stretch across the odd-numbered pages are gorgeous. Sometimes there is a band of white at the top of this large image but, more often, when the artwork depicts people flying out of the cotton fields, leaving the master and the driver below, the panel slips off the top of the page.
Sometimes this means that a hand, or a hairstyle, is actually missing from the image, forcing the reader’s eye upwards, right off the page.
Regardless of whether the pages are bound by a border, whether someone in that frame is flying, the expressiveness of the faces and the sensory detail are stunning.
Eyes opened and eyes closed, expressing pain or ecstasy; cotton plants, waves bolstering a ship, the coil of a whip or a chain: the Dillons’ artwork is striking and engaging.
On the even-numbered pages, there is often a smaller image, sometimes covering only a third of the page, alongside two long paragraphs of story, sometimes covering two-thirds of the page, with just a few lines of text.
That is how the story begins, with these few lines, atop an image:
“They say the people could fly. Say that long ago in Africa, some of the people knew magic. And they would walk up on the air like climbin up on a gate. And they flew like blackbirds over the fields. Black, shiny wings flappin against the blue up there.”
Virginia Hamilton considered this tale part of a body of literature in the tradition of “things that never were”.
In a letter that she wrote in May 1984, she explains the minor changes she made to the traditional tellings of this tale, and she remarks upon the “persistent tales” about blacks who could fly.
“The last one collected that I know of was in the thirties,” she writes.
“A man was said to walk faster and faster. Then he would take off. He was last seen flying faster than an airplane. There are stories about ‘wing’ shops, where wings were purchased.”
The People Could Fly is a magical tale, in its telling, in its imagery, in every way.
Patricia McKissack’s Never Forgotten is a story in verse, a 2012 Coretta Scott King Author Honor Book.
The Dillons describe their decision to illustrate this work as being rooted in “the love of a father for his son, of family, and remembering ‘lost ones’.”
The artwork in this volume was inspired by the art of African woodblock printing on fabric. (Even from their covers alone, you can see how different these two volumes are stylistically.)
On the cover, you can see the father at the heart of this tale, Dinga, holding his son, Musafa. In the background are the elements: earth, fire, water and wind.
Dinga works in conjunction with the mother elements in his work as a blacksmith:
“By all accounts a master craftsman,
An artisan worthy of praise.
Honored as a powerful magician….”
But it is his embrace of fatherhood which sets Dinga apart, in his community, and in legend.
Even though he only overtly fathers his son for a few years before the boy is “taken”.
Of men with the blue of the sky in their eyes,
Who steal upriver
Through the Great Forest mists
And into the Savannah Lands in search of slaves —
Hear the moans and groans of their captives —
Hundreds, thousands stolen.
We rarely speak of the Taken,
But I will, just once,
Because you asked.”
The Dillons’ illustrations dialogue with McKissack’s verse in concert.
Sometimes the images are framed but, more often, they frame the story. Figures stand alongside their verses. And the elements, in particular, blossom and flow around the stand-alone figures, around the words.
Especially moving is the way in which both the elements and the ancestors appear together in the images (which you can also see in the cover); they possess distinct shapes and presences, but they do not embody the same bold palette with the same dark outlines.
They seem to inhabit their own space, which is a powerful message in this tale, which attempts to reflect what has been lost in the mourning and grieving for those who were “taken”.
Patricia McKissack states that she was inspired by the idea of tales that were told about the ‘lost ones’.
“I have tried to create a story that addresses the question all of us who are descendents of the Taken ask: ‘Were we missed?’ I answer with a resounding ‘Yes! We were never forgotten.”
Read singly, each of these works is powerful; read together, they offer an truly memorable reading experience.