Spotlight on an Author/Illustrator: Rachel Isadora

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Rachel Isadora has been writing and illustrating children’s books since she created the baseball and ballet-loving boy, Max, in 1976.  She has contributed to over 150 children’s books.  Her text and art vary greatly, but there are common themes across many of her books.  A former dancer, Isadora frequently returns to her interest in ballet as well as music.  Many of her main characters are African-American, and most are people of color.  Having lived in Africa for ten years, she has set some of her children’s books in Africa.  Isadora is also interested in urban settings, particularly New York City.  She has revisited fairy tales in many of her books.

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In 1979, Isadora published the picture book, Ben’s Trumpet, which received the Caldecott Honor Award for 1980.   Using black and white pen and ink drawings, Isadora tells the story of Ben, a young African-American boy who dreams of playing jazz trumpet.  Eventually his dream is realized.  Ben’s Trumpet shows an enormous range in Isadora’s visual abilities through each page.  There is a wide variety of shading, bold lines, cross-hatching, texture through different designs, and playing with negative space.  Some pages are mostly white with minimal black ink while many of the illustrations are predominantly black.  Isadora uses a kind of stippling on the black pages to create a texture and to give a little softening to the images.  Near the end of the book, Isadora creates a two-page spread collage using different drawing techniques.  Ben sits on the far left-hand side of the page.  From the text, the reader is to understand that while Ben is sitting on the stoop watching the Zig Zag Jazz Club, he is seeing and thinking about all of these different images visualized through collage, which creates a jazz-like visual landscape.

Every page in Ben’s Trumpet is dynamic and vibrant.  At times the lines are jagged, sharp, geometric, creating quick, scat-like moments.  The intensity is tempered by rounder lines, softer images, and shading of characters.  One example of this is the midway layout of the book, which has an encompassing black arch across the top of the page.  Although the book is told from Ben’s perspective, there are many different visual perspectives throughout the story.  Frequently Ben is in the picture, but other times, the reader can infer that we are looking out through Ben’s eyes.

Isadora’s Ben’s Trumpets is so rich in providing an experience through the images that the text seems almost secondary.  Without the words, the visual story still exists.  The amount of text on a page varies.  There is some dialogue and three questions are asked throughout the story.  The mood and tone are present in the text, and the phrase, “the cat’s meow” adds to creating a jazzy language, but the book’s strength is not the text.  The artwork is outstanding and the text is supplementary.

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Nineteen years after Ben’s Trumpet, Isadora’s Caribbean Dream was published.  Excepting the focus on Black characters, these two children’s books are completely different in tone, style, and audience.  Caribbean Dream uses watercolors and poetic text to illustrate the life of a group of children in the West Indies.  Unlike Ben’s Trumpet, which has images on both sides of each spread, Caribbean Dream places the much larger text on the left-hand page and the image is on the right side.  The format is more conventional and the watercolors are consistently realistic.  This picture book does not use a wide range of visual techniques.  The color palette varies by image, relying mostly on pastels and warm tones.  Except for the first three pages in the book, which are images of the Caribbean landscape, children are the focus of all the illustrations.  There are at least two children in every picture that includes people.  The story follows the children from the break of day on an island in the West Indies until the moon is high in the sky.  On the very last page of the story, there is an image without text, which brings the story back to daytime.  Five children are running or dancing on the beach on this final page.  The images show movement and vibrancy, but there is a softness to these pictures, which suits the subjects: these are children living and playing in the hot sun near the ocean.  This is not an urban tale about jazz.

Unlike Ben’s Trumpet, Isadora’s Caribbean Dream does rely on text to tell the story.  After an initial quotation from the West Indian writer, activist, and politician, Phyllis Shand Allfrey, the text follows the repeated pattern throughout the story.  “Where morning meets light, we rise,” the story begins.  Then each page carries the same repetition: where (blank) meets (blank), we (blank).  The text is simple, minimal, and accessible to beginning readers.  On the final page of text, Isadora writes, “Where darkness meets light, we dream.  We dream.”  The phrase “we dream” is repeated providing closure to the poem.

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Isadora completely “branched” out when she began exploring colorful collages, and in 2012, she adapted the traditional song, The Green Grass Grew All Around to an African setting in the children’s book, There Was a Tree.  This book is in a similar style to Isadora’s Rapunzel, Hansel and Gretel, Old Mikamba Had a Farm, and other titles, which all were published from 2007 to the present.  Isadora has been interested in retelling fairy tales and folklore for many years, but this visual style is relatively new to her work.  Instead of the panoramic picture books, this “series” that includes There Was a Tree are printed on a square format.

The brightly colored images on each landscape layout of this book are collaged with a border that looks like African textiles.  Isadora uses oil paints, printed paper, and palette paper to create vibrant visuals with visual cues to where the eye should focus.  In some ways, There Was a Tree is reminiscent of Ben’s Trumpet because of the music that seems to pulsate on each page.  But unlike Ben’s Trumpet and maybe more like Caribbean Dream, the tone in There Was a Tree is not one of strife and conflict, but of exuberance and joy.  The color palette is bright, but earthy with many shades of orange, green, and brown.

Unlike the other two children’s books, There Was a Tree is not Isadora’s original text, but the style of the text in the book is unique.  The text is integrated into the pictures, which is different from the other two books in this paper, and the object that gets repeated through the song is in a different color on each page.  For instance, on the first page, where the text reads, “There was a hole in the middle of the ground,” Isadora alters the text visually in a couple of different ways.  The “t” in “there” is an orange-brown color and then “hole” is reddish-orange color.  “Hole” is also capitalized.  The rest of the text is in black.  By the time the song begins its repetition, the word “hole” has been replaced on each page with the picture of a hole from the first page.  Then the word tree is replaced with a picture of the tree, and so on.  By the time the book concludes, there are eight images stacked on the page, which are fun clues for an early reader.  Instead of just using words, this version of the song relies on memorizing the pictures.  The text is colorful and almost looks like a patchwork quilt with the image squares interspersed.  At the very end of the book, there is a rebus key with the eight pictures.  The book also provides sheet music and the lyrics to There Was a Tree.

Something strikingly similar in Caribbean Dream and There Was a Tree are the second-to-last images in both books.  In Caribbean Dream and There Was a Tree, two Black children stand facing a panoramic view of the night sky, brightened by a full moon with birds flying in the sky and trees behind the children.  Isadora uses completely different art techniques, but the trope remains.  Particularly in Isadora’s books that are predominantly set in nature, the moon and the sun are present throughout the book.

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