Monthly Archives: March 2020

Book Review: The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander, illustrated by Kadir Nelson

“This is for the unforgettable…and the ones who survived…and the ones who didn’t.” …“This is for the undefeated. This is for you. And you. And you. This is for us.” (from The Undefeated)

The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander with illustrations by Kadir Nelson, is a powerful reading experience that highlights for children the history of African-Americans and the promise of our hope for the future.

This outstanding picture book won the 2020 Caldecott Medal, awarded annually to the artist of the most distinguished picture book published for children in the United States. It was also given a Newbery Honor Medal for its distinguished contribution to American literature for children and the Coretta Scott King Award, given to an African-American author and illustrator for outstanding inspirational and educational contributions. On all three levels, the illustrations, the text and the message, the book is an inspiring read that belongs in classrooms, homes and libraries homes across America.

A successful picture book for children balances words and illustrations, which work together to tell a story. The text is Kwame Alexander’s free-verse poem, spare and minimal, which was written in 2008 to celebrate the birth of his second daughter and the election of Barak Obama as president. He strove to highlight African-American history that had been forgotten and to embrace the “woes and wonders” of this American story.

The illustrations, photo-realistic oil paintings by Kadir Nelson, are the highlight of the book. He infuses the faces of people from history, both the famous and the nameless, with emotion and beauty. Their portraits speak to the viewer of the joy and suffering of the African-American people. The illustrations have a luminous, glowing quality that spread across the oversized pages, and illuminate the determination and grit of the subjects.

Alexander’s poem makes brilliant use of “un –words”: unforgettable, undeniable, unflappable, unafraid, unspeakable, unlimited, undiscovered, unbelievable, unbending, underdogs, uncertain, unspoken, and finally undefeated. The repetition of “un-words” builds to a climax, and Nelson’s final illustration of “undefeated” is a crowd of children of today, with bright smiles and sparkling eyes, inspired by the past and dreaming of the future.

Alexander and Nelson honor the achievements, courage and perseverance of prominent Black artists, athletes, and activists. The pictures are an assembly of famous Americans, from Jesse Owens to Ella Fitzgerald to Langston Hughes to Serena Williams. On one large spread, historical and contemporary musicians are pictured together, making past and present interrelated. Also highlighted are important moments in American history, which include the Civil War, highlighting Black soldiers who fought “to save an imperfect union” and the freedom marches of the Civil Rights Movement, with a diverse group of people singing “we shall not be moved.” Several pages are dedicated to ordinary people “who survived America by any means necessary,” followed by a haunting, blank, two page spread with the words “…and the ones who didn’t.” Joy and sadness intertwine together in this book, like the experiences of the people whose story is being told.

The book  addresses the horror of slavery, the violence of the civil rights movement and the police brutality of today. The most moving portion of the book involves three pages illustrating: “This is for the unspeakable.” The first of these three spreads, subtle and powerful, duplicates a drawing from the 1780s of the hold of a slave ship, and shows men’s bodies laying side-by-side, margin to margin, looking like patterned African cloth, until one looks closer. The second includes framed portraits of the four little girls murdered in the Birmingham Church bombing, with shattered glass covering their sweet faces. The last shows a spontaneous memorial to youth killed in recent police violence: teddy bears, burning candles, bouquets of flowers, and school pictures of the victims, superimposed over an American flag. The reality of these events cannot be denied and adds honesty and depth to the story, but ultimately does not detract from the overall positive message of the book.

One of the great assets of this book it that it can be accessed by children at different levels of understanding. It can be shared with children as young as preschoolers, as an introduction to both American and Black-American history. For older students it can serve as a springboard to understanding history through individuals or groups. The book’s back matter includes an annotated list of historical figures and events featured in the book. I can see the book being a treasured by parents and children, as well as being a powerful teaching tool for the elementary classroom.

Sometimes, I think the American Library Association, which awards the Caldecott Medal, does not always choose the best book. This year, however, they got it right. The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander and Kadir Nelson is an extraordinary book that richly deserves the praise and honors that it has been given.

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Be A Word Nerd!

By Rondi Sokoloff Frieder

You’ve heard it all before. Show don’t tell. Limit your use of adverbs. Create gorgeous metaphors. And the most important writing rule of all – Use strong verbs!!! But this is often difficult to do when you are working on an early draft. When you are further along in the revision process and ready to edit your work for “word choice,” try using some of the following strategies:

Mentor texts

Study outstanding books in your genre. Then, along with paying attention to the development of the main character’s arc and the twists and turns of plot, take note of the author’s exceptional use of language. This might mean underlining or highlighting words as you read. I keep a list of “words I love” on the Notes App on my phone, especially when I am listening to an audio book. I later transfer this list to my manuscript file in Scrivener and keep a second list in Word. Some of these words seep into my subconscious and suddenly appear in my writing. Others do not. That’s when I go back and read through the list again until I find a word that perfectly captures my character’s mood and motive.

Here are verbs from my latest list, taken from Gillian McDunn’s CATERPILLAR SUMMER and Melanie Crowder’s LIGHTHOUSE BETWEEN WORLDS: bristled, buzzed, carved, coasted, hooted, jabbed, jostled, looped, lumbered, lurched, quirked, rasped, rummaged, scowled, scuffled, shuddered, skittered, sloshed, snarled, stumbled, thrashed, threaded, throbbed, thrumbed, trudged, twinkled, whooshed, and withered.

Thesaurus and Websites

A thesaurus can give you a wide variety of words to use in place of your usual fare. But there’s also a website that puts your run-of-the-mill thesaurus to shame. It’s an extraordinary tool recommended by Jessica Brody, author of SAVE THE CAT WRITES A NOVEL, called OneLook.com. When I first discovered this site, and put the verb “jumped” into the search box and checked related words, 338 synonyms came up! My favorites were: plunged, soared, bounded, leapfrogged, lunged, rocketed, and zoomed. Another website to check out is https://7esl.com/verbs/#Types_of_Verbs_Verb_Examples. It’s slightly more difficult to navigate, but is a valuable resource for writers in any genre.

If you would like some craft books on this topic, try the seven book thesaurus collection by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi (including The Emotional Thesaurus and The Urban Setting Thesaurus) and Strong Verbs Strong Voice: A quick reference to improve your writing and impress readers by Ann Everett.

Be Creative!

I am a sucker for exquisite descriptions. In the MG novel, CATERPILLAR SUMMER, the main character, Cat, spends the summer at her grandparents’ beach house on Gingerbread Island off the coast of North Carolina. Take a look at these gems that connect us with Cat’s personality as well as the setting of the book: A rainbow of candy, an ocean of worries, freckles polka-dotting his skin, a sky puffed with clouds, a breath of strings, a blizzard of birds, a whisper of voices, fingers of fog, a look that was all sunbeams, a wave of people crushed onto the sidewalk, the world swirled green and gray as tears popped in her eyes. Now come up with your own descriptions, relating them to the characters, themes, and settings in your story.

 

Don’t Rush!

Revising a book is hard work. After you’ve made your unique characters flounder and grow in an interesting setting with an action-packed plot that keeps your reader turning the page, it’s time to polish your writing until it sparkles and shines. The first thing to do is a search for words you overuse. For me, those are often: that, just, really, I think, and very. The technique here is simple: slash or replace. Another strategy is to edit the pages of your manuscript out of order. Create a number grid and randomly choose a page to edit for word choice only. Then color in that number in and move on to another, jumping around on the grid.

If you are a writer, you MUST BE a word nerd. There’s just no avoiding it! Are there techniques and resources you’ve found helpful in your writing practice?

 

 

 

 

 

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