Monday, July 2, 2012

Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave

by Laban Carrick Hill

illustrated by Bryan Collier
Little, Brown | September 7, 2007

The 2011 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award winner and a 2011 Caldecott Honor book, Dave the Potter tells the story of Dave, a real man who lived in the 1800s and worked as a potter while he was a slave. Because he could create and throw giant pots - up to 14 gallons - he had a "better life" than many other slaves. He often marked the sides of his pots with lines of original verse, which is why we know who he is today.

The book is stunningly beautiful. I still can't pick it up without running my hand over the cover. Bryan Collier's magnificent mixed media artwork is layered in collage with his signature use of bits and pieces he finds, coupled with watercolor. That last part amazes me - the rich and royal hues (to steal a phrase from Carole King) are so deep and earth-toned, it takes a minute to believe it's watercolor. Dave's hands are the most striking. Collier has portrayed them as strong, expansive, and truly skillful. It is easy to imagine from the illustrations how this man made such large and useful vessels.

Hill's sparse words are perfect to tell the story of Dave's life. "Dave kicked/his potter's wheel/until it spun/as fast as/a carnival's wheel of fortune" is one example. A gorgeous three panel fold out spread depicting close-ups of hands forming a pot is coupled with "Like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat" as the lead in, followed with "Dave's hands, buried in the mounded mud, pulled out the shape of a jar."

There is expansive back matter - information about Dave's life (what we know of it) and about the phrases he sketched onto his pots, an author's note and illustrator's note, a bibliography, and websites of interest.

This book is awesome for little ones to look at and for older readers who can understand the nuances of Dave's life as a slave and artist. This is the perfect example of why picture books are not only for our littlest people. I bought this one for a good friend for her birthday last year and she loved it. It's a story of hope and ownership and artistry. And those themes have no age limit.

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