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Wednesday, July 5, 2017

The Secret River

The Secret River by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon (2009). 


This is actually a revised and reillustrated edition of the book that was originally published in 1955 and received a Newbery Honor Award. At that time it was illustrated by the great Leonard Weisgard. As you may know, Rawlings is the Pulitizer Prize winning author of The Yearling. While many now consider that novel to be for children or young adults, it wasn't written with that in mind. This story is actually the only one that Rawlings wrote specifically for children. 

 A summary from Kirkus: "There are no fish left in the rivers and streams; hard times have come to the forest, and everyone is poor and hungry. Calpurnia is determined to find fish for her father to sell in his shop. Mother Albirtha, the wisewoman, advises her to follow her nose to a secret river teeming with fish. She finds this amazing river and politely asks the fishes’ permission to catch some of them. On her long journey home she shares her catch with several animals and, of course, Mother Albirtha. Father sells the fish for promises of payment, which are all fulfilled, and soft times come to the entire community."

Rawlings wanted the story to be about an African American girl and purposely didn't use the stereotypical "Negro dialect" that was often used in books at that time.  However, the book wasn't published until after her death, so she wasn't able to have a say in the illustrations, given that she never actually makes mention of race in the story. At that time in children's publishing, portraying children of color was almost non-existent. But Weisgard wanted his illustrations to be true to Rawling's intentions and do his small part in contributing to breaking down the color barrier, so he used brown paper to subtly suggest the characters' race. (Source)  You can see examples below. 



This newer edition is one of the most beautifully illustrated books I've seen. I always love Leo and Diane Dillon's work, but think it particularly shines here. The imaginative illustrations perfectly accompany Rawlings' beautiful fable. 


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