The Story Warren post linked in the previous post (as well as here), includes recommendations for twenty-one picture books that commemorate events or people relevant to African-American history month. They represent only a fraction of the vibrant, creative, informative works in print, with more appearing all the time.
But as soon as I peeked inside Schomburg I was convinced the book required its own post, foremost for the suitability of its subject matter: African history was Arthur Schomburg’s passion. Multiple award-winning author Carole Weatherford dedicates several pages to individuals who inspired Schomburg. And Velasquez’s lush paintings do justice to the African-related art Schomburg loved and collected.
Researching the collection that follows has renewed my awareness of the inescapable, tragic history of slavery in America. Conceiving of our country as it might have been apart from the scourge of slavery is enticing; possibly even redemptive, if the exercise edges us toward that vision. But deepening our knowledge of the actual past holds even more potential for understanding the present and thus moving toward a better future.
This undertaking has also reminded me that the history of African Americans is more than the history of slavery. It is replete with individuals, families, and communities that have overcome injustice and other monumental obstacles to produce beauty, exhibit love, promote knowledge, and sustain faith. Their remarkable and enduring feats of courage, scholasticism, craftsmanship, and physical prowess enrich us all.
The list of books below represents my attempt at a chronological overview of the past two hundred and fifty years through an assortment of newer and older picture book titles. Some highlight individuals of exceptional achievement, others “ordinary” citizens who demonstrated vision, compassion, and determination.
To read more, follow this link to the Story Warren web site:
I borrowed Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo from the library last spring (2022), after a neighbor introduced me to Saunders’s Story Club for writers. I was intrigued by Lincoln’s multiple narrators, speaking in first person, passing off the story from one to another at irregular intervals, sometimes even interrupting one another or finishing each another’s sentences. But at the time the death of a child—Lincoln’s, to be precise—was a subject matter too oppressive to shoulder, and I returned the book after a close skimming of its contents.
But I was sufficiently impressed by Saunders’s innovation and the spiritual vein I thought I detected to queue up for the library’s audio version of Saunders’s A Swim in a Pond in the Rain. I finally reached the front in July; thus my association between Saunders’s selected Russian short stories, along with his commentary, and staining our back deck in the mild warmth of a Pacific NW summer.
A Swim in a Pond reprints seven short stories by Chekhov, Golgol, Tolstoy, and Turgenev. The discussion that follows each highlights essential strengths—or weaknesses—of the nineteenth-century works in question.
For millennia the written word has held special significance among those whose faith is centered on holy writ. Some ancient Jewish and Islamic traditions imposed safeguards to prevent the desecration of any piece of writing—sacred or secular—that might bear God’s name.
Christian history is marked by missionaries and others who made literacy and education a priority, on the premise that everyone should have personal access to the written Word of God. Among these, Martin Luther, William Carey, and Jonathan Edwards are familiar names. A less familiar example is the Kyrias family of Albania, active supporters of language development, publishing, and education, particularly among girls.
In contemporary America it can be hard to fathom a culture where the written word is not readily accessible. We read to our children from the day they are born, fill shelves with assorted Bible editions, and ship off excess volumes to thrift stores and little free libraries. The handful of picture books below give elementary-aged children a glimpse of the lengths to which people have gone—and still go—to preserve, procure, and distribute the wealth that is literacy.
I discovered this book shortly after its publication in 2017. My ninety-year-old mother-in-law had developed fairly advanced dementia. But her lifelong appreciation for books, cartography, history, exploration, and the art of illustration had not failed her. The fortuitous coincidence of all those elements allowed us to ramble through these pages together on multiple occasions with some semblance of former camaraderie.
Arranged alphabetically by the names of the explorers, this visually stunning book represents a wealth of information and artistry, not to mention a herculean task of compilation. As the title indicates, it represents excerpts from the sketchbooks of more than seventy explorers and documenters of the natural world. Some names are familiar—John James Audubon, Meriwether Lewis, Carl Linnaeus, David Livingstone—most much less so. Most are men; a little more than a tenth are women.
Ella Christie, identified on the title page of her books as a Fellow of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society and a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, traveled in Central Asia in 1910-11. The most attractive aspect of her book, for me, were her notes on daily life, such as a rather gruesome description of an outdoor barber extracting a long parasitic worm from a patient’s leg. Christie identifies the parasite as “guinea worm” or “filaria” (p. 128).Other sources corroborate her account of this reportedly common affliction, as well as the treatment.
Christie’s visit to present-day Istaravshan, formerly Uro Teppa (Christie calls it “Ura Tiubbe” and comments on the wild variations in spelling) caught my attention because of my translation work on the memoirs of Tajik folklorist Rajab Amonov (see that review here: ). We had the opportunity to spend two nights there in 2010, but I have run across few accounts from 19th-century travelers to that city. Christie describes the town’s situation on a mountain slope, the ruins of the fort, and the winding streets of the bazaars. I was intrigued by her report of encountering an “agent” for Singer sewing machines in this rather off-the-beaten-path location (pp. 197-199).
A valuable companion to Olufsen’s personal works is the two-volume Exploring Central Asia, by Esther Fihl (University of Washington, 2010). Partially a commentary on Olufsen’s travels, the work is largely a photographic tour of the museum artifacts Olufsen brought back to Denmark (see Olaf Olufsen Part I for more about the mission). A text box on page 140 (Vol. 1) contains an interesting account from his previously unpublished writings of how he acquired artifacts from the bazaar in Bukhara with the help of one of the emir’s men.
Exploring Central Asia contains numerous vibrant color photos of household items, clothes, shoes, ornaments, jewelry, accessories, tools, and so forth, from various regions. The captions for many of these include excerpts from Olufsen’s writings, both published and unpublished, describing their use or manner of acquisition. Fihl reports that Olufsen was instructed not to return with worn or cast off items ( p. 138). Accordingly, many of the artifacts are gorgeously decorated and in excellent condition, especially considering they are more than one hundred years old (of course, they have spent their entire lives in a museum). Thus, they may not be representative of articles of everyday use, but they at least give one an idea of some of the handicrafts in circulation at the time. Continue reading →
The title page of Ole Olufsen’s book identifies him as Professor and Secretary to the Royal Danish Geographical Society. He commanded Danish expeditions to Central Asia in 1896-97 and 1898-99. His personal account of these travels, The Emir of Bokhara and His Country, is one of the more readable and detailed volumes of its kind that I have perused. (See previous posts on 19th- and early 20th-century Central Asia travelogues.)
While exhibiting the Eurocentric biases exhibited by virtually all Western travelers of his time (OK–let’s be honest–we’re all a bit biased, even in these enlightened times!), Olufsen displays extensive knowledge of the area and gives evidence of having read all the relevant literature available in his day, dating back to ancient times. He possesses an impressive command of the topography and appears to have traversed much of it, though I’m not able to weigh in on his geographical accuracy. The edition of The Emir ofBokhara that I perused (William Heinemann, 1911) claimed to include a map, but I never located one (see part II of this post for more on that). Continue reading →
As a woman traveling in Central Asia in the late 19th century, Meakim was able to access the world of women, which was largely inaccessible to the predominantly male travelers of the time.
Of course, the biases of her times are evident, i.e. in her extended discussion and generalizations regarding the beauty or lack thereof possessed by Central Asian women. Meakim’s book is not, nor is it intended to be, an authoritative or comprehensive description of Central Asia, but it does represent sights and ideas that a European traveler would have encountered in the region and thus serves a purpose for those interested in the area. Continue reading →
I opened Wild Within intending to read just a few pages in preparation for the upcoming author lunch at The Book Nest. I couldn’t put it aside until I had read the last line of the epilogue.
When Melissa met Jonathan, her future husband, he was already an owl enthusiast. Gradually Melissa, too, was drawn into the orbit of The Raptor Center in Eugene, Oregon, and went from procuring mice for food to training a baby barred owl. Melissa chronicles the process by which she and Jonathan decided to marry and adopt, as well as the surprising strength of her maternal instincts, once awakened. Continue reading →