When I was casting my eyes about this past summer, wondering what might be the final book of wonder in my posts during December, lo and behold in my mum’s office was this:
What began as a spiritual has developed into one of America’s best-known songs, sung at churches, schools, and campgrounds the country over. And now for the first time, it appears as a picture book, masterfully created by award-winning artist Kadir Nelson.
Through sublime landscapes and warm images of a boy and his family, Nelson has created a dazzling, intimate interpretation of the song, one that rejoices in the connectedness of people and nature. His stirring artwork brings new vitality to the beloved lyrics and their message of faith, celebration, and hope.
Why have I posted the above when the hyperbole of book jackets usually cues the skeptic in me? Well – because it’s fairly accurate. But enough from the publishers, here’s my take on it.
The story begins with the first line of the first verse, set into an illustration of the sun peaking around the earth, a radiant gem casting a ring of light on a night-dark planet. The second page zooms in, so to speak, with a cityscape and the second line of the song. On the third page we meet the central character, a young boy (that’s his beaming face on the cover above – isn’t he a joyful child?) holding a drawing of what looks like his family, to the line “He’s got my brothers and my sisters in His hands,” and on the fourth page we get a close-up of the drawing held in his fingers, which shows not only his parents and siblings but at least one friend.
[Note from the artist in the endpages:
The artwork for this book was created with pencil, oil, and watercolor. The kid-drawings were created by the artist (using his left hand) with colored pencils.
The kid-drawings? Totally real. I’m impressed. Also, this means that Kadir Nelson draws better with his left hand than I do with my right.]
The next two verses show the boy and his family in everyday life, being a family: the boy holding his face up to the rain; the boy with his father gazing at the stars; the whole family flying kites. They go fishing, they wade into the ocean, they piece together jigsaw puzzles.
The perspective starts to zoom out with the last verse. They go to the park, where it seems their whole community is involved in a variety of team sports. They stand on the different continents of a map-carpet. Finally a more intimate cityscape is shown, and an earth glowing with blue and brown. The changes in perspective, from darkness at daybreak to a fuller image of the planet hints at the human perspective, I think; contemplating the whole world is too big. There is too much to be seen clearly, until you (or the boy, at least) have seen individuals, and broadened to include larger and larger communities, and finally the whole world and all its inhabitants. The art also suggests dawning awareness (pun fully intended).
This is a loving family: a family whose members love each other deeply, a family that loves its community, a family that cares about the world. The endpapers include the melody of the song and the four verses (bonus: on a background of another of the boy’s drawings), plus notes on the history of the spiritual and famous singers who have performed it, including Marion Anderson and Mahalia Jackson. (For more on these singers and for another book illustrated by Kadir Nelson, see Yash’s marvellous post.)
The endjacket states that
…Kadir Nelson sought to capture on paper the joy of living in and engaging with the world. He envisioned a multiethnic family, representative of the earth’s diversity, and chose San Francisco as its setting – its oceans and seas, mountains and rivers a perfect complement to the lyrics of the song. Most importantly, Mr. Nelson wished to portray the world as a child might see it, vast and beautiful.
I think he succeeded.
Have a blessed Christmas Eve, and a very merry Christmas.