Monday, March 28

Dave the Potter

Artist, Poet, Slave 
by Laban Carrick Hill 
illustrated by Bryan Collier 
Little Brown  2010

A picture book biography of a 19th century African American pot maker who was also a poet, and apparently a slave. 

I don't think anyone's going to let that summary slide without my saying something about it first.  When I look at a picture book biography I have to step back and read it through the eyes of the intended audience, or try to at least.  When the subtitle promises to tell me three things about the subject, and text only conveys two of those three effectively, it leaves me feeling something is missing. That Dave is depicted as an artist making pots comes across in both the detailed verse describing the process and the well-researched images. But all we see of Dave is him at work in his shop and maybe a few details the convey the general era of the story and nothing, text or image, that necessarily informs us of Dave's slavery. 

Does it have to?  Can we simply put the word 'slave' on the cover and assume the reader will understand what is necessary for the context of the story?  Here's my problem then with the text – we learn in the back matter that Dave's profession was unusual for a slave, which I think is safe to assume because what we tend to hear about slaves in the American South leans toward house and field. The fact that he's an artisan is an important distinction, but I instantly want to know: who does a slave potter make his pots for?  Were they commissioned by his owners to be sold locally?  Did his make them for his master's house?  In the back matter we are told one of the earliest records is of 17 year old Dave looking to get a loan for a house – was this for his business?  Was he freed?  So many questions around his identity as a slave which are important only in so far as they help us understand who he was creating his pots for. He doesn't begin to write poems on his pots until he's in his 30s as far as we know – another clue, he's been educated and has a facility with rhyme – which might suggest that his stature had been secured as a local artist that he didn't fear his pots would be rejected for having been inscribed by a slave.  So many things I wish I understood about this aspect of Dave's life.  

Is it right to want so much from a picture book?  Perhaps not, but again, if it's important enough to put on the cover of the book I think it isn't unreasonable to have it addressed within the main text.  This becomes part of my problem with back matter in nonfiction picture books. So much information is jumped to the back after the main text that it begins to feel like everything that proceeds it is like the carrot before the stick, and the reader is going to get both. Yes, sometimes the details aren't going to fit the narrative flow of a story, which is perhaps why we should question this method of delivering nonfiction to younger readers because if we are presenting fact in the guise of fiction we risk readers walking away with only half the story. Out of context of the narrative – literally, separated from the text – the back matter is easily ignored by a reader who wants the gist of the story and only reads the main portion.  And in Dave the Potter there is little in that main text to explain enough of Dave's story to justify the word 'slave' on the cover or in the subtitle.

Having said all that, Hill does a nice job of giving us the process involved in 19th century pottery.  It's a very close narrative, told in verse, an extremely tactile and physical study of what it meant to be literally a man of the earth. Hill captures that sense of what it means to be an artist, working along, knowing only what the artist can about how such things look like during their creation.  The dedication, the shaping, the pride of craftsmanship, much of what is written can be applied to any art or craft. On the poetic front I might have liked to see more of Dave's little couplets incorporated into the story as opposed to the back matter, but it can equally be argued that there is poetry in his craft.  I can't think of a more appropriate approach to a poet's life than to write in verse, as Hill does here, so bonus points for that.

Ignore my misgivings; I think the book deserves its Caldecott Honor and Coretta Scott King awards.  Dave the Potter is a well-told examination of a craftsman's life in the early 19th century, beautifully illustrated and carefully researched, and a fine portrait of an African American plying a trade few did during that particular time in history. I simply wish I had a better sense of the subject in that time. 
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