Review of the Day: Cesar - Si, Se Puede! Yes, We Can!
A winner of the Pura Belpre Honor for illustration, here is yet another Cesar Chavez kiddie bio. I hardly minded, though.
Some men seem born to become the subject of countless children's picture book biographies. Take, for example, Cesar Chavez. Aside from Martin Luther King Jr. (Gandhi, for reasons unclear, hasn't had the same oomph) there is no other civil rights hero who has inspired such a wide range of artistic and well-penned children's bios. I had read "Harvesting Hope: The Story of Cesar Chavez" by Kathleen Krull some years ago and was impressed with the information presented in that book. Meaning no disrespect to Ms. Krull, however, "Cesar: Si, Se Puede! Yes, We Can!", trumps all previous Chavez titles when it comes to its scope, tone, and sheer amount of factual information tucked away in Bibliography, Notes, Glossary and more. Want a bio of Cesar Chavez but want something poetic and beautiful to look at as well? Then just take a quick gander at Carmen T. Bernier-Grand's amazing Pura Belpre Honor Book.
The first spread of this book says simply, "Who Could Tell?". "Who could tell that Cesario Estrada Chavez, the shy American wearing a checkered shirt walking with a cane to ease his back from the burden of the fields, could organize so many people to march for La Causa, The Cause?". Who indeed? A turn of the page and suddenly we're witnessing the birth of a legend. Cesario was born March 31, 1927 but everyone eventually knew him as Cesar. As a child he grew up in a ranch as his father managed a gas station. Then the Depression hit and the family lost the ranch on which Cesar had always lived. From then on in, times were tough. The family had to pick fruit and vegetables for their keep. People inhaled pesticides and made a scant amount of money. Cesar went into the navy but when he returned the only jobs for a Mexican-American were in the fields tending to crops. Cesar married, had kids, and with the help of a member of the Community Service Organization he began to understand the point of unions. He decided to fight for better pay, housing, and health, "To satisfy the farm workers' hunger for decency and dignity and self-respect". By the end of his life Chavez fought for the rights of the common farmworkers and he may well have saved countless lives due to his struggle. He died in his sleep on April 23, 1993.
I suppose the greatest difference between this book and "Harvesting Hope" is how the information of Cesar's life is presented. In "Harvesting Hope" author Kathleen Krull saw an obvious amount of dramatic tension in Cesar's 1968 nationwide boycott. Bernier-Grand, on the other hand, chooses to give each event in Chavez's life equal weight. Actual battles are passed over as the obvious outgrowth of Cesar's journey. By the end, when Cesar dies in his bed in 1993, we've seen more injustice than we have slow justice. This is as it should be. Nobody is saying that the road Chavez hoed was easy. Least of all the biographers that praise him. In this book, each step of Cesar's life is presented with a kind of free verse poem. Such a format could easily be mistaken as annoying after a while. In this case, it may be a little stylized from time to time but it still rings true. In the back of the book Bernier-Grand has even included a section of Notes, a Glossary of terms, a short encapsulation of Cesar's life (for those you for whom prose is not enough), a brief Chronology, and Bernier-Grand's Sources. There is even a collection of direct quotes from the man himself wrapping the book up for once and for all. What's not to like?
And then there are the illustrations of one Mr. David Diaz. What I love about Diaz is that his style seemingly never changes, but his pictures vary immensely. Compare this book, for example, to, "Wilma Unlimited". Sure, both books show people with their eyes firmly attached to the sides of their heads, Egyptian wall-painting style. But while "Wilma" relies heavily on textures and thick weighty lines, "Cesar" is all about making pictures glow. The figures in this book exemplify a kind of inner light. Not just Cesar, but everyone. Diaz has turned at long last to Photoshop and the result is that his illustrations, rather than becoming mechanical or hackneyed, have taken on a kind of luminosity never achieved before. You may not associate "Cesar" with Diaz's Caldecott winner, "Smoky Night", but it is in his variety that the illustrator proves himself to be king.
The world would be a much more pleasant space if heroes like Cesar Chavez were presented to the world as beautifully as in "Cesar: Si, Se Puede! Yes, We Can". Beautiful to look and a beautiful to read, this is a perfect complement to "Harvesting Hope" and a wonderful book in its own right as well.