Review of the Day: Maggie's Amerikay
Historical fiction just ain't my bag, baby. Still, once in a while I'll deign to look at it, if only because I hate to have huge gaping holes in my kiddie lit knowledge banks. Here's a new Farrar, Straus and Giroux title that may or may not get some attention, depending on what the need for it is.
When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, I decided that I should find some books on the city for kids who wanted to know more about it. So I searched... and I searched... and I came to the rather frightening conclusion that when it came to New Orleans picture books there are some by Fatima Shaik and that's about it. And there CERTAINLY weren't any historical picture books that involved The Big Easy. No sirree bob. Now a cursory glance at "Maggie's Amerikay" and you might be forgiven for jumping to the assumption that the book is yet another addition to the immigrants-come-to-New-York-via-Ellis-Island genre. Inside, however, you will be delighted to find that not only does it take place in New Orleans back in 1898, but it also puts the antipathy the immigrating Irish had for African-Americans and vice-versa into terms that a small child could understand. A rich warm book that talks about overcoming prejudices without rubbing your face in the message, Russell's book is an excellent addition to any library or personal collection with a yen for the historically accurate.
It's 1898 and Maggie and her family have just moved from Ireland to New Orleans. Maggie would love to stay home from school and help the family by rolling cigars like the other girls, but her father insists that she should get an education. Now as a new immigrant, Maggie knows exactly who to like and who to dislike. She's been told to dislike black people since, "they take our work", but her father keeps on being nice to them. He even goes so far as to give a boy a free cornet, just because the kid yearns for it. When Maggie's little sister Bessie comes down with yellow fever, the family has to start making a lot more money fast to pay for the medical bills. After all, her mother will now have to stay home to tend to the sickly child. Bessie tries to work both in the cigar factory and go to school, but it's too much work for too little pay. Then, all of a sudden, the boy her father gave the cornet to (Nathan) offers Bessie a new kind of work. She'd be writing down the stories of an elderly former slave . At first, both the old man and the young girl view one another with mutual distrust. After a couple of his stories, however, they realize that though America has pitted black against Irish and Irish against black, the two groups have far more in common than they might have initially thought.
At the back of the book, author Barbara Russell includes an Author's Note that talks about the history of the immigrants and the former slaves in New Orleans. The book itself, I should mention, makes several references to the birth of ragtime within its plot. Russell fleshes the history out a little more in her notes to explain how this in turn became the jazz we know today. The book adeptly weaves together different historical facts and elements without ever coming across as deeply depressing or forced. Considering how much information is crammed into this little 40 page book, I was a bit taken aback. When I saw that Russell was also the author of "The Remembering Stone", however, it made far more sense to me.
Perhaps it's cruel to say, but I was rather pleased by the fact that illustrator Jim Burke didn't make Maggie into some exquisitely beautiful little angel of light and life. This kid looks like a real child. She's a little plain, but in a wholly realistic way. I'm actually a little afraid that Mr. Burke based this girl on someone in real life and that I am, unwittingly, insulting that child with my callous praise. Let us hope this is not the case. His pictures have a glow to them. They're seemingly simple but with a kind of light just beneath their surface. I haven't a clue what medium the man was working in, but it's clear that Burke knows how to show action, the slow play of light over a scene, and emotion on the page. There's a shot from Maggie's point of view of the old former slave glaring at her from the bed that says everything you need to know in that shot alone.
The book grows on you. When I read it through the first time, I thought it was good but I didn't linger over it. Now, however, I've sort of fallen for its charms. It's hard to predict who the readership for it might be, though. Certainly it will be a boon to any child who reads at a lower grade level but still has to do an assignment on a work of historical fiction for school. Like Patricia Polacco's, "Pink and Say" the book does not have a built-in audience, but will probably garner a fair amount of attention just by being as good as it is. It might be a good idea to pair it with other historical picture books that discuss newfound immigrants to America. Things like "Peppe the Lamplighter" by Elisa Bartone or "Grandfather's Journey" by Allen Say. As for, "Maggie's Amerikay", this is definitely a book to keep one's eye on. Pleasing.