It's a rare conundrum when I find myself wondering, which award should this book win? Newbery or Caldecott? The question came up with Brian Selznick's visionary The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which eventually went on to win a Caldecott medal. I asked it again with Selznick's latest, Wonderstruck (though I don't think Caldecott lightning will strike twice. Hugo's medal was a departure for the award, a statement, and I don't see it happening again). And then I come to Kadir Nelson's Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans. It's a beautiful work, in words and pictures, and I simply can't decide where it belongs more. It's possible we might have our first double winner or honor since 1982 (when A Visit to William Blake's Inn won the Newbery medal and a Caldecott honor). It would be only the second book to be awarded by both committees.
Nelson's second time up to bat as an author (the first being the Coretta Scott King illustrator honor book, We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball), Heart and Soul recounts the history of the African Americans in America, told by a nameless grandmother figure. She tells the history as it relates to her family, mostly straightforwardly, but every once a while, in a voice that lets you know she's speaking just to you. The story begins around the Revolution and continues on through the signing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. Through the pages, the narrator speaks of Slavery and Reconstruction, of Women's Rights and African American inventors and finally of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the movement of peaceful demonstration.
I said before that Heart and Soul is a beautiful work, and it is. Stunning, really. Nelson's paintings are full of light and darkness, of texture and depth. They cover famous faces and made up faces, but each face is full of truth and beauty. Every page is worthy of being framed and mounted, and I can't imagine the Caldecott committee looking at this book and not wanting to reward it. As for Newbery, non-fiction is rarely given the medal, but often on the radar. Nelson's text is spare and to the point. By giving us a human narrator, he is acknowledging that this is not a complete history. All people have gaps and blind spots. It allows Nelson to be more subjective with his history. Not that he gets anything wrong, not to my knowledge, but it is a somewhat one-sided history. But such was Nelson's way with words, that I wanted more of them. I was disappointed that the history ended in 1964, though an Epilogue does give us a summing up of the succeeding years, up to the election of Barack Obama in 2008.
That Heart and Soul deserves some shiny medal stickers is a no-brainer. It's definitely in the running not only for the Newbery Award and the Caldecott Medal, but the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award and the Sibert Medal, which goes to the best "informational" book of the year, an award won by We Are the Ship in 2009. Frankly, I don't care how and what it wins, only that it is rewarded. It's easily one of my favorite books of the year.
Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans by Kadir Nelson
2011, Balzer + Bray
2011, Balzer + Bray