Monday, October 10, 2011

Let All Creation Sing (Part 2)--a review of AT BREAK OF DAY by Nikki Grimes

A father and son create the earth, animals, plants and human beings out of nothing.  The project originates in the mind of the father and takes shape at the word of the son.  Ex-nihilo, something from nothing, springs forth in this vivid re-telling of the Biblical creation story.

At Break of Day by Nikki Grimes

The story of creation was originally transcribed from the oral tradition, and Nikki Grimes' version remains true to that tradition.  Much like the Genesis account, hers is a prose-poem, a creation story best read aloud in a sonorous voice that captures the rich timbre and cadence of the language.  In parts, the language is luxurious, such as in the creation of plants, "Let there be velvety mosses and/rose-covered meadows, lilacs and long trailing vines, hyacinths and honeysuckle/birch and beech, and hearty trees/whose branches are heavy with fruit."  Just read that aloud.  Right now.  It's stunning.  Grimes knows how to play with the symmetry of sound, alliteration, consonance and assonance, and the weights of words.  For example, read this aloud: "Let there be bulls and boars, lions and llamas,/jackals and jaguars, goats and sheep, and creatures/that crawl, and all manner of wild animals roaring and screeching, loping and leaping,/crouching and creeping upon the earth."  And move while you read it.  Elsewhere, the connectedness between the Father and Son is captured in their dialogue and in the joy they share over their creation.  "'Go on,' said the father, standing in the background.  'You're doing fine.'"  The language between them is warm and familiar, giving a sense of unity and comfort.  At the end of the story, Grimes leaves the reader feeling rested and satisfied in the goodness of the earth and in the goodness of the story, which bears repeating.

Paul Morin illustrates the book in very wide-sweeping, bold paint and fabric collage.  I want to touch these pictures and look at them in detail up close.  His use of color and texture reminds me of Chagall, where the various layers of the painting actually contain subtexts.  His depiction of angels as little sparks of light in the early stages of creation are outstanding in this regard.  He is at his best in the pictures of creation, where he opens his color palette and plays with layers of lace and paper fibre.  My two-and-a-half year old daughter audibly gasped when I turned to the page depicting the creation of plants.  The fish and birds of other creation days are colorful and alive.  There is a slight discordance, from time to time, in the style of the art.  The spread that portrays the creation of humankind feels flatter than his other paintings, and not as sensuous.  There is too much black, Adam's torso is skewed, and Eve's hair is stringy in silhouette.  The textures of the layers of painting have not transferred well onto the glossy page, and there is an distracting binding seam running through the middle of the illustration.  Overall, the format of the book cannot do justice to the paintings, as they are probably much more impressive in actuality. 

Awards and Reviews
  • CCBC Choices, 2000, Cooperative Children's Book Center
  • Not Just for Children Anymore, 2001, Children's Book Council
  • Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children to Nikki Grimes, 2006, National Council of Teachers of English
"A vigorous addition to the Creation canon."--Ilene Cooper, Booklist (October 1, 1999)

"This is illustration that might inspire a child artist."--Patricia Lothrop-Green, School Library Journal (January 1, 2000)

"Grimes captures the essence of a father/son relationship, with its mutual love and admiration, while also conveying the unique status of this particular father/son dynamic.  Her lyrical gifts are everywhere in abundance, set out with a deceptive simplicity that evokes an oral tradition; fittingly, Morin's (The Orphan Boy) mixed-media illustrations also evoke the art of oral cultures. . . . the graceful delivery of sophistocated themes and imagery will entice readers to delve for such deeper meanings."--Publisher's Weekly (November 29, 1999)

"A lovely and poetic reading of the Biblical creation story in a modern spirit from the versatile Grimes."--Kirkus Reviews (N.d.)

Poet Nikki Grimes was born in Harlem and wonders herself at the influence of her close proximity to the birthplace of the Harlem Renaissance in her work.  Using her poetry, and the poetry of Walter Dean Myers and other modern New York poets could be an entry point for the study of the Harlem Renaissance and its influence on subsequent writers of color.  It is especially fitting to use At Break of Day, a creation story, as renaissance means, "re-birth."

At Break of Day has the same tone as The Creation, a creation peom by a different African-American writer, James Weldon Johnson.  Students could compare and contrast both poems in terms of rhetorical style and word choice.

Nikki Grimes own website contains Teacher's Guides for the book, created by Tracie Vaughn Zimmer.
Finally, a video interview with Nikki Grimes is available via Reading Rockets.

Vital Stats
Grimes, Nikki. 1999. At Break of Day. Illus. by Paul Morin.  Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman's.  ISBN: 978-0-8028-5104-8.

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