Monday, November 24, 2014

Visual literacy: Power of a photo

Right off the bat, I have to fess up to loving the series Captured History and Captured World History.

I've blogged about one of the books, Migrant Mother by Don Nardo a while back, in fact.
And I'm immensely grateful that the publisher (Compass Point Books) has branched out into world history with their latest offerings.

These books focus on iconic photographs that have had an impact on the viewing public, changing and forming public opinion about social issues such as migrant workers during the American Depression era, about child workers in the early 1900s,  the cost of war, specifically the American civil war, the environment, and international politics to name but a few.

They are organized following  a basic format:  rudimentary background about the ‘moment’ to set up the image,  in-depth historical information about  the period, information about the photographer, his/her work and what was happening when he/she took the photograph and then, what lasting impact the image has had. Also included are timelines, glossary, reading lists, internet resources, bibliography, index, and a few critical thinking questions.

These real-life stories really get you into the picture you’re looking at, establishing context so that we can understand why the photo was and often still is important and what were the implications for social change.

So, have I convinced you that these series are worth checking out?

Another recent arrival in the Doucette Library is PhotosFramed: a fresh look at the world’s most memorable photographs by Ruth Thomson.

It does a similar job focusing on notable images (27 of them to be precise).  These are organized into groupings according to the intent of the photo.  Categorized as portraits, nature, art, and documentary,   each section displays several photographs that range over time.  For example, Portraiture includes an 1844 image of Louis Daguerre who produced the first permanent photograph, a 1949 of Pablo Picasso, Che Guevara in 1960, Afghan girl in 1985, and the Royal Wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton in 2011.

Each photo is accompanied by a preceding page that contains information about the photograph, the photographer, two boxed commentaries that zoom in on very specific aspects of the image, and three questions to make the viewer think a little more deeply about this image.

For example, when viewing the famous National Geographic 1985 photo of a refugee Afghan girl we are asked to think about:
*How does the girl’s direct stare make you feel?*How might the effect of this photograph have differed if the photographer had taken a wider shot?*If you had to put this photograph into a category, with would you choose: portrait or documentary or both? Why?

I found this book fascinating because it did include so many images, many that I was unfamiliar with, so I could browse.  The point of memorable images is that they draw you in, make you wonder what the story is, and then revisits you time and again.

Take the 1986 photograph of the Serra Pelada gold mine taken by Sebastiao Salgado (pp.52&53) that document
 the enormity of the man-made mine, with carved-out hollows and terraces and long, rickety ladders leaning against its steep sides.  The packed crowd of miners, shifting their loads of earth, appears to move as one, in a continuous flow, like ants.It is an evocative image.

There is some overlap between the Capturing History series and Photos Framed which I found interesting and great for comparing the two.

Check out Tank Man: how a photograph defined China’s protest movement by Michael Burgan and p. 54 and 55 in Photos FramedTank Man  (the book) is full on – everything you need to know.  Photos Framed is much more cursory with just the basics for context.   The questions posed by each are interesting and, I think, complementary.  Photos Framed gives us three questions that make us analyze and deconstruct this specific image whereas Tank Man provides questions that take us beyond the image having us think about the implications, like the attitude of the protesters, understanding aspects of democracy, and the power of such an image.

I’m recommending both books for the middle grades (grades 5-9’ish) but I think students in high school would find these fascinating and very approachable.  Students working below reading level might feel less daunted but still come away with an increased understanding about significant moments in history and today’s world.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Poetry: Girl issues

Poisoned Apples: poems for you, My Pretty by Christine Heppermann.

Wow!  Loved it!

The title tells you right from the get go that this book has some tie to fairy tales and that we can expect some kind of edge. It’s while reading the poems that you realize that the fairy tales are often the ones we tell ourselves or those that society wants us to buy into that the author wants to wrap your head around.

The title lets you know that there will be bitter truths to bite into and maybe to be swallowed – or not.

It also suggests that this will not be a smooth trip into the woods to grandmother’s house but then when was it ever a smooth trip?  This slight volume also shows us that it’s not only in the woods that girls can lose their way (see the first poem, The Woods).

The issues here are all about being a young woman and the many conundrums, tribulations, and horrors that can be part of coming of age.  Whether girls are dealing with body image, eating disorders, roles, sexuality, school, relationships with friends and boyfriends, the poems tells us of the pain, humour, irony, and bravery that are also be part of these tales.

It’s about power; having it, not having it, losing it, getting it back, and embracing it.

It explores different perspectives of fairy tale characters.  Yes, fair maidens are here, Snow White, Rapunzel, Red Riding Hood.  And Beauty, she’s here too, though with such self- loathing that she recognizes only herself as the Beast. We also get see the unloved Ugly Sister after Cinderella is whisked away by the Prince. We get to know of the terrible pressure that ‘the’ Witch (aka, The Fairest) lives under as she frantically tries to keep pace doing away with all young, beautiful, upcoming challengers (beware Gretel, Bo Peep, Goldilocks in The Assassin).

Black and white photos are interspersed throughout and certainly add to the provocative tone of the poems.  Some are outright disturbing while others just make us think a little bit more deeply.  Check out Nature Lesson (p.76) with a striking image of water eroded canyon walls, all curves, edges and striated walls that reflects a natural process. The associated poem speaks to girls’ natural beauty that must be covered up so that boys will not be distracted and stray from the path to their peril. Here's a snippet:

                We say
                that if a hiker strays
                off the path, trips, and
                winds up crippled,
                is it really
                the canyon’s fault?        

 Poisoned Apples is deliciously clever and bitter and well worth biting into.

Highly recommended for high school.

Loved it! (Just saying.)

Monday, November 10, 2014

In Remembrance

There’s nothing like a story about an underdog to grab the hearts and imaginations of a reading public. 

Two of today’s recommendations are about dogs in World War I and how their companionship made the war a little more bearable, a little more human for the regiments and friends they accompanied.

Stubby the War Dog: the true story of World War I’s bravest dog by Ann Bausum is almost the ultimate “boy-and-his-dog” story.  It’s about a stray mutt  adopted by recruits training at the Yale University stadium.  Stubby eventually singles out one of these enlisted men for himself and the two become fast friends for life.  After basic training, Stubby (a Boston terrier cross) is smuggled across the Atlantic to Europe where he accompanies James Robert Conroy for the duration of World War I.  Becoming the mascot for Conroy’s regiment, he provides companionship for all and invaluable service running messages and warning soldiers of incoming shells.  Recommended for middles grades 5-8.

Rags, hero dog of WWI: a true story by Margot Theis Raven is recommended for younger kids, grades 1-4, and that tells a similar tale of the bond between an American soldier and a stray pup he finds in Paris.  Rags also perform acts of bravery and service to his regiment, just like Stubby.  But it’s his loyalty to Private James Donovan that remains steadfast until Donovan’s death and beyond that he best remembered for.  It’s a sad story but it’s the nature of war that is captured here so poignantly.

A Canadian story to know about is, Bunny, the Brave War Horse: based on a true story by Elizabeth MacLean.  Obviously not about a dog, this stalwart horse (named Bunny for his long ears) survived the war living through numerous attacks, appalling conditions of wet, cold, mud and starvation while still providing an element of companionship for the men he had to work with particularly Constable Thomas H. Dundas.  This is a story of hardship and endurance,  recommended for grades 2-5.

Lest we forget.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Birds of a feather or facsimiles thereof

Aviary Wonders Inc.

 Spring Catalog and Instruction Manual
Renewing the World’s Bird Supply Since 2031
By Kate Samworth

Imagine a near future that did not include our feathered friends.

What To Do?

For all us Do-It-Yourselfers, you’d turn to the Aviary Wonders Inc. Catalog and Instruction Manual and let your fingers to do the walking (oh, hang on that’s Yellow Pages and for those who don’t know what yellow pages are and wonder why your fingers would have to walk - just Google it, sigh…).

This catalogue offers only the highest quality bird assemblages from basic body types, feet, wings, tails and collars all made with the highest quality materials and precision.  Feather colours are vibrantly captured using 100% Indian silk. Functional , hand-crafted beaks come in many patterns that range far from reality.  Collars, crests and wattle and combs are resplendent and varied. Browsing through this catalogue is thrilling as one ponders the possible combinations and permutations.

But when it comes to selecting and putting your bird together it gets more involved – way more involved.  There's nothing slap-dash about it.

*1st, body type: Do you want a swimmer, wader, percher or bird of prey?
*2nd, beaks: What will your bird eat?  Insects? Meat? Plants? Fish? This is crucial!
*3rd, tails:  Used for braking, balancing, steering and display.
*4th, legs and feet:  Selected based on body type, habitat and lifestyle.
*5th, wings:  Depends on flight patterns and specific needs for maneuverability and quick get-a-ways.

There is so much to consider. All selections have vital consequences for the end result for your feathered friend.  Improbable portions could end in disaster. Therefore, do not put paddling feet on a bird of prey with finch wings and a rooster tail.

Then you have to actually put the dang thing together - challenging even the most apt IKEA furniture assembler, if you ask me.  By the time you begin putting parts together, you wonder if it’s really worth all the effort. Maybe we should just get down to saving the birds we still have on this earth and enjoy these perfectly constructed, adapted creatures that we often take for granted.

A very clever book that would work well with elementary and middle grades.  Great tie-ins with science, environmental education, activism and art.

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