Sunday, July 20, 2008

Ain't Nobody a Stranger to Me

Ain't Nobody a Stranger to Me
Grifalconi, Ann. 2007. Ain't Nobody a Stranger to Me. Ill. by Jerry Pinkney. New York: Hyperion. ISBN 13 9780786818570.

In Ain’t Nobody a Stranger to Me, loosely based on historical persons, a Grandfather shares with his young granddaughter his tale of escape from Southern slavery with his wife and baby. He recalls the helpfulness of strangers on the Underground Railroad, including Quaker James Stanton. His sense of gratitude has shaped his belief that “ain’t nobody a stranger.” The story appears to be set in the 1930s.

Ain't Nobody a Stranger to Me is a story of fortitude, gratitude, forgiveness, and a spirit of optimism. As a slave, Gran'pa collected apple seeds in hope of a day that he might be free to plant them on his own land as a free man. He tells of his flight to freedom and the generosity of strangers. Grifalconi tells this story in a manner appropriate to introduce this heartbreaking topic to young children. The text expresses Gran'pa's belief in the goodness of mankind and his faith in God. "We had to put our trust in the Good Lord. We'd set our hearts right, and along the way help came when we needed it."The darker aspects of slavery and the dangers of the Underground Railroad are expressed not in words, but in Jerry Pinkney's line and watercolor paintings. The harrowing escape of Gran'pa his wife and baby, and their subsequent struggle to survive as free people are depicted in shades of browns and greys, evoking dark moments. The expressive eyes of Grandfather and his wife in these scenes are alternately fearful, wary, and weary. In contrast, the scenes of Gran'pa with his granddaughter are joyful colors and expressions of tenderness and love. In a colorful and heartwarming ending, Gran'pa and the young girl eat apples in the orchard he planted as a freed man. The apple blossoms are a riot of cheerful pink, and the young girl plants a new seed and promises to remember.

Grifalconi's story is a solid, age-appropriate (5-9) introduction to the Underground Railroad, however her choice of story delivery is awkward at times. Grandfather's story is told within the confines of the girl's first person account, and the girl often speaks in language styles that are conflicting or unusual for a young girl (Black or White) in the 1930s or any time period. In quoted passages, she speaks in a voice more typical of a Black child from the South in the 1930s. "They be from our stone cellar, Grandpa?" and "...could I one day plant me a seed of memory here, too?" In other passages, she speaks as an educated adult, "He grinned happily down at me" and "Soon, the spring air began to carry the fresh, sweet smell of apple blossoms to us." The frequent switching of dialect and narrator may be confusing to readers.

Jerry Pinkey's credentials as an African American illustrator are numerous and impressive. The jacket notes that he has "illustrated more than one hundred books for children" and is the recipient of Caldecott Honors, Coretta Scott King Awards, and more. His artwork for this story sets the period (a horse-drawn ice wagon, long-skirted women with hats and boots) and sets the tone (the darkness of hiding, the green grass of freedom). Kirkus Reviews refers to an "author's note" explaining the attribution of the title phrase, "Ain't Nobody a Stranger to Me." The book, however, does not contain any author's notes. The dust jacket only explains that the phrase was inspired by former slave, Orleans Finger. Overall, this book can be recommended on the basis of Pinkney's expressive artwork and Grifalconi's presentation of a difficult picture book topic.

This is a picture book that can be used to introduce older students (3rd and 4th grades) to the Underground Railroad experience.

A follow-up to the story can be an exploration of the excellent National Geographic site that allows for a guided, interactive journey from slavery to freedom on the Underground Railroad.

Pair this book with Caldecott Honor Book, Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom, by Carole Boston Weatherfield, Illustrated by Kadir Nelson.

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