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In Her Hands The Story of Sculptor Augusta Savage

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The power of a good picture book is a wondrous thing, especially those pictures books that bring historical figures to life. Author Alan Schroeder and illustrator JaeMe Bereal have done a splendid job in unfolding for young readers the life of Augusta Savage, an important but little known African American sculptor.

Augusta Savage was born in Green Cove Springs, Florida in 1892. It was a rural community known for its mineral springs, farmland and–happily for young Augusta–its clay pits. Like most children who love to play in the mud, Augusta happily used the abundant supply of clay to make figures. She was not only very good at it, but we can tell by the look in her eyes how happy she was when making them. In the very first picture, the reader can feel the power of art – its power for the child making it, and for the reader looking at Bereal’s wonderful illustration of that moment of creation. Bereal has a way with the eyes, and just as we can see young Augusta’s joy in her eyes, we can see in her father’s eyes how upset he is at his daughter’s activity.

When Augusta is fifteen her family moves to southern Florida, where there is none of the red clay she so loves. Schroeder is careful not to overplay her father’s strong feelings against his daughter’s desire to be an artist. When Augusta discovers a nearby pottery business, its owner gives her some of his clay if she promises to show him her work when she is done. One day her father finds the hidden clay in his tool shed, but her mother convinces him to let Augusta continue working with clay. Again Bereal’s art conveys vivid feeling in the determined look on the mother’s face as she confronts her husband.

The story takes us through Augusta’s school years and her eventually winning first prize for her sculpture at the county fair. Because so little is known of Augusta’s life, Schroeder’s text is especially enhanced by Bereal’s illustrations. The drawing of Augusta telling her mother that she intends to use her prize money to go to New York to be an artist evokes strong emotion with its use of dark colors and facial expressions.

Augusta’s talent eventually takes her to the Cooper Union School of Art, and from there she becomes an important participant in the Harlem Renaissance. Schroeder wisely adds two pages of Afterword filling in more of Augusta’s story with historical facts (and a few photographs) of the intervening years before her death in 1962.

Whenever I read a picture book for review, I try to imagine what conversations the story might initiate between reader and child. This subject is a rich one. Art is a difficult passion to pursue at best, but to be African American in the early part of the twentieth century and to have only limited family approval — well, it makes such dreams that much harder. Alan Schroeder’s words are straightforward and he has chosen key events in Augusta’s story that any child can relate to. JaeMe Bereal’s artwork is also straightforward, but her use of color, shapes and facial expressions lift Schroeder’s writing off the page.

Child or adult, this is a book so worth taking the time to read. The author’s Afterword is a wonderful jumping off place to begin your own search into a part of America’s artistic past, a past abundantly enriched by African American artists.   Sunny Solomon

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