27 October 2009

Cybils Nominee: River of Dreams: The Story of the Hudson River

From the very first line of the book, "When I was growing up in Kentucky, I used to dream about New York, the great city on the Hudson that bore my name," author-illustrator Hudson Talbott establishes two facts: this book is personally special, and this book is about--and for--dreamers. This is also established on the front cover, where the book's title and author are easily seen and compared, but the opening page, with it's illustration of a young boy looking out a window and envisioning a New York City skyline made of stars, prepares readers for something magical.

The entire history of the Hudson River is condensed to 42 pages, which is no mean feat, considering the influence this single river has had on the economic, industrial and creative development of the United States, and New York City in particular. As Talbot tells it, explorers, colonists, merchants, entrepreneurs, writers, artists and environmentalists all drew inspiration--and sometimes wealth--from the river. In fact, sometimes this book reads as a non-fiction version of The Giving Tree, in which the Hudson River is a source which cannot help but provide for the needs of Americans near and far; in the winter, when the river freezes and prohibits boat traffic and its corresponding business, locals harvest the ice, providing seasonal work for farmers who then ship it to the iceboxes of the booming New York City. "It was great business, for the ice was free--a gift of the river." The dark side to this relationship is that when New York City needs a sewer, the Hudson River fulfills that need, too.

Fortunately, as beneficial dreams feed one into another--the creation of the Erie Canal is a direct link between George Washington, who envisioned it, and Governor Dewitt Clinton, who finished it--so do the bad dreams feed into the good. The abuse of the river by big business (in particular, a proposed hydroelectric pumping station by Con Edison in 1963) leads directly to the creation of the modern environmental movement and legislation which protects natural resources across the United States.

Talbot has written and illustrated a book which, quite appropriately, flows from one historical period to the next. The connections he makes link from the Ice Age to modern times. He uses the river as a visual motif as well; it weaves across the pages, dividing text into readable chunks. Dates are printed on the river so that the timeline is visible and fluid. Techniques such as a train breaking through a tranquil landscape dramatically illustrates the impact that modern industrialization would have on the future of the river. He incorporates stories of personal tragedy (Henry Hudson, for which the river is named, is the victim of a mutiny and set adrift in the icy Canadian waters never to be seen again) with the grand panorama of history. And at the end, there is the reminder of the boy who dreamed of a river linked to him by his name. Picturesque, lively, and ever flowing, River of Dreams is a book born of a child's dream, leading to inspiration and fulfillment, just as the Hudson River has done throughout history.


Gayle said...

My son asked me today which books would be good to read...I listed some classics, but he wanted something newer. So who do I come to? You, my resident expert/friend on all books for kids! Thanks, I'm going to suggest this and the Lou Gehrig one for him!

Kara Schaff Dean said...

I hope he likes them! They are both great books which utilize the strength of their format (the picture book layout) to present a lot of interest in a way that is appealing to kids.

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