Cover of book shows an African American slave floating above cotton fieldAs a general rule, books happen text-first, especially when the author and illustrator are different people. An author writes a story, and then an illustrator illustrates it, often shaping it in new ways. But still, the general rule is that words come before pictures.

Like a Bird: The Art of the American Slave Song is remarkable because it came about art first, words second. The artist Michele Wood painted canvases to represent 13 traditional spirituals. She then shared the art with the writer, Cynthia Grady.

The result is a book that, unsurprisingly, begs to be looked at. The writing–one or two paragraphs facing each piece of art–gives the historical context of the song and suggests things to look for in the art. But the overall tone is closer to encyclopedia than to lyric. Still, I found the information fascinating.

And the art is gorgeous and worth getting lost in!

I can think of very few books that are constructed this way, with the art first. One is Joel Meyerowitz’s Seeing Things. It is constructed very similarly to this, with an image and a short essay (here, less encyclopedic and more personal) on a facing page. But Draw What You See is an attempt to weave a narrative arc about the artist from the artists’s own canvases.

It could be an interesting challenge to invite kids to draw pictures and then exchange them, allowing each artist to become a writer, commenting on someone else’s art.

Like a Bird: The Art of the American Slave Song by Cynthia Grady, illustrated by Michele Wood. Millbrook: 2016

Children with book around a globe

I participate every Wednesday in the Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge.