The personal family history as picture book is an interesting little subgenre. It's been in the American picture book roster for years, dating back at least as far as Robert Lawson's 1940 Caldecott winner They Were Strong and Good. Generally speaking, the American picture book memoir tends to focus on families that have immigrated to the States. Dan Yacarrino's All the Way to America is a good example of this. The nice thing about Claire A. Nivola's Orani: My Father's Village is that it goes the other way. The American immigrant and his family return to the old country on a regular basis and his daughter, now grown, recounts what it was like to have a place like Sardinia visit. The result is a strangely haunting, heady look at a microcosm of birth, death, marriage, and strife shrunk down to a size just perfect for a child.
When Claire was a kid she and her family would travel back to Sardinia, her father's birthplace, and visit with friends and relatives in the village of Orani. There, a small girl could see a whole host of wonders. From tiny lizards sunning themselves in the sun to tethered goats and donkeys. There were funerals and weddings, babies and corpses, figs and flies, new bread and dances. Eventually the family would have to return home to New York City and the child would look around and wonder. Does every immigrant have an Orani of their own somewhere?
Does nostalgia make for good children's literature? Only when there's a point to it above and beyond satiating the author's fancy. A clever personal story should contain some historical hook that's both informative and interesting to the child reader. William Stieg's When Everybody Wore a Hat may be one of the more perfect examples of this. Orani has an advantage of its own since the story is a kind of child fantasy. Kids today are often watched and guarded and kept close at hand by their anxious guardians. The charm of Orani then is that it offers a kind of modern day child fantasy. Imagine that there was an island where you could run around all day with other kids, exploring and visiting and you were always safe. With bandits. Nivola succeeds in making a story that is accurate to her memories but that also could really appeal to kids. No small feat.
In an odd way, the book this really reminded me the most of was Donald Hall's Caldecott winning Ox-Cart Man with illustrations by Barbara Cooney. Nivola's style is distinctly Cooney-esque (whatever that may mean). There's a seeming simplicity to her images. And I loved that Claire gives her main character a red dress, allowing the reader the chance to pick her out in one scene or another. The feel of Orani is captured in these pages, leaving the reader with no doubt that the author speaks the truth when she says at the end of the book "I continue to go back to Orani." Curiously, there is only one problematic picture in the title, and it isn't even of Orani itself. The story takes place in the 1950s, which is all well and good. However, the last image we see of our heroine shows her standing on a crowded New York City street with a host of different kinds of people. All well and good except that the people are clearly contemporary. There's a woman in pants and a man with cornrows and jeans. Because Nivola is mentioning how every immigrant may have an Orani of their own, the picture could be interpreted as symbolic and I'm fine with that. However, the facing page, and last image in the book, throws us right back into the 1950s. It's a small inconsistency in an otherwise outstanding title.
As for the writing, it's more evocative than you might expect. I loved some of the descriptions here. How bread dough makes sounds, "like a plump baby being playfully slapped." Or when she returns home to New York City and sees the people from all over the world, "I wondered, what Orani of their own might they have known before they traveled here?" There isn't a "plot" per say, to the book but rather a simple recounting of all that there is to do and see. The tone for this flows. It doesn't read like a rote series of remembrances, nor an overly sentimentalized recounting of one's youth. Instead it is a collection of straightforward memories that use language beautifully.
Another thing I like about the book is that it isn't all sunshine and roses in Orani. One of the first things Nivola does with the book is mention the good things about the island (wild scented thyme, tiny goats, fruit that "tasted like the fruit of paradise") alongside the dark (nettles, scorpions, "and bandits who stole sheep and sometimes kidnapped people"). Once we're in Orani itself most of what Claire describes is entirely pleasant. Yet there are moments that acknowledge the darker side of life. While in a tree eating figs one of Claire's cousins asks her if she's ever seen a dead body. Next thing you know they're climbing the steps to a room where a body lies "rigid and white and cold with the unspeakable strangeness of death." In her Author's Note, Nivola says that Orani for her contained both tragedy and joy, "but they happened in a contained place, among family and neighbors, where everyone knew and cared, so that as a child I could comprehend and feel that each part fit into life's whole." So too does this book take birth, marriage, death, and place such life altering moments in a context small enough for a child reader to understand. Nivola is replicating her childhood experience for children today.
Some of criticized the fact that the book sets no event in Orani above another. Viewing a corpse bears as much page space as finding a fledgling. Personally, I think that is one of the great strengths of the book. Everything in Nivola's memory contains similar weight. Children will be able to apply their own set of criteria and judge what is and isn't important to them accordingly. What's important to me, though, is that the writing in this picture book is superb and that goes for the pictures as well. More than just a simple recounting of a time long past, the book sparks something in the reader. Nivola's images and words will now serve to become part of the memories of her young readers. And on and on it goes.