cover image Jonkonnu


Amy Littlesugar. Philomel Books, $15.95 (32pp) ISBN 978-0-399-22831-5

The creators of Marie in Fourth Position team up for an intriguing picture book based on Winslow Homer's visit to the town of Petersburg, Va., in the summer of 1876, where the famous painter went toe-to-toe with racism and prejudice. As the nation gears up for its centennial Independence Day celebration, Homer, a New Yorker, heads ""down the red clay road"" each day to sketch the African American freedmen and -women and their children. Ironically, blacks are barred from the Fourth of July festivities; instead they prepare to celebrate Jonkonnu, a freedom holiday that originated in slavery days. The painter's interest in the black community sparks a confrontation with angry (white) local rabble, who eventually back down. Told from the point of view of a white girl who observes the artist each day, the story unfolds in Littlesugar's colorful prose (this Southern town is ""hot enough to still the cottonmouths in the creek""). This ably told tale exposes the lingering tensions of the Reconstruction era. The author also delves into Homer's creative process (""he'd spend hours lookin' at the sunshine--at the way it washed over a cabin yard"") and his appreciation of his subjects' family life, traditions and beauty. Schoenherr's sun-baked palette of earth tones splashed with the vivid greens of fertile farmland underscores the volatility of Homer's predicament. Fans of the famous painter will recognize the girls who later appear in The Cotton Pickers and, of course, The Carnival, Jonkonnu itself. A well-rounded portrait of the artist and his times. Ages 4-8. (Dec.)