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An Interview with Author Alexis O’Neill About Picture Book Bio Jacob Riis’s Camera

 

AN INTERVIEW

WITH AUTHOR ALEXIS O’NEILL

 

RIIS Cover from BMK

 

 

JACOB RIIS’S CAMERA: BRINGING LIGHT TO TENEMENT CHILDREN

ILLUSTRATED BY GARY KELLEY

(Calkins Creek/Boyd Mills & Kane; $18.99, Ages 7-10)

I’m so happy to share this interview with popular SoCal author, Alexis O’Neill. Her new picture book biography introduces Jacob Riis, a determined New Yorker born in Denmark, to a new generation of readers. It’s hard not to feel as though you’ve traveled back in time as you learn about Riis, who is best known for his moving photographs of the plight of the poor tenement dwellers in the late 19th century and early 20th century.

SUMMARY

In Jacob Riis’s Camera, a penniless immigrant, who becomes a reporter and social activist, uses new flash powder technology to illuminate desperate tenement living conditions and brings about changes for children and their families.

INTERVIEW

GOOD READS WITH RONNA: Did you happen upon Jacob Riis’s photos one day and find inspiration to write this picture book or did you intentionally set out to write his story?

Riis Interior with Flash
Interior illustration from Jacob Riis’s Camera: Bringing Light to Tenement Children written by Alexis O’Neill and illustrated by Gary Kelley, Calkins Creek ©2020.

ALEXIS O’NEILL: I’ve always been interested in photography and photographers. I used to live pretty much with a camera in my hand, and when I lived in central New York, I belonged to the Syracuse Camera Club, one of the oldest in the nation. I met Riis’s photos when I was researching child labor issues for other projects. Then later, I read his autobiography, The Making of an American. He wrote so vividly and personally that I felt as if he were right beside me, chatting with me in my living room. That’s when I knew I wanted to write a book about him.

GRWR: Despite my familiarity with Riis’s haunting b + w photos, I had no idea how influential he had been during his lifetime. What fact or facts about Riis surprised you the most?

AON: I was really surprised that Riis didn’t consider himself a photographer. In fact, he later carelessly tossed his glass plate negatives into his attic. Then, just before a wrecking ball was about to destroy the family home, the images were rescued, thanks to photographer Alexander Alland, Sr., and donated by Riis’s son, Roger William, to the Museum of the City of New York.

GRWR: Riis was a champion of the poor as early as his youth in Denmark. What impact would you say his photos have had on the way this segment of our society is treated?

AON: Riis’s photos were revolutionary. They inspired accountability and gave documentary evidence that helped force compliance of landlords with sanitary and building regulations.

GRWR: How big a role did Riis’s immigrant background play in his career?

AON: Like most immigrants, he had a driving work ethic. He was an educated Dane with carpentry skills, but he had a hard time finding work in America. He did all kinds of menial tasks in order to survive. He experienced homelessness and hunger. He experienced injustices and wanted to fix themnot just for himself, but for others.

 

RIIS Tenement Neighborhood
Interior spread from Jacob Riis’s Camera: Bringing Light to Tenement Children written by Alexis O’Neill and illustrated by Gary Kelley, Calkins Creek ©2020.


GRWR:
Is there a particular photo of Riis’s that particularly resonates with you?

AON: To me, his most heartbreaking photo is “The Baby’s Playground.” A toddler with a shaved head and filthy dress stands in front of an overflowing public sink at the top of a dark staircase that has a railing held together with rope. The wall behind the baby is coming loose. No child should have to live like that.

p23 RIIS Book116
Interior illustration from Jacob Riis’s Camera: Bringing Light to Tenement Children written by Alexis O’Neill and illustrated by Gary Kelley, Calkins Creek ©2020.

GRWR: Obviously this nonfiction bio involved a lot of research. How did you choose what to include or leave out when his rags to not-so-riches-but-fame story is so fascinating? Was there a portion or time period of his life that was most difficult to nail down?

AON: Riis’s relationship with his Danish sweetheart was complicated, so I treated that with a broad brush stroke.

GRWR: Why do you think no professional photographer had captured the lives of shelters and tenement dwellers prior to Riis?

AON: At the time, most photographers made pretty portraits or, like Matthew Brady, recorded historical events. Riis, in contrast, showed the underbelly of life. I think that when Riis read about the invention of flash powder, it came at the right time for him. Photographs taken with this new technological tool helped him convince officials to make changes in the tenements.

RIIS Five Cents a spot
Interior illustration from Jacob Riis’s Camera: Bringing Light to Tenement Children written by Alexis O’Neill and illustrated by Gary Kelley, Calkins Creek ©2020.

GRWR: Do you attribute Riis’s success to his talent as a photographer, his perseverance, good timing or all three?

AON: I believe Riis’s success can be attributed to his determination and tireless work to tell a complete story of the social injustice experienced by impoverished city inhabitants. He lived during a time of great interest in social reform.

GRWR: As a former New Yorker and lover of NYC’s Tenement Museum, I’ve always admired Riis’s photos. Why do you think his accomplishments are not better known today?

AON: Riis’s photos continue to impress people, and his contribution was unique. In his advocacy for improving substandard housing, he was one among many of his contemporaries who also advocated for changing laws on child labor, suffrage, public health, housing, and schools.

GRWR: What’s one of your favorite illustrations by Gary Kelley in your book?

AON: I love Gary’s illustration of Jacob giving a lecture and pointing to his photograph of a tenement mother holding her swaddled infant. As he talks, Jacob gestures to the poignant image. This image makes me wish I could have heard Jacob in person!

BIO

AON Headshot2 by SonyaSones
Alexis O’Neill, photo by ©Sonya Sones.

Alexis O’Neill is the author of several picture books including The Recess Queen, the winner of several children’s choice awards, and The Kite That Bridged Two Nations, a California Young Reader Medal Nominee. Her new picture book biographies are Jacob Riis’s Camera; Bringing Light to Tenement Children and The Efficient, Inventive (Often Annoying) Melvil Dewey (due Fall 2020). Alexis received the California Reading Association’s award for making significant and outstanding contributions to reading throughout California and is an instructor for the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program.

Website: www.alexisoneill.com

Facebook: www.facebook.com/alexis.oneill.9

Twitter: @AlexisInCA

Instagram: @Alexis2017

Thank you so much, Alexis, for sharing your insights about Jacob Riis and giving us the inside scoop about your new picture book biography, Jacob Riis’s Camera. It’s so great to know how many children will now have a chance to learn about Riis’s important contributions to society.

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Visiting L.A. With Little Ones This Summer? Bring Along Los Angeles Is …

LOS ANGELES IS …
Written by Elisa Parhad
Illustrated by Alexander Vidal
(Cameron Kids; $12.95, Ages 0-4)

 

Los Angeles Is ... by Elisa Parhad cover illustration

 

If you’re planning to visit Los Angeles this summer or sometime soon, or perhaps you even live here, get yourself a copy of Los Angeles Is … by Elisa Parhad to experience the city in a fun new way. This original and engaging approach to L.A. in board book format is not only full of refreshing tour guide language little ones will love, but is spot on in its perspective. Los Angeles Is … looks at L.A. from two savvy insiders’ points of view (both author and illustrator are Angelenos) and highlights aspects of “one of America’s most iconic cities” that not all books touch upon. And I’m happy to say, it’s the first in a series of regional board books by Parhard with illustrator Alexander Vidal.

The 24 vibrantly colored pages and clever descriptions bring young readers on an enticing tour of the town taking in everything L.A. from surfing waves / fashion faves …

 

Interior illustrations waves and faves from Los Angeles Is ... by Elisa Parhad
Interior artwork from Los Angeles Is … written by Elisa Parhad and illustrated by Alexander Vidal, Cameron Kids/Cameron + Company ©2018.

 

… to citrus fruits / long commutes. The rhyme is perfectly paired with the pictures (as seen above and below) and rather than including only the same old expected spots and landmarks, there are lots of unexpected sights (late-night diners / mod designers) mixed with ones always worth noting (canyon views / movie crews). Another aspect of L.A. that we’d prefer to forget—long commutes—is also depicted because it’s part and parcel of daily life in the City of Angels.

 

Interior illustrations fruits and commutes from Los Angeles Is ... by Elisa Parhad
Interior artwork from Los Angeles Is … written by Elisa Parhad and illustrated by Alexander Vidal, Cameron Kids/Cameron + Company ©2018.

 

Parents will appreciate the realistic portrait of California’s biggest city while toddlers will like the upbeat rhythm and enchanting artwork. Illustrator and designer  Vidal captures the sunshine and sophistication of L.A. and its array of attractions in images familiar to many and warm and welcoming to others. Make a game out of reading Los Angeles Is … together with your child to try to name places and things to do from A-Z including airport, farmers market, orange orchard and Rodeo Drive.

 

Interior illustrations eats and feats from Los Angeles Is ... by Elisa Parhad
Interior artwork from Los Angeles Is … written by Elisa Parhad and illustrated by Alexander Vidal, Cameron Kids/Cameron + Company ©2018.

 

I found myself quite partial to Vidal’s characters and animals with their pointy legs and no feet yet somehow that style works wonderfully. I also enjoyed how everything else, whether palm-lined streets, food truck treats, low-ride cruising or poolside snoozing is depicted with bold graphic shapes such as ovals, rectangles, circles and squares, maybe not intentionally done as a learning tool, but still ideal for pointing out to little ones.

I recommend picking up a copy of Los Angeles Is … to make any visit more meaningful to youngsters and, while you’re at it, get an extra copy for a friend with children four and under. I know you’ll find it as delightful as I did.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

Read a review of another travel-themed board book here.

 

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This Is How We Do It by Matt Lamothe

THIS IS HOW WE DO IT:
One Day in The Lives of Seven Kids From Around the World
Written and illustrated by Matt Lamothe
(Chronicle Books; $17.99, Ages 5-8)

 

Book cover image of This Is How We Do It by Matt Lamothe

 

 

Starred reviews – Booklist, Horn Books
Included on Smithsonian Ten Best Children’s Books of 2017

“From Breakfast to Bedtime, Spend the Day with Seven Children around the world …”

Meet Romeo (Italy), Kei (Japan), Daphine (Uganda), Oleg (Russia), Ananya (India), Ribaldo (Peru), and Kian (Iran). Read Lamothe’s This Is How We Do It and spend a day with each of these real children and their families to see how their day compares to yours.

A map of the world on the end pages depicts each child and where each child and his or her family lives. The book consists of several attractive and well laid out thematic sections. Each three to four page section introduces the reader to the children from “This is Me” to “This is How We Learn” and “This is How I Help.” On each page, separate panels depict the activities of each child. Other sections include information on what children eat for breakfast and lunch, how they spell their name, and what they do after school.

Each child’s in this book’s close knit family unit consists of a father and mother and siblings. As happens with many families, there are a few challenges. Ribaldo does his homework by flashlight and sleeps on wood planks padded by three blankets. Daphine’s walk to school takes thirty minutes and she sits in a class with 68 other students.  Some of the families live in homes or apartments in large urban centers, but a few live in small villages in homes made of wood and mud. The upbeat tone and the love and happiness seen in the family photographs may be reassuring to young children whose families are facing their own challenges.

Meal times are interesting and show the great diversity of food and dinner times, while most eat an early evening meal, Daphine’s family eats at 10 p.m. Nevertheless, what will be so familiar and relatable to American children will be the illustrations of the seven families seated around a table and sharing a meal and doing after-dinner activities such as homework, playing board games, watching TV, hobbies, and, of course, reading.

The final spread,”This is My Night Sky,” presents a full moon against a backdrop of twinkling stars, a type of sky seen by children all over the world. The last pages show photos of the actual children and their families and include a glossary and a brief note on how the author collaborated with the families in putting this book together. This Is How We Do It  is a fascinating book which can be used at home or in the classroom to help children build global awareness and discover that they share much in common with other children all over the world.

See pages from the book and learn more about the author/illustrator here. Visit the publisher’s website to see a book trailer and download the free activity guide which helps young children gain a deeper understanding of the book and includes some very cool ideas!

  • Reviewed by Dornel Cerro

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