Thursday, October 8, 2009

Abraham and Frederick

Another book celebrating the Abraham Lincoln bicentenary is the picture book Lincoln and Douglass: An American Friendship by Nikki Giovanni, with illustrations by Bryan Collier. Lincoln has invited his old friend Frederick Douglass -- the former slave and African American activist -- to join his second inaugural ball, but it takes Douglass a little bit longer to reach the ballroom, since the White House staff believe he and his wife have come to work the party, not celebrate.

As Lincoln spots Douglass and walks to greet him, poet Giovanni flashes back to the journey that each took to get to that ballroom -- a poor or enslaved childhood, revelations about slavery (Lincoln) and escape from it (Douglass), and a life of public service. (There were two spreads devoted to the abolitionist John Brown and a black woman who supported him, Mary Ellen Pleasant, that -- aside from the poetic language -- felt like they were from another book.) A full gatefold spread of a Civil War battle concludes the journey as the two men finally meet.

The actor Danny Glover (who lives in Portland, I think ... I wonder if he has a library card) reads this book. He narrates with suitable gravitas for the subject, and the reading is underscored by appropriate music that helps to alter the mood as the book transitions from gala party to depictions of slavery to a battlefield. The battlefield illustration is wordless, so soaring, inspirational music (along with a few battle sounds) takes over. On the whole, though, the book and this audio production both seem to emphasize the historical importance of its two protagonists. And not in a good way. The dialog seems forced, and the men are well, not human beings. (John Brown and Mary Ellen Pleasant don't come off really well, either.) Lincoln and Douglass are symbols. Do symbols make for very interesting history? I don't think so.

This audiobook has some queer quirks as well. The reader is never named. I listened to several picture books from Weston Woods this weekend, and it seems this publisher never credits its readers [clarification: the narrator's name is printed on the CD itself]. Is that because its audiobooks are really just the audio tracks of the DVD versions ... and presumably the DVD's visual credits show that Glover is the reader? A timeline is read at the end ... and like most timelines, it's pretty darn dull to listen to.

The book includes several pieces of front matter that aren't read aloud: Notes from the author and the illustrator, and a facsimile of the Emancipation Proclamation that is the book's first illustration. There is music, along with signals to get the listener through these pages if you choose to listen to the page-turn track. On the other track, there's just a whole lot of stirring music between the title page and the book's first scene at the inaugural ball. Now, I would be the first person to say that starting off a picture book audiobook with a reading of the Emancipation Proclamation is probably not a good thing, so I think I can agree with the decision not to. Again, I'm pretty sure that the DVD version pans lovingly over this illustration, but it just doesn't translate well to audio.

Which leads me neatly to my conclusions. This book is not a good candidate for audio. The flashback approach (along with the insertion of John Brown/Mary Ellen Pleasant) is confusing if you're listening without the book. The lengthy sections without narration are frankly a little dull (will a young listener stare at the Emancipation Proclamation all the time that the page-turn signal allows?). The gatefold illustration instructs you to 'Open Here' to view the full picture, and a voice other that Glover's provides this instruction. This is really strange to hear if you are not holding the book. The characters seem flat and speak unnaturally; the awkward speech is exacerbated when read aloud. In short, there seem to be too many exceptions to make this a smooth-listening audiobook. Does Weston Woods turn all their DVDs into audiobooks?

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