Most helpful critical review
23 of 29 people found the following review helpful
Not so hot
on April 18, 2004
Consider me disappointed. Painfully, wretchedly, miserably disappointed. Author Jerdine Nolen and illustrator Kadir Nelson attempted something marvelous. They were going to write a tall tale about Thunder Rose, the African-American cowgirl of the west. She would have lightning and thunder in her veins and be the kind of child that could wrassle a steer to the ground. This was going to be the new picture book classic. It had all the markings of one, there's no doubt. Sassy heroine. Good set of ideas and the illustrator of the fabulous "The Village That Vanished". And best yet, Jerdine Nolen wrote that wonderful, "Harvey Potter's Balloon Farm" (which, if I were you, I'd run out and grab this instant). So what happened? This book had everything going for it, and it fell flat on its face. But I'll start from the beginning.
Here's the plot of "Thunder Rose". As I mentioned, Rose was a remarkable baby. She was able to juggle lightning and thunder mere minutes after she was born and speak in complete sentences. If she got thirsty she'd merely pick up the nearest cow and drink her dry. As she grew older, Rose constructed her very own thunderbolt out of scrap iron and named it Cole. At twelve she could stop a stampede and ride a steer like a horse. When rain won't come to the prairie, Rose takes it upon herself to draw the rain from the sky and finds instead that she must do battle with a tornado.
Okay, fine. Tall tales usually have this kind of rhythmic rise and fall to the action. As a story goes on. the hero's accomplishments are supposed to get grander and more ludicrous, culminating in a showdown of some sort with either a force of nature of a force of man. Unfortunately, the words and pictures used to illustrate this text aren't up to the challenge of complimenting such a grandiose story. The narration is particularly difficult to both read and understand. I'm not talking about drawl. A good story has an ear for well spoken dialogue. Unfortunately, the dialogue in this here tall tale is sparse. Mostly, we get narration that makes some fairly odd statements. For example, after creating a barbed wire fence for her parents, the two ask Rose where she got the idea.
"Oh that," she said. "While I was staking the fence, Pa asked me to keep little Barbara Jay company. That little twisty pattern seemed to make the baby laugh. So I like to think of it as Barbara's Wire".
This is supposed to be an amusing explanation as to why we refer to barbed wire as such. Now, I'd just like to point out that this statement on the part of Rose comes clear out of the blue. Who the heck is Barbara Jay? This is a character never mentioned in the text except for this moment and there certainly isn't a single picture of a baby apart from young Rose in the book. It's such a random section in such a random scene (and believe me, it is not the only one) that I can only assume that the editor trimmed out the scenes that referred to this character beforehand and then failed to catch this non sequitor of a section later.
The whole pace of the book is just off, and it makes for awkward reading. Worse still is the melding of text and illustration. I'm the first one to say that illustrator Kadir Nelson is a genius. Thunder Rose is absolutely perfect in this book. Her gait, her expressions, and her attitude is dead right. This illustrator imbues her character with just enough oomph and polish to make you fall in love with her instantly. Unfortunately, these delightful pictures of Rose don't always work well with the story. If I read on the left page that Rose constructed a building "tall enough to scrape the sky", I don't want to look on the right page and see Rose sedately carrying milk buckets. And if the left page says that a churning tornado split into two and came at Rose from two opposite directions, I do not want to just see Rose sitting on her bull looking up at a single solitary twister. The pictures in this book are phenomenal. They just don't go well with the story at times.
So you see why I was disappointed. I was expecting a book that had the visual draw and narrative pull of Anne Isaacs's "Swamp Angel". "Swamp Angel" is pretty remarkable and it's not fair to compare the two simply because they're both modern tall tales told about strong females. On the other hand, there is no reason in the world why this book shouldn't have been one of the best new picture books of the last few years. Instead, it's so close to being a great book, and so very very far. There's stuff to love in this story, but for me it's these wonderful details that bring to book's faults staggeringly to light. A real pity.