Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Take Two: Gee's Bend

Welcome to Take Two, where I read two books about the same topic, compare them, and tell you which one is better. It's just like a literary cage match.

In today's battle:


Gee's Bend is a small peninsula in south-central Alabama. Surrounded on three sides by the Alabama river, Gee's Bend is an isolated, predominantly African American community that is mostly recognized today for the beautiful quilts the women in the community make.

The Story:
Stitchin' and Pullin': A Gee's Bend Quilt (Picture Book) by Patricia C. McKissack and illustrated by Cozbi A. Cabrera follows the story of a young girl, living in Gee's Bend, as she makes her very first quilt top and joins in the quilting tradition of her mother, grandmother and all the women of her community who have come before her.

Belle, The Last Mule at Gee's Bend: A Civil Rights Story by Clavin Alexander Ramsey and Bettye Stroud and illustrated by John Holyfield introduces us to a young boy who, like the reader, is an outsider to Gee's Bend. While waiting outside a store for his mother, Alex meets an older lady who tells him the story of Belle, an old mule, and her place in Civil Rights History.

Winner: Belle, the Last Mule at Gee's Bend.
I loved Stitchin' and Pullin's focus on tradition and the importance of communal work as used for passing on both crafts and stories to the younger generations. Baby Girl, our protagonist, grew up watching her grandma and the older women make quilts and from them she learned her church hymns, family history, old recipes and general cleaning tips. In the end though I have to go with Belle, the Last Mule at Gee's Bend. While the quilter's at Gee's Bend have been a part of the cultural lexicon for a while now, I never knew about Gee's Bend's role in integrating voting during the civil rights movement or that Martin Luther King had specific plans for his funeral that involved the mules of this small hamlet.

Stitchin' and Pullin' is a series of free verse poems relating Baby Girl's journey as she goes from a small child playing under the quilting frame to a quilter in her own right. Although they all work together to tell a story, they can also be read and appreciated individually. Standouts (and by that I mean my favorites) include "Remembering" and "Stereotypes." Because the book can easily be excerpted, it can be used in programs for very young children with little context.

Belle, the Last Mule at Gee's Bend
is more what one would expect from a picture book. Working from a present tense narrative structure with frequent flashbacks to Martin Luther King Jr's visit to Gee's Bend and the subsequent fight for the community's right to vote. The prose is simple and straightforward, the sheer length and subject matter make it more appropriate for school children who have already had some exposure to the civil rights movement.

Winner: Stitchin' and Pullin'
Through use of the poems, Stitchin' and Pullin' is able to fit in a lot more information and "story" into small and manageable bits than Belle does in as many pages.


The pictures in Stitchin' and Pullin' invoke the Gee's Bend quilts; strong colors and impressionistic figures fill the pages and help tell the story of Baby Girl's first quilt and then, nesting doll style, stories of all the fabric that goes into it. Some of Cozbi A. Cabrera's illustrations adapt actual Gee's Bends quilts, adding interest and insider knowledge while complimenting McKissack's text.

John Holyfield's illustrations for Belle, the Last Mule at Gee's Bend fit nicely with the text. Simple and straightforward, the paintings depict exactly what is happening on any given frame. Holyfield makes interesting use of angles throughout to bring the reader into the story and place them in the action instead of on the sidelines.

Winner: Stitchin' and Pullin'
I just can't get over how evocative of the quilts Cabrera's illustrations are. Even when they're not of the actual quilt itself. An honorable mention does go to Belle's face on page 5 of Belle. That is one seriously cute mule. .

In Stitchin' and Pullin' a lengthy introduction from Matt Arnett, the man who helped bring the quilts of Gee's Bend to cultural prominence precedes the story and gives some historical context to the poems found in the later pages. McKissack follows up with an Author's Note all about her exposure to Gee's Bend quilts and her experience researching the book.

There's an author's note at the end of Belle where the lead author recounts the actual story of the mules Belle and Ada and Dr. King's impact on the small community. It does a nice job filling in the facts for geeks like me who are interested in that kind of thing, but isn't necessary to enjoy the preceding story. Bonus: There's also a photograph of the real Belle and Ada pulling Dr. King's casket through the streets of Atlanta.

Winner: Tie
Both books' additional material nicely supplements the story the author is trying to tell without becoming essential to the story. In fitting with each books' theme, the notes in Stitchin' and Pullin' rely more on emotions and impressions while the author's note in Belle sticks to the facts behind the story. 

Overall Winner: Stitchin' and Pullin'
You really can't go wrong with either book, and contrary to my belief when I first read them they're actually about two very different things, just with the same setting. But if you're only going to read one go with Stitchin' and Pullin'.

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