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Frané Lessac (1954-) - Sidelights

review book caribbean children

A children's book author, illustrator, and internationally-respected artist, Frané Lessac has lived around the world with her family, and her environment is often reflected in her works. Born in the United States, the author/illustrator has also called home the island of Montserrat and the continent of Australia. In her book Caribbean Alphabet, written with husband, Mark Greenwood, Lessac's relies on her gouache paintings and naïve style to illustrate sights, sounds, and activities from the Caribbean. Each letter represents some aspect of Caribbean culture and island life, from familiar activities such as fishing and kite flying to less well-known pursuits such as limbo dancing. Unfamiliar terms such as agouti, Junkanoo, and dasheen are explained in a pictorial glossary. "Each picture has its own little narrative on this celebratory island tour—fun, fluid, and imaginative," remarked a Publishers Weekly reviewer. Lessac's color selections and style allow all the colors of the island to "glow from the inside," wrote Mary Harris Veeder in Tribune Books.

Lessac also compiled and illustrated Camp Granada: Sing-Along Camp Songs. The book gathers the lyrics to more than thirty well-known songs sung over the years in summer camps and get-togethers. Well-known songs such as "If You're Happy," "Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah (Camp Granada)," and "Kum Ba Yah" are included, as well as lesser-known tunes such as "Found a Peanut" and "Ship Titanic." The book even includes the lyrics to "Taps," the melancholy tune played as days in camp draw to a close. Marge Loch-Wouters, writing in School Library Journal, remarked on Lessac's "folksy, lush gouaches," while a Publishers Weekly reviewer commented that Lessac's pictures "add to the homey humor." Todd Morning, in a Booklist review, noted that the book "offer[s] an amusing glimpse of the community and landscape that make up camp life."

Lessac is also very active as an illustrator for other authors' books and stories. Nine o'Clock Lullaby, written by Marilyn Singer, answers a curious children's question. While they are getting ready to go to bed in Brooklyn, New York, what are kids in other parts of the world doing? The book's vignettes show children dancing in Puerto Rico, drawing water at dawn in India, getting a snack in the early hours in London, and more. The book serves as a "primer on time and the time zones, as an introduction to foreign cultures, and as a rhythmic, pleasing lullaby," commented a Publishers Weekly reviewer.


Eric Maddern's The Fire Children: A West African Creation Tale is a retelling of how spirit people Kwaku Ananse (a male) and Aso Yaa (a female) end up on earth and create the people of the world. One day, when sky god Nyame is looking down at the earth through a trap-door in the moon, Kwaku Ananse and Aso Yaa, who live inside him, crawl out his mouth to have a look, too. But Nyame sneezes and propels the two spirit people to the surface of the earth. After a while, Aso Yaa becomes lonely and convinces Kwaku Ananse to help her make clay figures like themselves. When Nyame visits, which he does often, Kwaku Ananse and Aso Yaa take the clay figures out of the fire and hide them, fearing that Nyame will disapprove or be angry. The frequent firing and hiding result in many different figures with many different shades of color—the longer they stayed in the fire, the darker they became. The two spirit people breathed life into their clay creations, and the newly created humans wandered over the earth, established their cities and towns, and started their own families. This accounts for the varying skin tones among the people of earth—and no matter their color, Kwaku Ananse and Aso Yaa cherished each of their fire children equally. A Publishers Weekly critic remarked that the book is "elegantly told" and "gorgeously illustrated." School Library Journal reviewer Lyn Miller-Lachmann stated that "Lessac's gouache illustrations, which combine West African designs with her own characteristic style, work well with the text." Ellen Fader, writing in Horn Book, commented that Lessac's "ocher, brown, and blue-toned gouache paintings in a naïve style enhance and expand upon the story's folkloric quality."

The story of Simon Rodia, an artist and sculptor, is told in The Wonderful Towers of Watts, by Patricia Zelver. Rodia, an Italian immigrant, lived in the impoverished Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts. Over the course of more than thirty-three years, Rodia collected pieces of cast-off material, broken tiles from the factory where he worked and things that other people had thrown away, then used those items to construct three multicolored towers. The intricate, colorful towers were Rodia's life's work, "bearing witness to one man's dream of beauty," observed a Publishers Weekly reviewer, and they still stand in Watts today. Lessac's illustrations contain "the gaudy beauty of his achievement," observed the Publishers Weekly reviewer, and Corrine Camarata, writing in School Library Journal, remarked that "Lessac's familiar gouache paintings fill the pages with soft, rich colors."

Isasc Olaleye's The Distant Talking Drum: Poems from Nigeria is a collection of fifteen verses about Nigeria, the African rain forest, and the surrounding areas in Africa. Set largely in a Nigerian farming village, the free-verse poems tell simple but evocative stories of daily village life, including the making of a spicy but delicious soup, the effects of a sudden rainstorm, farming activities, doing laundry by the stream, going to the marketplace, and more. Lessac's illustrations "provide a perfect complement to the appealing poetry," remarked Dot Minzer in School Library Journal. Sheilamae O'Hara, writing in Booklist, called Lessac's paintings "as colorful and exuberant as the poems they complement," while Horn Book's Maeve Visser Knoth commented that Lessac's "many brilliant colors" and "flat, folk-art style" combine "to complete the picture of a vital, lively village."

Young Anslem longs for snow and a "real" Christmas tree in his West Indies village in Vashanti Rahaman's O Christmas Tree. When a boat carrying pine trees arrives in port, Anslem is excited to finally be able to have a real tree—but he is bitterly disappointed when he discovers that the trees have dried out in transit and all the needles have fallen off, leaving only the scraggly limbs and twigs underneath. But Anslem comes to realize that the true meaning of Christmas does not require a tree and that there are plenty of other festive items and activities on the island—including the popular Christmas flower poinsettias—to make any Christmas a real one. Lessac's "artwork bursts with splashes of red poinsettia and showcases breezy island backgrounds," remarked a Publishers Weekly reviewer. School Library Journal reviewer Jane Marino observed that the illustrations are "filled with the colors and culture of the islands," and Booklist reviewer Susan Dove Lempke stated that "Lessac's cheerful folk-art paintings are delicately detailed."

Queen Esther Saves Her People, penned by Rita Golden Gelman, examines the background of the Jewish holiday Purim. Gelman retells the biblical story of Esther, who was taken into the court of the Persian King Ahasuerus. When Esther finds out about the prime minister's plot to kill all the Jews in the land, she risks her own life to warn the king and save her people. The Purim holiday celebrates Esther's courage each spring. Booklist reviewer Ilene Cooper remarked on the intricate illustrations, such as the cover painting of Esther "holding a tiny, almost unnoticeable white bird in her hand." A Publishers Weekly reviewer commented that Lessac's illustrations "are steeped in details," such as realistic Persian clothing, luxurious courtyard scenes, and fruit trees, "that provide a distinct sense of time and place."

Similar in construction to Nine o'Clock Lullaby, Marilyn Singer's On the Same Day in March: A Tour of the World's Weather provides an examination of the weather occurring in different parts of the world on the same March day. The book covers seventeen locations, including New York City, Paris, the Nile Valley, Darjeeling, Northern Kenya, and more. From tornadoes in the Texas panhandle to bitter snowstorms in Antarctica, rains in Africa and sunshine in Barbados, children are introduced to concepts of meteorology and climatology, and shown how drastically different weather can happen at the same time around the world. Reviewer Jody McCoy, writing in School Library Journal, remarked on the book's "carefully crafted, childlike illustrations" and "succinct, engaging text," while Michael Cart, writing in Booklist, commented on how Lessac's paintings "colorfully show us the way the weather and the world look."

In Capital! Washington D.C. from A to Z, Lessac and author Laura Krauss Melmed offer readers a tour of the U.S. capital. Arranged alphabetically, the book includes text and illustrations on the Air and Space Museum, the National Zoo, the Smithsonian Institution, the Lincoln Memorial, the Capitol Building, the Kennedy Center, the Holocaust Museum, Gallaudet University, and other important places. Each illustration is accompanied by a short paragraph that provides additional description and elaboration on the subject pictured. A Kirkus Reviews critic noted that Lessac's "cheery folk-arty illustrations present thumbnail details with as much energy as broad landscapes," further commenting that "the illustrations work well with the prose explications" of the sights and scenery of Washington. Kathleen Odean, writing in Booklist, remarked that "this attractive offering will find its main audience among parents and teachers introducing D.C. to Children."

Lessac once told SATA: "My aim is to produce multicultural, non-sexist books for children, to break down racial barriers, and educate at the same time. I also want children to be aware of our precious environment.

"When I was at school, the art teachers considered me unteachable. Because my lines were never straight and my paintings didn't have dimension, the art teachers told me that they were wrong. My school wasn't progressive enough to recognize my work as a legitimate art form. Sometimes I even climbed in through the classroom window after school to change my grade in the professors' book.

"At the age of eighteen, I headed for film school in California. My aim was to make films about 'primitive' tribes before they were swamped by Western culture. Initially, I borrowed camera equipment and, given film, took off on the long road in the American Southwest, documenting a rodeo team, a long-distance trucker, and even the birth of a baby.

"Then in 1978, I moved from California to the small Caribbean island of Montserrat, and, stunned by its visual beauty, I concentrated on painting the old style West Indian architecture and its peoples. The locals would say to me, 'You live in de cement house, no worry de hurricanes,' and my feelings were torn as the houses were torn down. I wish there was a house museum. The beautiful images of Montserrat were the inspiration for my book of paintings, The Little Island.


"Montserrat is also the home of one of the world's finest recording studios, Air Studios, which attracts an extraordinary number of international musicians and producers. These people become patrons of my paintings, and my work is now in private collections worldwide.


"In 1987, I published Caribbean Canvas, a collection of works, painted on my . . . travels to Barbados, Grenada, Antigua, Palm Island, and St. Kitts. This is aimed at a more extensive audience and also includes poetry by Caribbean writers.


"The Dragon of Redonda is a fairy tale endorsed by the 'real' King of Redonda. The Bird Who Was an Elephant is my favorite book. How could a bird become an elephant? Children will understand this, of course. But grown-ups, who always need explanations, may need to know that in India it is believed that we have many lives and that when we die, we can become another human being—or an animal. So this is the story of the bird."



Biographical and Critical Sources

PERIODICALS


Belles Lettres, spring, 1995, Bettina Berch, review of Caribbean Canvas, p. 60.

Booklist, October 1, 1992, Julie Corsaro, review of Caribbean Carnival: Songs of the West Indies, p. 331; July, 1993, Janice Del Negro, review of The Fire Children: A West African Creation Tale, p. 1971; September 15, 1993, Julie Corsaro, review of Little Gray One, p. 162, and Quarash Ali, review of Not a Copper Penny in Me House: Poems from the Caribbean, pp. 153-154; May 1, 1994, Carolyn Phelan, review of The Wonderful Towers of Watts, p. 1605; June 1, 1994, Hazel Rochman, review of Caribbean Alphabet, p. 1827; January 1, 1995, Sheilamae O'Hara, review of The Distant Talking Drum: Poems from Nigeria, p. 824; July, 1995, Hazel Rochman, review of Good Rhymes, Good Times: Original Poems, p. 188; September 1, 1996, Susan Dove Lempke, review of O Christmas Tree, p. 137; March 1, 1998, Ilene Cooper, review of Queen Esther Saves Her People, p. 1138; February 15, 2000, Michael Cart, review of On the Same Day in March: A Tour of the World's Weather, p. 1116; February 1, 2003, Kathleen Odean, review of Capital! Washington, D.C. from A to Z, pp. 998-999; March 1, 2003, Todd Morning, review of Camp Granada: Sing-Along Camp Songs, p. 1195.

Entertainment Weekly, Leonard S. Marcus, review of Not a Copper Penny in Me House, p. 73.

Horn Book, September-October, 1993, Ellen Fader, review of The Fire Children, pp. 610-611; March-April, 1995, Maeve Visser Knoth, review of The Distant Talking Drum, p. 211.

Kirkus Reviews, November 15, 2002, review of Capital! Washington, D.C. from A to Z, p. 1698.

New York Times Book Review, January 12, 1986; June 18, 1989; June 5, 1994, review of The Wonderful Towers of Watts, p. 30; January, 2003, review of Capital! Washington, D.C. from A to Z, p. 16.

People, November 28, 1994, review of The Wonderful Towers of Watts, pp. 35-36.

Publishers Weekly, March 30, 1990, review of The Bird Who Was an Elephant, p. 62; March 1, 1991, review of Nine o'Clock Lullaby, pp. 72-73; October 5, 1992, review of Caribbean Carnival, p. 72; June 7, 1993, review of The Fire Children, p. 69; July 5, 1993, review of Not a Copper Penny in Me House, p. 73; August 9, 1993, review of Little Gray One, p. 476; May 9, 1994, review of The Wonderful Towers of Watts, p. 72, and review of Caribbean Alphabet, p. 72; December 19, 1994, review of The Distant Talking Drum, p. 54; July 3, 1995, review of Good Rhymes, Good Times, pp. 60-61; September 30, 1996, review of O Christmas Tree, p. 90; December 22, 1997, review of Queen Esther Saves Her People, p. 54; January 25, 1999, review of Not a Copper Penny in Me House, p. 98; January 24, 2000, review of On the Same Day in March, p. 311; June 16, 2003, review of Camp Granada: Sing-Along Camp Songs, p. 73.

Reading Teacher, October, 1995, review of Caribbean Canvas, p. 156.

School Library Journal, August, 1990, Marilyn Iarusso, review of The Bird Who Was an Elephant, pp. 130-131; January, 1991, Patricia Dooley, review of The Turtle and the Island: A Folktale from Papua New Guinea, p. 87; July, 1991, Patricia Dooley, review of Nine o'Clock Lullaby, p. 64; November, 1992, Lyn Miller-Lachmann, review of Caribbean Carnival, pp. 83-84; August, 1993, Lyn Miller-Lachmann, review of The Fire Children, p. 160; December, 1993, Ellen D. Warwick, review of Not a Copper Penny in Me House, p. 105; March, 1994, Liza Bliss, review of Little Gray One, p. 210; July, 1994, Lyn Miller-Lachmann, review of Caribbean Alphabet, p. 96; September, 1994, Corinne Camarata, review of The Wonderful Towers of Watts, p. 212; February, 1995, Dot Minzer, review of The Distant Talking Drum, p. 92; August, 1995, Sally R. Dow, review of Good Rhymes, Good Times, p. 135; October, 1996, Jane Marino, review of O Christmas Tree, p. 39; April, 2000, Jody McCoy, review of On the Same Day in March, p. 126; June, 2003, Marge Loch-Wouters, review of Camp Granada: Sing-Along Camp Songs, p. 130.

Skipping Stones, April-May, 1996, review of The Distant Talking Drum, p. 31.

Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), June 12, 1994, Mary Harris Veeder, review of Caribbean Alphabet,, p. 9.


ONLINE

Artbeat Publishers: Home Page of Frané Lessac, http://www.artbeatpublishers.com/ (March 18, 2004).

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