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Molly (Garrett) Bang (1943-) - Sidelights

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Molly Bang is a talented, prolific author and illustrator of many popular and award-winning books for children. Well traveled and worldly wise, Bang weaves her interest in foreign lands, people, and folklore into her many works. While she has published a number of unique adaptations of traditional legends from all over the world, she is perhaps most well known for her original tales, steeped in mystery and branded with her unique sense of humor. Among her most famous works are The Paper Crane, which won the 1986 Boston Globe/Horn Book award for illustration, and 1999's When Sophie Gets Angry—Really, Really Angry....

Born in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1943, Bang gained a love for books early in her childhood. Her mother, Betsy Bang—who, like her daughter, is fluent in several languages—is a writer who adapted and translated several folktales, five of which daughter Molly would eventually illustrate. Bang's parents also maintained an extensive library and frequently presented each other with copies of Arthur Rackham's handsomely illustrated books on special occasions, such as birthdays and anniversaries. Rackham's illustrations fascinated Bang and inspired her to think that illustration might someday be her profession.

For years Bang kept her dreams of illustrating books in the back of her mind while she pursued a variety of subjects and interests in high school and college. After graduating from Wellesley College with a degree in French, she went to Japan to teach English at Doshisha University in Kyoto for eighteen months. She returned to the United States to work on master's degrees in Oriental studies at the University of Arizona and Harvard University. Bang then returned to travel, going overseas once more to illustrate health manuals for rural health projects organized by UNICEF, the Johns Hopkins Center for Medical Research and Training, and the Harvard Institute for International Research in such cities as Calcutta, India; Dacca, Bangladesh; and the West-African republic of Mali.

While working with UNICEF, Johns Hopkins, and Harvard, Bang also began her career as an author and illustrator of books for children by gathering and illustrating a group of tales she had read during her travels overseas. Published in 1973, The Goblins Giggle, and Other Stories was the first of many books that would successfully incorporate Bang's fascination with international folklore and legends with her love of mystery and suspense. In a School Library Journal review of The Goblins Giggle, Margaret A. Dorsey commented that these "five spooky folk tales—two Japanese, two European, one Chinese—are smoothly told and greatly enhanced by full-or double-page black-and-white illustrations.... This is a charming collection in which humans triumph over supernatural adversaries after a few suitably chilling thrills." And a critic for the New York Times Book Review stated that "Bang has a splendid feeling for general chill, and her choices are all scary but end comfortably so as not to keep anyone awake for long. Her illustrations are unique and intriguing."

The Goblins Giggle, and Other Stories was just the first of many books to reveal Bang's talent for interpreting folktales that are rich in mystery and suspense. In such popular and award-winning books as Wiley and the Hairy Man, The Grey Lady and the Strawberry Snatcher, Dawn, and The Paper Crane, Bang either breathes new life into original fables or created her own yarns through her skill as a gifted and sensitive writer and a versatile illustrator.

In Wiley and the Hairy Man, published in 1976, Bang retells an African-American folktale she discovered in B. A. Botkin's Treasury of American Folklore. She illustrated the story after traveling in the southern United States. Set in Alabama, Wiley and the Hairy Man tells of a young boy and his mother, who are terrorized by a scary swamp monster. After several frightful encounters, the pair resourcefully fend off the monster. "The tale has all the best elements of entertainment—humor, suspense, action, and ethnic color—with the stylistic simplicity befitting an easy reader," wrote Judith Goldberger in Booklist. Goldberger also noted that "flourishes are accomplished via illustrations in moss-grey, black, and white.... It is hard to imagine a reader unaffected by this book's punch."

Another of Bang's books to capture the attention of readers and critics alike is The Grey Lady and the Strawberry Snatcher. The first book by Bang to earn its author a Caldecott Honor Book designation, The Grey Lady recounts the tale of an old woman who is relentlessly pursued by a bizarre, strawberry-stealing creature. Patricia Jean Cianciolo remarked in Picture Books for Children that, despite the absence of text, The Grey Lady and the Strawberry Snatcher "is filled with surprises, lively humor, and suspense. Its unusual colors and its characters are ethnically indeterminate, but the whole is strongly suggestive of a folktale from India. The skillfully executed, impressionistic illustrations, so full of meticulous, often startling details, offer an exciting visual treat to the readers of this wordless book."

Denise M. Wilms commented in a Booklist review of The Grey Lady and the Strawberry Snatcher that "a wordless picture book depends on eerie art and high drama for holding its scrutinizers, and they will be held.... Bang's art is a sum of disparate colors, patterns, and spreads of gray that unexpectedly blend. None of her figures is conventional: the tropical-type setting is peopled by warm brown faces and hot colors. Backgrounds point to a variety of ethnic motifs–a Persian rug, an Indian woman on a skateboard, a Buddha-like figure smiling out of a shop window, a banjo-picking grandfather at the gray lady's house. It's a visual jigsaw that somehow balances and holds beyond the story line."

In Dawn and The Paper Crane Bang retells classic Asian folktales in contemporary settings. Published in 1983, Dawn is an updated version of the traditional Japanese tale of "The Crane Wife"—a yarn about a young man who rescues an injured goose—which Bang sets in nineteenth-century New England. After nursing the bird back to health, the man releases the animal. A beautiful young woman suddenly appears and the two fall in love, marry, and have a daughter, Dawn. After the man breaks a promise to his wife, she transforms back into the goose he had saved years ago, rises up into the sky, and disappears amid a passing flock of geese. The father and daughter are left with their grief and sadness, until the daughter decides to set sail to find her mother.

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books contributor Zena Sutherland wrote in her review of Dawn that "Bang's story is a variant of a traditional folk theme, the animal-mate who resumes his or her original shape; the author has made a touching and effective tale of this, and has illustrated it handsomely." Michael Dirda commented in the Washington Post Book World that "what makes this version so powerful are, of course, Bang's illustrations. Watercolors alternate with pencil and charcoal drawings . . . and the whole book [is] pleasingly designed.... This is a haunting picture book, as affecting to adults as it is entrancing for children."

Based on a classic Chinese legend, 1985's The Paper Crane shows an act of kindness being rewarded by a magical gift. In Bang's retelling, a restaurant is losing all of its business because a superhighway bypasses the building. Late one evening a poor stranger enters the restaurant and is treated to a delicious meal by the owner and his son. To thank them for their kindness, the stranger makes a crane out of a paper napkin and presents it to the two with the instructions that the crane will come to life and dance for them when they clap their hands. Word spreads about the dancing crane, and swarms of customers flock to the restaurant, saving the business from closing.

Patricia Dooley stated in School Library Journal that "here is that very rare treat, a contemporary folk tale that feels just right. Bang gives a modern setting and details to the consoling story of a good man, deprived by unlucky fate of his livelihood, whose act of kindness and generosity is repaid by the restoration of his fortunes, through the bringing to life of a magical animal–the paper crane." And Hanna B. Zeiger declared in a Horn Book review of The Paper Crane: "In a world in which we use the word gentle to describe everything from laxatives to scouring powder, Molly Bang has restored dignity to the word with her truly gentle tale of The Paper Crane....The book successfully blends Asian folklore themes with contemporary Western characterization."

According to an essayist for the St. James Guide to Children's Writers, "The Paper Crane may be the most well-known and celebrated work by Molly Bang. It won the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for illustration and stands as a unique contribution to children's literature. Fine paper cut-outs placed in collage relate this story of a mysterious customer's gift to a troubled restaurant owner. Careful composition combines with precise placement of the cut-outs at various distances from the level background to establish a three-dimensional quality. Though largely earth tones, the collages take on blocks of color from the clothing that adorns the multicultural customers. Introduction of the origami paper crane reinforces its magical influence, and its stark white color connects it immediately to the white-aproned restaurateur and his similarly dressed young helper. Bang depicts the crane's transformation into a living bird by invoking and then disrupting the three-dimensional space she creates; the crane metamorphoses from a folded paper crane into a bird painted into the picture's background, a space not held by any other figure in the book."

With her 1994 work, One Fall Day, Bang moved into three-dimensional art, as a story about the quiet events of a typical fall day is set forth through the medium of collage. In the story, a group of toys—a doll, a gray stuffed cat, an origami crane, a yellow ball, and others—spend a typical day in the life of a child: they awake to breakfast, play and rake leaves outside until a surprise shower sends them running for cover, then go inside again to read books, draw pictures, and curl up cozily in bed after the sun sets. While noting the sophistication of the photographed collage illustrations—a Publishers Weekly contributor likened each one to "a stage set, complete with props"—a critic for Kirkus Reviews commented that in One Fall Day the "busy, predictable day, crisp images, and primary colors that dominate the art are all perfect for very young children." While maintaining that the absence of any living being imbues the picture book with a "surreal" sense of "isolation and loneliness," Elizabeth Bush added in her appraisal of the work for the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books that Bang's novel approach, and "the varied angles and distances from which her compositions are photographed give the book character and interest."

1999's When Sophie Gets Angry—Really, Really Angry. . . goes to the heart of one of the hardest parts about growing up: learning to control one's temper. In Bang's vividly colored picture book, Sophie reacts poorly when it is her sister's turn to play with a favorite toy, a stuffed gorilla. Kicking, screaming, crying, Sophie finally runs out of the house and into the woods, where quiet time spent in a tree listening to the sounds of nature calms her down. Praising the book for its focus, New York Times Book Review contributor Jeanne B. Pinder added that When Sophie Gets Angry "is perfect for sparking conversations about feelings: what causes anger . . . and how different people cope with it." In Riverbank Review, Susan Marie Swanson commented positively on Bang's text, "rich in gentle sound-effects," which the reviewer noted contain simple rhythms and alliterations.

Reflecting the author/illustrator's concerns regarding the human environment as a legacy to be handed down to new generations, both Common Ground: The Water, Earth, and Air We Share and Chattanooga Sludge address ecological matters. In Common Ground, Bang uses a picture-book format and clear, brilliant colors to "sound . . . a sober warning about increasing demands on earth's dwindling resources," according to a reviewer in Publishers Weekly. Framing her lesson within the day-to-day activities of a simple farming village, Bang shows how increased grazing of livestock, overpopulation, and poor land use can cause problems within the village, within society, and, ultimately, upon the earth as a whole if not addressed. Just going somewhere else is not a solution; common lands like parks and wildlife reserves are limited resources that should not be recklessly "used up," Bang argues in her simple text, because once they are gone people will not "have anyplace else to go." With its introduction to basic ecology, Common Ground contains "a timely, provocative message, housed in a small, weighty book," maintained a Kirkus Reviews commentator.

Written for slightly older readers, 1996's Chattanooga Sludge is a true story relating the efforts of scientist John Todd to clean up one of the most polluted waterways in the United States. Using an experimental program involving "Living Machines"—greenhouse-grown plants and pollution-eating bacteria—Todd attempted to remove industrial toxins from the water, with only partial success. His results "provide . . . readers with a sobering view of the pollution problem and the encouraging but limited ability of science to combat it," according to Elizabeth Bush in her Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books review. A discussion of microbiology as it pertains to Todd's experiments is also included, amid brightly colored collages and cartoon frog figures that provide background information on each page. "Bringing this subject to life and making it comprehensible to a lay audience of any age is an impressive feat. Bang pulls it off nicely," concluded School Library Journal contributor Melissa Hudak.

Bang returns to environmental themes with Nobody Particular: One Woman's Fight to Save the Bays, the story of Texan Diane Wilson, who fought both a giant corporation and the Environmental Protection Agency to save the bays along the Texas coast. This area has long been popular with commercial shrimp fishermen, but when Wilson discovered that this important fishing grounds was dangerously polluted, she mounted a campaign to save it. Bang's book tells two stories at the same time: along the outer edges of each page, she depicts the natural history of the Texas bays region, while the centers of each page follow Wilson's efforts to clean up the area's pollution. A reviewer for Horn Book called Nobody Particular a "complex and visually stunning picture book." Leonard P. Rivard, writing in Science Activities, found it to be "a wonderful testament to democratic action by a concerned individual," while Michael Cart described it in Booklist as "a riveting, emotional story of how single individuals can make a difference in a world of bewildering complexity." In a statement posted at her home page, Bang explained that Diane Wilson "is one of the most remarkable people I have ever met, and now a close friend. I wrote the book to tell the world about her story."

A terrible accident is the focus of Bang's book Tiger's Fall. Eleven-year-old Lupe accepts a dare from her cousin to climb the old, supposedly haunted fig tree. On the way down, she loses her balance and falls to the ground. Now paralyzed from the waist down, Lupe is operated on, but the surgery leaves her battling a life-threatening infection and her parents drowning in debt. Unable to help her at home, her parents take an angry and depressed Lupe to PROJIMO, the Project of Rehabilitation Organized by Disabled Youth of Western Mexico, which is a center run by and for the disabled. Here Lupe learns to tend and heal the wounds of others and discovers she can still be useful, especially when she heals enough to be in her wheelchair.

Bang was inspired to write the story after visiting the real PROJIMO center. Claire Martin in the Denver Post found that "Bang sketches a vivid, honest picture of how stupendously a life (many lives, really, including her family and friends) can change with one misstep." Hazel Rochman in Booklist believed that "the disabled and those who love them will appreciate the truth of Lupe's anger and depression and her struggle to find her own kindness and courage."

In 2002 Bang teamed with her daughter, Monika, to create the picture book Little Rat Sets Sail. The story follows Little Rat as she learns how to sail a boat, even though she is scared of the water. But her parents have signed her up for lessons and Little Rat goes. Luckily, her sailing class, taught by Buzzy Bear, includes a raccoon who is even more scared of the water than is Little Rat. Together, the pair help each other learn the basics of sailing. In fact, they grow to enjoy the sport. A critic for Kirkus Reviews noted that "Little Rat is a brave little sailor with her own shy appeal and Bang's charming In Nobody in Particular Bang tells the story of a Texas woman who convinces a large corporation to stop polluting the fragile wetland environments near her family's home. illustrations are impossible to resist," and Lynda S. Poling, writing in the School Library Journal, found Bang's illustrations to be "charming and sweet." In a review for Horn Book, Martha V. Parravano concluded that "Bang brings her extraordinary picture book-making skills to a fine text by her daughter."

With My Light, Bang explores the many ways sunlight is transformed into energy on Earth. In one sequence, the book explains how the sun's rays are responsible for the water cycle that creates rain, then river water, and then the moving waters that are captured at dams and made to turn generators to create electricity. Other topics explored are how sunlight creates plant life through photosynthesis, thus creating coal and oil once those plants die and decay, and how it creates the winds that power windmills. The book contains Bang's "carefully honed prose and wholly original visual imagination," according to a critic for Publishers Weekly. Jennifer Mattson in Booklist called My Light "a lovely and illuminating book that presents sound science while expressing the wonder of flipping a switch and flooding a room with light."

In addition to her many picture books, Bang has also written the adult work Picture This: Perception and Composition, which, according to an essayist in the St. James Guide to Children's Writers "provides an insightful key to Bang's work in picture books." In Picture This she takes artists through the steps of creating an illustration by making them aware of the elements of shape, color, and size, and by showing how different combinations of these elements create differing emotional responses from viewers.

While she is gratified that so many young readers have been delighted and sometimes even inspired by her books, Bang has also expressed concern that many children have minimal access to the enormous variety of books published yearly for young readers. "Ways need to be found to get books to children beyond the privileged class," Bang declared to Robert D. Hale in Horn Book. She cited the budget restrictions of both public and school libraries as one of the reasons lower-income children often find reading a difficult skill to master. "Too many children don't know how to use a book, because they aren't given the chance to learn," Bang added. "If they only have flimsy paperbacks, they never experience the feel of a real book. Because they are less available to people who are poor, books become less relevant. In the midst of all this self-congratulation we have to think about that."

Biographical and Critical Sources

BOOKS

Children's Books and Their Creators, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1995, pp. 45-46.

Children's Literature Review, Volume 8, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1985, pp. 17-24.

Picture Books for Children, American Library Association, 1981, p. 151.

St. James Guide to Children's Writers, 5th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.

PERIODICALS

Booklist, July 15, 1976, Judith Goldberger, review of Wiley and the Hairy Man: Adapted from an American Folktale, p. 1601; July 15, 1980, Denise M. Wilms, review of The Grey Lady and the Strawberry Snatcher, pp. 1673-1674; October 1, 1997, Susan Dove Lempke, review of Common Ground: The Water, Earth, and Air We Share, p. 330; February 1, 1999, Stephanie Zvirin, review of When Sophie Gets Angry—Really, Really Angry. . ., p. 978; February 1, 2001, Michael Cart, review of Nobody Particular: One Woman's Fight to Save the Bays, p. 1050; November 1, 2001, Hazel Rochman, review of Tiger's Fall, p. 474; April 1, 2002, Kathy Broderick, review of Little Rat Sets Sail, p. 1326; February 1, 2004, Jennifer Mattson, review of My Light, p. 974.

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, January, 1984, Zena Sutherland, review of Dawn, pp. 82-83; October, 1994, Elizabeth Bush, review of One Fall Day, p. 37; April, 1996, Elizabeth Bush, review of Chattanooga Sludge, pp. 256-257.

Denver Post, February 17, 2002, Claire Martin, review of Tiger's Fall, p. EE2.

Horn Book, January, 1986, Hanna B. Zeiger, review of The Paper Crane, p. 45; November-December, 1989, Robert D. Hale, "Musings," pp. 806-807; November-December, 1997, Ellen Fader, review of Common Ground, p. 692; January, 2001, review of Nobody Particular, p. 106; July, 2001, review of Harley, p. 456; July-August, 2002, Martha V. Parravano, review of Little Rat Sets Sail, p. 452; May-June, 2004, Ruth Ketchum, review of My Light, p. 341.

Kirkus Reviews, August 15, 1994, review of One Fall Day, p. 1120; August 15, 1997, review of Common Ground, p. 1302-1303; September 15, 2001, review of Tiger's Fall, p. 1352; February 1, 2002, review of Little Rat Sets Sail, p. 176; March 1, 2004, review of My Light, p. 218.

National Fisherman, May, 2002, Linc Bedrosian, Nobody Particular, p. 9.

New York Times, June 27, 2004, Eric Nagourney, review of My Light, p. 15.

New York Times Book Review, January 13, 1974, review of The Goblins Giggle, and Other Stories, p. 8; May 16, 1999, Jeanne B. Pinder, "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Girl," p. 27.

Publishers Weekly, August 8, 1994, review of One Fall Day, p. 428; September 22, 1997, review of Common Ground, p. 81; January 18, 1999, review of When Sophie Gets Angry—Really, Really Angry. . ., p. 337; December 11, 2000, review of Nobody Particular, p. 86; February 26, 2001, review of Harley, p. 87; August 25, 2003, review of Little Rat Sets Sail, p. 67; February 23, 2004, review of My Light, p. 75.

Riverbank Review, spring, 1999, Susan Marie Swanson, review of When Sophie Gets Angry—Really, Really Angry . . . , pp. 33-34.

School Arts, December, 2000, Kent Anderson, review of Picture This: How Pictures Work, p. 56.

School Library Journal, January, 1974, Margaret A. Dorsey, review of The Goblins Giggle, and Other Stories, p. 45; December, 1985, Patricia Dooley, review of The Paper Crane, p. 66; August, 1996, Melissa Hudak, review of Chattanooga Sludge, p. 148; July, 2000, Ginny Harrell, review of Wiley and the Hairy Man, p. 55; January, 2001, Kathy Piehl, review of Nobody Particular, p. 138; June, 2001, Kathleen Kelly MacMillan, review of Harley, p. 125; December, 2001, Caroline Ward, review of Tiger's Fall, p. 132; June, 2002, Lynda S. Poling, review of Little Rat Sets Sail, p. 80; February, 2003, Lee Bock, reviews of Goose and When Sophie Gets Angry—Really, Really Angry. . ., p. 95; October, 2003, Jennifer Ralston, review of When Sophie Gets Angry—Really, Really Angry . . . , p. 97; April, 2004, Wendy Lukehart, review of Picture This: How Pictures Work, p. 63, and Dona Ratterre, review of My Light, p. 128.

Science Activities, spring, 2003, Leonard P. Rivard, review of Nobody Particular, p. 446.

Washington Post Book World, October 9, 1983, Michael Dirda, review of Dawn, pp. 10-11.

Whole Earth, winter, 2002, review of Little Rat Sets Sail, p. 105.

ONLINE

Molly Bang's Home Page, http://www.mollybang.com (January 22, 2005).

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