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Anita (Anita Louise) Riggio (1952-) - Sidelights

review story family rosie

"A Moon in my Teacup took two years to write, but the initial images—childhood memories—came quickly, as palpable as the aroma of a neighborhood bakery," children's author and illustrator Anita Riggio once told SATA. "It happened like this: One evening I was playing the piano—Gershwin, Berlin, some show tunes. Then I began to play some sonatinas that I hadn't played since I was a child. All at once, the memory of playing those sweet sonatinas on Sundays in the parlor of my grandparents' house came flooding back. The memories were so strong that I was moved to leave the keyboard of the piano and go to the keyboard of the computer. A Moon in my Teacup began, then, as a series of Sunday visits throughout the year, strung together like beads on a necklace.

"One day, I shared an early version of this manuscript with one of my sisters, Maryellen. We talked at great length about making the journey to the bathroom at the top of the dark, spooky stairs, the footed porcelain tub, the soap that was the color of my grandmother's hairpins. We reminisced about the piles of Grandma's cookies, the smell of the old lace tablecloth, and about having tea from real china cups. 'Don't forget the lights in the teacups,' Maryellen reminded me. And so the mesmerizing reflection of the overhead chandelier became the 'moon' which leads the narrator, as the Christmas star led others long ago."

In the self-illustrated A Moon in My Teacup, a young girl admires a miniature village that her grandfather carved. But in the dark, she sees a man, woman, and baby in the previously empty miniature, and she believes that Mary, Joseph, and the Baby Jesus have appeared. She tells the figures gentle Christmas stories and plays "Silent Night" on the piano for the baby. Although the story is never clear on whether the figures are real or imaginary, "Riggio nicely recaptures her awe in the season's meaning," observed a critic in Kirkus Reviews. "The voice of the little girl and her hushed belief is just right," remarked Jane Marino in School Library Journal, while Booklist's Sheilamae O'Hara commented favorably upon Riggio's depiction of the grandparent's Victorian-style home in this "small story told with respect and affection."

Birdie, the jovial main character of Beware the Brindlebeast, does not fear the stories of the frightful Brindle-beast whispered by her coworkers. The Brindlebeast, it is said, will attack anyone it catches outside after dark. Practical-minded Birdie works as a weaver in town to earn a little money for food, and she pays the beast's stories little mind as she walks back home to her cottage outside the village in the evenings. One Halloween night, however, Birdie is out later than usual, and as she walks home, she happens upon a pot of gold. She decides to drag it home with her, but as she goes, the kettle of gold changes into a barrel of apples, then a pumpkin, then into the ferocious Brindlebeast itself. But Birdie stands her ground, and the Brindlebeast undergoes its final metamorphosis, into a little man who becomes one of Birdie's best friends. The author/illustrator offers "a wallop of suspense as well as some cinematic moments of high drama," commented a Publishers Weekly reviewer. Kathryn Broderick, writing in Booklist, remarked that "Through handsome artwork and quality story telling, Riggio has created an atmospheric holiday tale." Riggio's version of the Brindlebeast's story is an English folktale "retold with verve and humor," wrote M. Jean Greenlaw in New Advocate.

Rosie Roselli finds herself in the unfortunate position of getting lost among the needs and demands of her large extended family in Smack Dab in the Middle. In among the aunts and uncles, cousins, grandmother and grandfather, brother and sister, and mom and dad, Rosie is eager to show her family the star she received for her good work in school, or the talents she is developing, or her new academic skills—but she is always ignored as another family member's crisis, injury, or problem becomes more important. Her parents and grandparents seem to pay more attention to her siblings and cousins than to her. Her teacher, Sister Celestia, appreciates Rosie's talents and accomplishments, however, and one day devises a method to help Rosie get her parents' attention in a positive way. When Rosie paints a family portrait in art class, she places herself as the smallest and least important member, and declares her desire to run away. Sister Celestia recognizes the problem and gives Rosie a special homework assignment: to get everyone in her family to sign the back of her painting. When the family sees the picture, they too realize that they have been unintentionally ignoring Rosie and that she truly feels left out. With their reassurances, Rosie realizes that they do love her, even when they have to attend to a crisis or care for the smaller, more dependent children. Using a variety of art styles and materials, including India ink, cut paper, gouache, and stamps, Riggio's "artwork creates a 1950s setting with a retro look, though the layout is fresh and the vitality of the line work is timeless," observed Carolyn Phelan in Booklist. "The story may be predictable, but the unusual style of the artwork conveys the family's warmth even through their unwitting negligence," remarked a Publishers Weekly reviewer. "Young children feeling left out and jealous of their siblings will relate to Young Rosie Roselli struggles to make a place of distinction for herself in her huge extended family in Anita Riggio's self-illustrated book about the all-too-familiar childhood dilemma. (From Smack Dab in the Middle.) [Rosie's] struggles," wrote Linda Ludke in School Library Journal.


Riggio has also illustrated books by other authors, including The Whispering Cloth, written by Peggy Deitz Shea and based on the true story of Hmong refugee You Yang. Mai and her grandmother live in a Hmong refugee camp in Thailand. The two make pa'ndau, or story cloths, elaborately embroidered works that are sold to provide an income for the refugee women. Mai has so far only been allowed to help with the borders surrounding the main images in pictures, but eventually she tells her grandmother she wants to make her own pa'ndau. She asks her grandmother for a story to translate into delicate stitches, but she is told that if she does not have a story of her own, she is not ready to make a pa'ndau. But Mai does have a story of her own, the story of her parents' death at the hands of soldiers and her own story of life as a refugee. A Publishers Weekly reviewer noted that photographs of Yang's own detailed pa'ndau needlework, plus Riggio's "accomplished watercolor and gouache paintings, add to the poignancy of the tale." Ruth Semrau, writing in School Library Journal, called the book "A tale of unrestrained anguish" that "ends nonetheless on a note of stubborn optimism."


In an interview on Riggio's Web site, the author/illustrator offers advice to young authors and artists interested in creating children's books. "Focus on doing your work, not on marketing it," she remarked. "Read as much as you can. Commit to writing daily. Be brave.

Unearth your own story. The excavation will lead to work that resonates. Don't give up."

Riggio once told SATA: "I was raised in Clifton, New Jersey, the middle child of five. Our home was the hub of a large, extended Italian-American family, so I grew up, quite literally, at the center of a family teeming with fascinating characters of all attitudes, appearances, and demeanors. It was, undoubtedly, the child's keen observation of and loving interaction with these assorted relatives that contributed to my becoming an artist and writer as an adult. For included in this inexhaustible font of characters were Aunt Ellen, the spinster who played classical piano, and Uncle Jim, who played ragtime. A detective for the New Jersey State Troopers, Uncle Chet told great whodunits. Aunt Margaret, a thoroughly Irish in-law and former school principal, gently corrected our grammar with smiles and brownies. Aunt Alba had flaming red hair and always arrived hours late, with Uncle Augie, bald and round as a cue ball, in tow. Aunt Edie was an artist whose house smelled of turpentine and tomato sauce, and whose husband, Uncle Bob, was given to telling stories in some undefinable accent. Aunt Mary had an infectious laugh, told great jokes, and always called me 'Sarah Bernhardt.' And there were many others.

"Equally as significant to my becoming an illustrator was my great fortune in studying with one wonderful art teacher during my high school years. Sister Irene Marie taught me—in addition to technique—to trust my instincts as an artist. She gave me confidence; she taught me courage and resolve. At college, though, I floundered as an art major and graduated, finally, with a B.A. in theatre. Serendipity stepped in, and I found myself learning sign language and teaching English, and later, art to children at the American School for the Deaf in West Hartford, Connecticut.

"As a teacher, I was finally introduced to the wonders of literature and art for children. By the time I married and had our daughter and son, my interest in children's books had blossomed into an abiding passion. With my children, I spent hours reading books and steeped myself in the art of illustrators whose work I admired—in particular, Trina Schart Hyman, Charles Mikolaycak, Garth Williams, Paul Galdone, Margot Zemach, Hilary Knight, Maurice Sendak, and others.

"I wrote Gert & Frieda in celebration of a very special relationship that I share with my dear friend Alice, to whom it is dedicated. When the idea first came to me, I decided that I would model one character after Alice and the other after myself. Swell idea, but it didn't work, at first, because we are so much alike. It occurred to me then that other duos are comprised of two very distinct personalities: Rocky and Bullwinkle, Lucy and Ethel, Bert and Ernie. And so, too, Gert and Frieda: Frieda would moan, Gert would soothe; Frieda would be in crisis, Gert would be calm; Frieda had the questions, Gert had the answers. Sometimes.

"I loved Dad Gummit and Ma Foot from the moment I read it. For many reasons, this text is an illustrator's dream. Because it spans half a century, I had to age the characters from young lovers to crotchety old folks who had remained separate from one another for a lifetime because of a foolish quarrel.

"My wonderful mother-in-law, Alice Carlson Axelson, served as the model for Ma Foot. The minister emeritus of Immanuel Congregational Church in Hartford, Connecticut was the model for Dad Gummit. The art for the book was done in watercolor because I hoped the paintings would look like memory. The setting I chose is based on Collinsville, Connecticut, a factory town that manufactured hatchets and machetes during the Civil War. With the help of Margaret H. Perry, town librarian and historian, I found old photographs and postcards of the town that proved invaluable in authenticating the setting of my paintings. I also constructed a miniature church and several houses similar to those around the green in Collinsville. Costume research was done on several sweltering summer afternoons at the Connecticut Historical Society. And I found many wonderful period objects—most notably, Ma Foot's black stove—at the Canton Historical Museum in Collinsville.

"Although I did not write Coal Mine Peaches, the author's family history and experiences are remarkably like my own. My grandfather, like Michelle Dionetti's, worked as a 'slate picker' in a coal mine in Pennsylvania when he immigrated from Sicily. Additionally, he worked as a laborer, laying tracks for railroads. It was more than four years before he was able to send passage—in steerage—for his young wife and their baby daughter, whom my grandfather had never seen. Illustrating this book has become even more personal because my father and mother serve as the models for the grandfather and grandmother. My brother and sisters and nine-year-old son, Lucas, appear as Andrew, Aunt Louise, Uncle Dom, et al., and my daughter, Cloe, modeled for the narrator."


Biographical and Critical Sources

PERIODICALS

Booklist, September 1, 1991; October 15, 1993, Sheilamae O'Hara, review of A Moon in My Teacup, p. 454; September 15, 1994, Kathryn Broderick, review of Beware the Brindlebeast, p. 141; January 1, 1995, Hazel Rochman, review of The Whispering Cloth: A Refugee's Story, p. 827; April, 1998, Ellen Mandel, review of Noah's Wife, pp. 1323-1324; November 15, 2002, Carolyn Phelan, review of Smack Dab in the Middle, p. 612.

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, September, 1991; February, 1997, Elizabeth Bush, review of Secret Signs: Along the Underground Railroad, p. 220.

Kirkus Reviews, July 1, 1991; October 15, 1993, review of A Moon in My Teacup, p. 1335; December 15, 1996, a review of Secret Signs, p. 1803.

New Advocate, winter, 1995, M. Jean Greenlaw, review of Beware the Brindlebeast, p. 47.

Publishers Weekly, September 20, 1993, review of A Moon in My Teacup, p. 37; September 19, 1994, review of Beware the Brindlebeast, p. 25; December 12, 1994, review of The Whispering Cloth, p. 61; February 23, 1998, review of Noah's Wife, p. 67; September 2, 2002, review of Smack Dab in the Middle, p. 75.

Reading Teacher, October, 1995, review of Beware the Brindlebeast, p. 152; May, 1998, review of Secret Signs, p. 689.

School Library Journal, October, 1993, Jane Marino, review of A Moon in My Teacup, p. 47; October, 1994, Christine A. Moesch, review of Beware the Brindle-beast, p. 114; March, 1995, Ruth Semrau, review of The Whispering Cloth, p. 187; March, 1997, Susan M. Moore, review of Secret Signs, p. 164; September, 2002, Linda Ludke, review of Smack Dab in the Middle, pp. 204-205.

Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), October 6, 2002, review of Smack Dab in the Middle, p. 5.


ONLINE


Anita Riggio Home Page, http://www.anitariggio.com/ (January 24, 2004).*

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