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Marisabina Russo (1950-) - Sidelights

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Marisabina Russo is the author and illustrator of several picture books for young children. Her realistic stories focus on common childhood situations: what to do with jumbled up blocks, counting the days until a birthday, a sibling's thoughts while waiting for the birth of a new baby. Russo keeps her story lines simple and direct and pairs them with colorful gouache illustrations, filled to the brim with background detail. In both illustration and writing, Russo deals with the familiar to imbue her books "with a reassuring aura of love, understanding, and acceptance," according to Sandra Ray in Children's Books and Their Creators.

Russo grew up in Queens, New York, the daughter of a single parent and with siblings much older than she. A shy child, she spent much of her time alone; drawing and writing kept her occupied. Art lessons from a neighbor encouraged her natural talent, and visits to New York's museums introduced her to the possibilities of art in all its guises. From an early age, Russo was determined to become an artist. In the sixth grade, she first read The Diary of Anne Frank, and this experience moved her to keep her own journal. With the encouragement of a seventh-grade English teacher, she started writing short stories, one of which was published in her junior-high literary magazine.

As high-school graduation neared, Russo had dreams of attending an art school, but her mother persuaded her to go to a liberal-arts institution, Mount Holyoke College, instead. However, she still majored in studio art. After graduation, Russo went on to study lithography at the Boston Museum School and life drawing at the Art Students League in New York. Freelance illustrating jobs and marriage both came about in the mid-1970s. Early illustration assignments included spot drawings and covers for The New Yorker as well as illustrations for cookbooks, two of which were award-winners. Babies arrived as well, and it was only after her third was born that Russo began writing and illustrating picture books.

Russo's first picture book, The Line Up Book, was published in 1986 and set the tone for much of her subsequent work. It was inspired by her son, Sam, who was obsessed with lining up objects in the house. In the book, Sam dumps his blocks on the floor when his mother calls him to lunch. Ray noted in Children's Books and Their Creators that "Russo taps into a child's logic to provide an amusingly satisfactory way for Sam to play with his blocks while wending his way from bedroom to kitchen." In fact, he uses objects in the house, including blocks, books, and boots, to make a line from the bedroom to kitchen. Lying down on the kitchen floor, Sam becomes the last "object" in line.

"The reassurance of [the mother's] reaction and Sam's pride in his innovative route combine to create a warm, satisfying feeling," Lauralyn Persson remarked in School Library Journal. The illustrations are also reassuring; as a Publishers Weekly contributor noted, the "paintings have a folk-art look and are full of homey touches: a checked tile floor, family photos, and a simple lunch of soup and sandwiches." On the other hand, Horn Book reviewer Mary M. Burns commented on "the illustrator's skill in developing striking graphic patterns from the juxtaposition of ordinary household artifacts." The winner of a Children's Choice Award from the International Reading Association and the Children's Book Council, Russo's inaugural book got her new career off to a good start.

A child's fantasies about how wonderful it would be to stay up late are at the heart of Russo's second picture book, Why Do Grown-Ups Have All the Fun? Young Hannah, the protagonist, imagines her parents eating ice cream, working with play dough, and constructing towers out of blocks. "The beauty of this book lies in its simple story line, in the charm of the ingenious protagonist, and in Russo's graphic illustrations," commented David Gale in a School Library Journal review. Again Russo employed gouache paintings in two-dimensional blocks of color along with a simple, child-centered text. Booklist commentator Denise M. Wilms concluded that "the story's gentle handling of a child's sleep problems is nice to see and the pictures … echo the story's quiet sensibility."

Expectation is the theme of several of Russo's titles, including Only Six More Days, Waiting for Hannah, When Mama Gets Home, and Hannah's Baby Sister. A mother's memory of waiting for the birth of her child one summer forms the story line for Waiting for Hannah, a "tender story that captures the love and expectancy of birth far better than most books written on the topic," according to Ilene Cooper in Booklist. Leda Schubert, writing in School Library Journal, noted that "children rarely tire of hearing this kind of tale; it should be particularly successful in one-on-one reading." Hannah's Baby Sister is something of a reprise of this idea, with young Hannah now waiting for the birth of a baby sister—which, in the event, turns out to be a baby brother. Pam Gosner remarked in School Library Journal that this "loving family is warmly portrayed in both text and in the cheerful childlike paintings with Russo's signature use of flat areas of color and pattern."

Expectation takes the form of waiting for a birthday in Only Six More Days. Ben is the birthday boy; there are only six days left until he turns five. Ben begins counting down, but older sister Molly is getting tired of the whole subject and decides to boycott the party until Mother comes to the rescue. Booklist contributor Ilene Cooper concluded that the "party scene featuring a multiracial group has warm appeal."

When Mama Gets Home is about a little girl who is eager for her mother to arrive home from work so the girl can tell her all about her day. When Mama Gets Home provides a "realistic glimpse into family life where children are often home before their parents," according to Lisa Gangemi Krapp in School Library Journal. Mama is bombarded by stories, questions, and requests when she finally gets home, but wears a smile through it all. "The dreamy quality of the narrative is extended in flat gouache paintings in muted colors," according to a critic in Kirkus Reviews. Hazel Rochman concluded in Booklist that "Russo captures the drama of a small child's day with immediacy and feeling and without condescension."

Several of Russo's books deal with the relationship between young children and their grandparents. In A Visit to Oma, Celeste visits her great-grandmother, receives a warm welcome, and listens to stories she cannot understand because Oma does not speak English. Celeste fashions her own story about Oma in a "perceptive glimpse of a child's imaginative concept of her elder's past," according to a Kirkus Reviews contributor. Ellen Fader remarked in Horn Book that "Russo's story will engage young readers with its warmth, love, and mysterious sense of personal history."

Grandpa Abe "celebrates the special connection between a grandparent and a child," Maeve Visser Knoth wrote in a Horn Book review. However, there is a twist to Russo's tale; Grandpa Abe is Sarah's step-grandfather. When Sarah is born, he is Sarah's grandmother's boyfriend, but from the beginning, he is there for Sarah. He lies about his relationship to Sarah to get into the hospital to visit her as a newborn. Later, when Sarah is in school and he and her grandmother have married, Abe goes to her school on Grandparents Day. Through the years, he gives Sarah plenty of love, presents, and affection, until he dies when Sarah is nine years old. "Bright, clear gouache paintings in Russo's signature style illustrate an expressive story," Hazel Rochman commented in Booklist.

Celeste returns in Mama Talks Too Much. In this tale, Celeste and her mother are trying to walk to the supermarket, but Mama has to stop and talk to the many neighbors they meet along the way. Celeste, uninterested in the grown-ups' chit-chat, becomes increasingly impatient until Mrs. Castro comes along with her new puppy. Now it is Mama's turn to be annoyed, as Celeste wants to linger and play with the dog. "The text neatly pins down Celeste's feelings," a reviewer wrote in Publishers Weekly, "and the artwork is equally assured." "Winsome and utterly recognizable," declared Booklist's GraceAnne A. DeCandido.

A trio of books—Trade-In Mother, Time to Wake Up!, and I Don't Want to Go Back to School—explore childhood rebellion against authority in a loving and humorous manner. In Trade-In Mother, Max blames Mama for his frustrating day and finally wishes he could trade her in, until it occurs to him that he might get a mom who would trade him in. A Kirkus Reviews critic noted that Russo's "attractive illustrations … reinforce the realistic story's warmth and sense of security." I Don't Want to Go Back to School is about a boy named Ben who does not want to return to school at the end of summer. His parents offer reassurances, while his big sister Hannah tells horror stories of her own school years. Jacqueline Elsner, writing in School Library Journal, called this an "all-around superior picture book."

Russo captures a common childhood playtime activity in Under the Table. The young protagonist of this picture book brings her dolls, crayons, books, and even the dog to her special hiding place. One day, she begins to draw pictures on the underside of the table, which her parents discover upon moving the furniture. Fortunately, Mom and Dad are understanding and make things right in a gentle way. "Many kids will see themselves in this pleasing tale," wrote Booklist's Ilene Cooper.

Russo tackled writing for young adults with House of Sports. The novel focuses on the relationship between twelve-year-old Jim and his eighty-two-year-old grandmother, whom he calls Nana. Nana, a quick-witted Holocaust survivor, is appalled that her grandson prefers basketball to studying. Even though the boy is bright, he gets poor grades. But then a series of disasters, including Nana's stroke, force Jim to reevaluate his priorities in life. "Throughout, the author nicely balances the comic and the tragic, creating scenes that ring true," Todd Morning wrote in School Library Journal. House of Sports also received praise from a Publishers Weekly reviewer, who noted that "the dialogue flows spontaneously, even minor characters have complexities, and the optimism expressed flows naturally from the storytelling."

To create her picture books, Russo employs incidents from her own childhood as well as observations of her children. Indeed, the main characters of her stories often bear her children's names. Reviewers of her works repeatedly point to the simple, direct language she employs, as well as the two-dimensional gouache paintings full of strong, bold colors that work together to create warm effects. Russo has noted that the paintings are the most fun for her—they come naturally. She continues to illustrate books for other writers. Regarding the writing of the text, "the initial idea is usually the easy part," Russo once commented, "but giving it shape, rhythm, and a climax is much more difficult." Nevertheless, Russo continued, "There is no other job I would want. Every day when I sit down to work in my studio … I feel very lucky and very happy."

Biographical and Critical Sources

BOOKS

Children's Books and Their Creators, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1995.

PERIODICALS

Booklist, April 15, 1987, Denise M. Wilms, review of Why Do Grown-Ups Have All the Fun?, p. 1294; March 1, 1988, Ilene Cooper, review of Only Six More Days, p. 1185; September 15, 1989, Ilene Cooper, review of Waiting for Hannah, pp. 189-190; April 15, 1991, p. 1648; May 1, 1992, Stephanie Zvirin, review of Alex Is My Friend, p. 1610; March 1, 1993, Stephanie Zvirin, review of Trade-in Mother, p. 1237; June 1, 1993, Kathryn Broderick, review of It Begins with an A, p. 1842; June 1, 1994, Hazel Rochman, review of Time to Wake Up!, p. 1844; September 1, 1994, Hazel Rochman, review of I Don't Want to Go Back to School, p. 54; March 15, 1995, Hazel Rochman, review of Bear E. Bear, p. 1338; October 15, 1995, Carolyn Phelan, review of Good-bye, Curtis, p. 411; May 15, 1996, Hazel Rochman, review of Grandpa Abe, p. 1593; August, 1996, Carolyn Phelan, review of Swim!, p. 1908; April 1, 1997, Ilene Cooper, review of Under the Table, p. 1339; March 1, 1998, Hazel Rochman, review of When Mama Gets Home, pp. 1141-1142; December 1, 1999, GraceAnne A. DeCandido, review of Mama Talks Too Much, p. 714; May 1, 2000, Hazel Rochman, review of The Big Brown Box, p. 1679.

Childhood Education, February, 1987, Phyllis G. Sidorsky, review of The Line Up Book, p. 211; June, 1988, Phyllis G. Sidorsky, review of A Week of Lullabies, p. 312; winter, 1988, Tina L. Burke, review of Only Six More Days, p. 117; mid-summer, 2002, Liane Ford, review of Come Back, Hannah!, p. 308.

Horn Book, November-December, 1986, Mary M. Burns, review of The Line Up Book, p. 739; May-June, 1987, Ethel L. Heins, review of Why Do Grown-ups Have All the Fun?, p. 334; September-October, 1989, Hanna B. Zeiger, review of Waiting for Hannah, p. 615; November-December, 1990, Hanna B. Zeiger, review of Where Is Ben?, p. 100; March-April, 1991, Ellen Fader, review of A Visit to Oma, pp. 195-196; May-June, 1993, Nancy Vasilakis, review of Trade-in Mother, p. 325; July-August, 1994, Ellen Fader, review of Time to Wake Up!, pp. 444-445; May-June, 1996, Maeve Visser Knoth, review of Grandpa Abe, p. 328.

Kirkus Reviews, May 1, 1991, review of A Visit to Oma, p. 609; February 15, 1993, review of Trade-In Mother, p. 233; March 15, 1994, p. 403; August 15, 1994, p. 1138; February 15, 1998, review of When Mama Gets Home, p. 274.

Language Arts, September, 1987, Janet Hickman, review of Why Do Grown-ups Have All the Fun?, p. 547; November, 1988, Janet Hickman, review of A Week of Lullabies, p. 720.

Mothering, summer, 1989, Max T. Neumeyer, review of The Line Up Book, p. 54.

New York Times Book Review, November 9, 1980, X. J. Kennedy, review of Vacation Time, p. 62; June 4, 1995, review of Bear E. Bear, p. 25; July 28, 1996, Judith Viorst, review of Grandpa Abe, p. 21.

Publishers Weekly, July 25, 1986, review of The Line Up Book, p. 184; November 13, 1987, review of The Big Fat Worm, p. 68; January 29, 1988, review of A Week of Lullabies, pp. 432-433; February 24, 1989, review of When Summer Ends, p. 232; January 25, 1993, review of Trade-in Mother, p. 86; April 26, 1993, review of It Begins with an A, p. 77; April 3, 1995, review of Bear E. Bear, p. 61; August 2, 1999, review of Mama Talks Too Much, p. 84; January 21, 2002, review of House of Sports, p. 90.

Reading Teacher, February, 1988, Alida von Krogh Cutts, interview with Russo, pp. 540-543.

School Library Journal, November, 1986, Lauralyn Persson, review of The Line Up Book, p. 83; March, 1987, David Gale, review of Why Do Grown-Ups Have All the Fun?, p. 150; December, 1987, Lee Bock, review of The Big Fat Worm, p. 78; April, 1988, Barbara S. McGinn, review of A Week of Lullabies, p. 96; October, 1988, Nemeth McCarthy, review of Only Six More Days, pp. 127-128; March, 1989, Lori A. Janick, review of When Summer Ends, p. 162; November, 1989, Leda Schubert, review of Waiting for Hannah, pp. 92-93; October, 1990, Karen James, review of Where Is Ben?, p. 100; July, 1991, Patricia Pearl, review of A Visit to Oma, pp. 195-196; April, 1992, Virginia Opocensky, review of Alex Is My Friend, p. 100; July, 1993, Lori A. Janick, review of Trade-in Mother, pp. 70-71; May, 1994, Marianne Saccardi, review of Time to Wake Up!, p. 102; July, 1994, Jacqueline Elsner, review of I Don't Want to Go Back to School, p. 88; June, 1995, Rosanne Cerny, review of Bear E. Bear, p. 96; October, 1995, Patricia Pearl Dole, review of Good-bye, Curtis, p. 104; July, 1996, Janet M. Blair, review of Grandpa Abe, p. 72; September, 1996, Sally R. Dow, review of Swim!, p. 189; April, 1997, Lisa Falk, review of Under the Table, p. 116; April, 1998, Lisa Gangemi Krapp, review of When Mama Gets Home, p. 108; September, 1998, Pam Gosner, review of Hannah's Baby Sister, p. 180; September, 1999, Sue Norris, review of Mama Talks Too Much, p. 202; May, 2000, Linda Ludke, review of The Big Brown Box, p. 153; April, 2002, Todd Morning, review of House of Sports, p. 156.

Times Educational Supplement, October 13, 1989, Jill Bennett, review of Only Six More Days, p. 62.

OTHER

Russo, Marisabina, comments in a publicity release for Greenwillow Books, 1996.*

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