Monday, October 29, 2012

Nonfiction Monday: Columbus, by Demi (Amazon Publishing, 2012)

Recommended for ages 10 and up.

Author/illustrator Demi is well known for her gorgeous illustrated biographies for children, which range from volumes on Joan of Arc, Genghis Khan, Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Tutankhamun, and Marco Polo to biographies of religious figures such as the Virgin Mary, Jesus, Buddha, and Muhammad.  The most recent entry in her series, just published this fall, is an examination of the iconic explorer Christopher Columbus.

I can still remember being in second or third grade and learning about the great explorer Christopher Columbus, who "discovered" America, sailing the ocean blue in 1492 with the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria.  Unfortunately, at that time, we learned little about the real Christopher Columbus, and in particular, about the cruelty, disease, and enslavement he brought to the initially friendly native population in the lands he "discovered" and claimed for the Spanish crown.

I'm not sure that today's elementary school students receive a more balanced view of the famous/infamous explorer, although my high school daughter's AP History textbook attempts to provide a more comprehensive viewpoint.  In this gloriously illustrated new picture book biography, Demi also makes an effort to balance Columbus' legitimate accomplishments in navigation with the darker side of his story.

Demi's narrative is organized chronologically, in traditional biography style, and we learn how the young Christopher was fascinated at an early age by ships and sailors that arrived in the port of Genoa, where he was born.  At fourteen Columbus left home to become a sailor, quickly becoming an expert in navigation, studying the stars and predicting weather.  We learn that Columbus was shipwrecked off the coast of Portugal, and learned to speak Portuguese and Spanish.  He even sailed to Iceland and above the Arctic Circle.

But as we know, Columbus dreamed of more--of finding a route to the East by sailing west from Europe.  But who would fund such a trip?  After the Portuguese king turned him down, Columbus tried the Spanish monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella.  Initially rejected by the monarchs' advisors, Columbus persevered and eventually Isabella was persuaded to outfit three ships for his expedition.  It's hard to imagine the panic the sailors must have felt on such a long voyage--two months on the open sea.  Demi's narrative makes us feel the joy the sailors felt on finally spotting signs that land was near--birds, crayfish, even a branch with fruit, and then the cry from an anonymous sailor of "Land!"

The aftermath of the dangerous voyage was not so happy.  Demi writes that the natives were friendly but there was not much gold or other riches, and no great palaces.  But the friendliness did not last, and the author points out that Columbus "disrespected their culture and treated them as no more than slaves."  In her text and images, we see the natives being exploited by the Spanish, and how eventually the males were forced to give up their lands and work for the Spaniards.  European diseases decimated those who were not killed by exhaustion, and hundreds of thousands died, virtually wiping out the native population of that part of the world.

Demi's biography gives us information on the rest of Columbus' career and life--including his triumphant homecoming to Spain and his other explorations for the Spanish crown.  However, his mismanagement of the colonies led to his imprisonment and trial in Spain, and he lost his position as governor of Hispaniola.  But Columbus would not retire!  He continued to explore, reaching other islands in the Caribbean on his endless quest for a passage to the East.

Demi concludes that Columbus "died a magnificent failure," having destroyed the Taino culture and enslaved the islanders.  "Yet he was one of the greatest navigators who ever lived...and his voyages had changed the face of the world forever!"  Is that a bit like saying "Hitler was responsible for the murder of millions of people...but he was a great orator."????

While I would have liked to see even more of the text--or perhaps an afterword--devoted to how Columbus and his men treated the native population--I do give Demi credit for at least including this aspect of the explorer's life.  It's a biography well worth reading, and at 64 pages, provides plenty of material for a report.  Once again Demi outdoes herself with her illustrations, painted with Chinese paintbrushes and inks, gold overlays, and Italian marbled paper from Italy.  The details in each illustration are beautiful and well worth plenty of time perusing.  Back matter includes a splendid map showing Columbus' various voyages, and an author's note at the beginning of the book discusses her sources for this biography.

For a picture book on Columbus from the perspective of the Taino population, you may want to read Jane Yolen's Encounter (Sandpiper, 1996), beautifully illustrated by David Shannon (yes, the No, David author!).


PragmaticMom said...

Finally a well balanced book for kids on Columbus that doesn't sugar coat him as a hero.

Anonymous said...

The pictures are good. However a lot of information in the book is historically inaccurate.