Monday, November 26, 2012

Book #331: Emma’s Rug by Allen Say

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Some kids have a favorite teddy bear or a security blanket they tote around, but for Emma it was a small, fluffy, white rug. She never stepped on it; instead she spent hours staring into the rug. Soon Emma began to draw and paint. She drew all sorts of animals – pangolins, tapirs, wart hogs. Her parents marveled, “where did she see a pangolin?” When Emma started school her teacher was also impressed by Emma’s artwork and soon Emma was winning ribbons and trophies. But Emma didn’t care; instead she looked into the rug and asked, “What should I draw next?” Then one day Emma’s mother washed the rug for the first time. When Emma came home from school she was heart-broken. The rug was no longer fluffy, it had shriveled and become ragged. All the fluff was gone. Emma threw all her artwork and prizes away. She stopped talking and drawing and painting. Was Emma able to create art without her rug? Where did she find a new source of inspiration?

Say’s quiet, reflective style is well-matched to this story of a young artist who loses her inspiration. The text is mostly description with just a few bits of spoken dialogue. Say not only creates Emma’s physical world, but also conveys Emma’s complex emotions. The watercolor illustrations are delicate and detailed and light and shadow are used beautifully. Say uses angles that emphasize a child’s point of view. Although Say has chosen an Asian-American protagonist, the story does not include cultural markers beyond skin and hair color. The book seems to be set in a major city (perhaps San Francisco, judging by the painting on the Golden Gate Bridge in Emma’s bedroom) that is populated by a multicultural cast. 

Use this book to start a discussion on creativity. Try pairing it with other books about creativity, such as Sky Color, The Pink Refrigerator, Think Big or Bear’s Picture. Where do you think Emma ultimately finds her inspiration? Does it come from inside or outside? Ask the kids where they get their inspiration for the artwork they create. This can be for a painting or drawing, like Emma does in the book, or for any other creative expression, such as writing, music, dancing, collage, cooking, knitting, etc. The University of Washington Northwest Center for Philosophy for Children has a great list of discussion questions.

Say has written many wonderful children’s books, many of which deal with serious subjects, including immigration, home, and progress. Many of his books look at Japanese or Japanese-American culture. His style is unique, making him a excellent choice for an author study. Read more of his books out loud and/or bring in copies for silent reading. My current favorites are Kamishibai Man, Grandfather’s Journey, and The Bicycle Man. The RIF Reading Planet has a kid-friendly interview with Say. The address to send letters to Say is included at the end of the interview. Encourage kids to write to Say. Things to write about might include: your favorite Say book, why you like it, how you find creative inspiration, or questions you had about the story/characters from a particular book.


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