The Message of Ms. Liberty’s Foot
My county library system catalog lists 34 nonfiction books about the Statue of Liberty. I think I’ve actually only read one (Lynn Curlee’s, which was excellent), but I’m pretty confident that none of them resembles HER RIGHT FOOT in terms of style, presentation of information, or interpretation of theme. It starts out light and conversational:
“You have likely heard of a place called France….You may have also heard of something called the Statue of Liberty. Did you know that the Statue of Liberty comes from France? This is true. This is a factual book.”
I wasn’t sure about this voice at first. Is it playful and inviting? Or just kind of patronizing? I got used to it pretty quickly, though, more so when interesting facts were introduced. We learn interesting stuff about the statue’s creation: how smaller models were used, how it was constructed, and transported…all pretty fascinating. The author continues to address the reader along the way.
“Ask your friends and even your teachers if they knew that before the Statue of Liberty was assembled in New York, she was first constructed in Paris. Your friends and teachers will be astounded. They will be impressed. They might think you are fibbing. But you are not fibbing. This really happened.”
The illustrations do a lot to support the tone, but even without them the voice is distinct and consistent. There are a few spots where the pictures do carry more of the load. A reference to “rare Nico records,” for example, is one that few kids (and not that many adults) will get, but it works to set up a humorous illustration of the statue stopping at a record store, and most everyone will get the idea.
Then about halfway through, there’s a shift: “But there is one thing that you might not know, and this is the central point to this book – a point the author apologizes for taking so long to get to.” Then we learn that the statue’s right foot is lifted, as if she’s striding: “This 150-foot woman is on the go!”
After inviting us to reflect upon that, he get to his theme: “Here is an idea. Here is a theory. Here is a reminder.” Then comes some pointed, serious words about how courage and action are required for “liberty and freedom from oppression.” “After all, the Statue of Liberty is an immigrant, too. And this is why she’s moving…she is not content to wait. She must meet them in the sea.” [I’m skipping around a bit here with my quotes, hoping to still convey the sense of it]
So it’s not just a fact book with funny bits after all. It’s a persuasive argument with a distinct point of view. You don’t see that too often in children’s non-fiction. The first half that invites us in and presents interesting information serves as a potent set-up for the big message at the end. The interplay between the irreverent tone in the first half and the more heartfelt closing passages balance each other to some degree, so it doesn’t ever quite seem either too light or too strident.
The Newbery Terms and Criteria note that the award “is not for didactic content.” I read that as a reminder that we can’t reward or condemn a book because we like or dislike the message…but it certainly doesn’t warn us away from books that aim to teach or inspire. Instead, we have to stay focused on the way messages are delivered through the writing and how that execution (or “interpretation of the theme” as the Terms and Criteria put it) might contribute to literary excellence.
There were a few moments when the author’s voice felt overly intrusive and took me out of the book’s world. I’d take a hard second look at that aspect before I nominated this one, trying especially to understand how those moments would work with a child reader. Overall, though, I think HER RIGHT FOOT is a good example of a book that delivers facts and themes in a creative, and even innovative form that’s engaging and pretty powerful.
Filed under: Book Discussion
About Steven Engelfried
Steven Engelfried was the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon until he retired in 2022 after 35 years as a full-time librarian. He served on the 2010 Newbery committee, chaired the 2013 Newbery Committee, and also served on the 2002 Caldecott committee. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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