Bill Traylor first picked up a pencil to draw at the age of 85 and people of all ages stopped to admire his drawings as he worked on the street.
Award winning author Don Tate illuminates the hardscrabble life of this American folk artist in It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw. On the next page we flash back to Bill’s birth to a slave family in the 1850’s. How many picture books trace a lifetime—and highlight the accomplishments of late life? I’ll tell you—not many. (Lee and Low; ages 6 and up.)
Just recently Bill Traylor’s self-taught work (and this lovely book) enjoyed wide recognition at the American Folk Art Museum (New York, Summer ’13). His drawings were accomplished in the 1940’s in what a New York Times review called “a late-life burst of genius.” They also labeled him “… a natural stylist and a born storyteller…At once modern and archaic…”
See the exhibit’s review here—including photographs of Bill Traylor’s distinctive art.
Don Tate’s wise choice of words give a crucial immediacy to this story of Bill’s hard working life as a sharecropper in Alabama after the end of the Civil War and Emancipation—farming and raising a family, Saturday night dances, and Sunday church alongside the riverbank. (He raised 22 children!)
Kids will delight in the farm animals that so amused Bill—chickens strut, cats tiptoe, snakes slither (“always up to no good”) and “the mule refused to work.” Throughout the tales of Bill’s life we see the smartly repeated phrase, “Bill saved up memories of these times deep inside himself.”
At the age of 81, with all the people close to him gone or scattered, Bill Traylor left the farm for the big city of Montgomery. Sadly, he ends up homeless, but a local funeral home offers him a spot for the nights. In his loneliness he found “all those saved-up memories of earlier times” and in a burst of late-life creativity poured them into pictures on discarded bags and cardboard.
A young artist, Charles Shannon, becomes his admirer and champion, noting how the drawings “danced with rhythm.” He arranges a local showing and then stores many drawings for years.
Author Don Tate has illustrated many acclaimed books for children, but R. Gregory Christie was the perfect choice for an artistic partner here. His pictures convey movement and action in simple ways, quite similar to the art of Bill Traylor himself. Mr. Christie has illustrated over 40 books and won an array of awards.
The Afterword adds information on “outsider art”—“…work created by a person without formal training who lives on the edge of established culture and society and works outside the mainstream art world…” An exciting new website is dedicated to Bill Traylor and the powerful work of other “outside artists.”
Next Steps: Changing Attitudes to Aging
All too often the young look at the old and see only lost youth. To my mind, believing that negative stereotypes in books for kids don’t matter is a bit like deluding ourselves that the calories in broken cookies don’t count! Fortunately, Positive Aging picture books like this one help us shed light on “the positive power of the aging brain.” Despite loneliness and homelessness, Bill Traylor shows us the creativity and strength of an older person.
Dr. Gene D. Cohen, a geriatric psychiatrist, wrote several books including The Mature Mind: The Positive Power of the Aging Brain. He recounts an amusing example of late life creativity:
His mother and father-in-law, due for dinner at his house, were unable to get a taxi to stop during a rush hour snow storm. They marched into a nearby pizza shop, ordered a large pie for delivery, and then insisted on being delivered themselves, right along with the pizza!
Now that is thinking “outside of the box,” but along with that humorous tale, here are two important insights from his book:
1) Many age-related losses in mental function so often talked about are actually due to specific illnesses such as stroke or dementia, not normal aging.
2) “…creativity is a function of both knowledge and experience, both of which increase with age.” This sets the stage for tremendous inner growth.
We see this powerful combination in Bill Traylor, and in another self taught artist, Tressa (Grandma) Prisbrey, creator of the amazingly beautiful Bottle Village. (my book review.)
Resources for Aging Education
Increase kids’ awareness of creativity in late life using the resources below. But, be sure to point out—yes, you have—knowledge, experience and memories, but, your elders have far more!
- Discuss positive aspects of living a long life using the author’s Teacher Activity Guide. See the memory questionnaire, “I am From” poem and timeline activities (includes many activities around the Common Core curriculum—created by educator Deb Gonzales.)
- Focus on artistic creativity with an Arts Curriculum developed by Kelly McConnell.
- Use a towering stack of books to help children visualize the years and the experiences in a long lifetime –one year per book, an experience per page. (See “100 Books for 100 Years.”)
Disclosure: I was sent a free review copy of this book. I was not required to write a review and I received no payment for this post. Photos from “It Jes’ Happened” courtesy of R. Gregory Christie.