This Land is Your Land by Woody Guthrie and Kathy Jakobsen

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This Land is Your Land by Woody Guthrie and Kathy Jakobsen

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Category: Teens
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: This Land Is Your Land has so much mileage inside it, it's well worth the three week wait from Amazon. It's the perfect picture book for sharing with little ones, yet it has longevity too. From lyrics to art to politics to poverty and to community, there is an enormous amount to talk about. Children will find something new each time they look. It's a real piece of folk art too, in that it is open to everyone, including the grown ups. It deserves a place on every bookshelf.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 32 Date: September 1998
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
ISBN: 0316392154

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This land is your land, this land is my land,
From California to the New York Island'
From the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me.

You all know those words, right? Just in case you don't (and then shame on you), they form the chorus of one of America's most famous folk songs, penned by possibly its most famous folk musician, Woody Guthrie. I love Woody Guthrie; to me he's the John Steinbeck of music. He spent a lot of time hitching across the states, singing, like all good folk musicians sing, of the things he saw. Like Steinbeck, he is perhaps most famous for the parts of his work that tell of the terrible effects the Great Depression of the 1930s had on the ordinary American people - he saw those people with clear and compassionate eyes and yet his music about them never lost a sense of hope or an invitation to community.

"This Land is Your Land" was written during that time, partly it is a homage to the natural beauty of that huge American country, and a celebration of the diverse heritage of its people, but it was also a protest song; not a call to arms and struggle, but a strong cry that in a just world there would be enough for everyone. For a long time some of those "subversive" verses were suppressed, indeed in the most famous recording he made Guthrie himself omitted them (although these days many Americans feel as though this song is almost an unofficial national anthem), but they're here, where they should be, in my book. It's a beautiful book, and there is so, so much contained within its thirty-two short pages, I truly just don't know where to begin.

The lyrics to This Land Is Your Land have been set in a picture book for children, illustrated by famous American folk artist Kathy Jakobsen. They are followed by a few words from that collector of American music, Pete Seeger, a complete musical notation, and a brief biography of Guthrie aimed for slightly older children. It seems to me as if there is something for everyone inside this short little book, and that's how any folk art should be; open to all, whoever and wherever they are, and especially young and old alike.

As the song begins we see Guthrie on his famous travels, guitar slung across his back walking across the states, a tiny amazed figure, just drinking in the beauty of the snow of Alaska, the fertile, giving fields of the farming states, the deserts in all their austere night time beauty. These peaceful, expansive vistas are interspersed with busy views of the populous cities, where Guthrie feels just as awestruck and tiny, but for a different reason, he is no longer alone with the land, but in the middle of heaving, bustling, crowded city life. These busy scenes have been bordered with the kind of decorative panels associated with the Tramp Art of the early 1900s and they enclose the main illustrations perfectly and somehow peacefully, each corner of the border has a tiny panel with quotations from other Guthrie songs. They are incredibly detailed paintings, full of references to American landmarks, Guthrie's life, the myth and legend of the native American peoples and also to the hardships of modern living. It's hard to describe them because, while they are as fine and detailed as the How Things Work series of books by David Macauley, they also have a sublime feeling of peace and tranquility about them. It is almost as if the book is crying out to you to stop, take a breath, look for the beauty around you, and when you find it, to keep still, and savour it.

And all the while as you read, or sing, and turn the pages those words of the refrain are repeated to you, "this land was made for you and me", so that it really does mean something when you see an inner city scene, one of welfare queues, hobos and vandalised buildings and when that scene transforms itself into one of harmony as the people find community and work together, for each other. Between the scene of desperation and the one of regeneration is my favourite of all the Jakobsen illustrations in the book; it shows a glorious line up of the folk and blues musicians of the time and those of today who owe inspiration to Guthrie in one way or another. To me, it's the perfect sandwich of pictures for a book about not only a song, but also a land and a people. It shows how music, good music, but whatever the music, is an emotional thing, a cathartic thing and that it can be a healing force, one that brings us together.

Song lyrics, especially those of folk songs, can make perfect picture books, if the artist can feel as does the song, because a good picture book is a dramatic experience, it is meant to be seen and heard directly, without the intemediary of the printed word. The child will see the pictures and hear the words, and thus it really does become a dramatic experience: direct, immediate, vivid, moving. As you sing or speak the words their meaning comes to life through the drawings on the page in a very powerful way, just as it does with This Land Is Your Land. Woody Guthrie's song, and Kathy Jakobsen's paintings may well be about America, but the uplifting, haunting, yet simple lyric and the detailed, busy, yet peaceful illustrations could be about anywhere as far as a small child is concerned.

"This world is your world and my world. Take it easy, but take it."

Woody Guthrie said that, and Kathy Jakobsen put it into one of the Tramp Art panels in the book. I love it, don't you? This Land Is Your Land may be a picture book for children, but I don't think it's one any adult should be ashamed to own. Music, like words, can evoke feeling and atmosphere, it can create a feeling of community in the present and it can also be an historical testament to times and places in a way the most accurate of news reporting could never be. This book, like everything Steinbeck wrote, is a piece of history of a country and the drama of ordinary life and it deserves a place on every bookshelf.

Life is for living, so do what the man said - take it easy, but take it. And buy the blinkin' book!

If you liked this, you'll like Forever Young by Bob Dylan.

Booklists.jpg This Land is Your Land by Woody Guthrie and Kathy Jakobsen is in the Top Ten Books With Gorgeous Illustrations.

Booklists.jpg This Land is Your Land by Woody Guthrie and Kathy Jakobsen is in the Top Ten Books About America.

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