Signed, Abiah Rose
I love picture books and have particular respect for anyone who can both write and illustrate them engagingly. Artist and illustrator Diane Browning has done exactly that. Signed, Abiah Rose chronicles, in a confident first person narrative, a young woman’s determination to become a professional artist despite the conventions and taboos of her time.
Everyone in her family has a special talent, but when Abiah Rose tries to develop her artistic ability, she is discouraged. Her parents first try to keep her from painting at all, but she perseveres. They next advise her not to paint for others, and then nearly forbid her to work as a travelling portrait artist. Although she finally achieves all of these goals, she poignantly signs her work with a small rose instead of with her name, because she is repeatedly told that buyers will only value paintings by men. The end of the story finds her preparing to ask her father’s permission to work in her uncle’s shop in town, where she plans to create and sell her paintings full time.
The artwork is colourful, in keeping with eighteenth century folk art, and supports the clear narrative. I couldn’t get over the title character’s facial expressions on each page; pride, determination, even impishness are conveyed with only a few coloured pencil strokes and some acrylic paint. There is great attention to detail: beautiful end papers covered with a repeating blue-on-blue rose and leaf pattern pick up the recurring theme.
I would read this book with children aged five and up, and take the opportunity to look for the rose hidden in each painting (as we’re invited to do on the back page). Inevitable questions like, “Why couldn’t she sign her name?” could instigate a real dialogue on any ability level about rights women have had to gain. Older children could read this on their own and make deeper inferences about the social hierarchies of the time. Any child, however, will easily relate to the frustration of being told, “no."
Some of the language toward the end of the book may need rephrasing for younger readers or listeners, but Browning gives a good overall flavour of the formal speech of the time period. It’s a nice introduction to historical fiction: young children who like this book may go on to appreciate the determined first-person heroines in children’s and young adult books by Ann Rinaldi, for example.
The book’s educational value is wide-ranging. As well as the obvious "teachable moments" the book provides, there is also a glossary of old-fashioned vocabulary at the front, and a page with more information and references for further reading at the back. This book could also provide stimulus for an elementary school cross-curricular art and history project.
Feminist? Yes, with an adult pointing out some of the more subtle aspects of the didactic nature of the story to younger children. Abiah Rose does not overtly defy the restrictions of the time, although she does question them. There are a lot of “no you can’ts" and the ending is intentionally ambiguous. I think it would be important to draw out some of the reasons for this and discuss it further, but overall I believe that Signed, Abiah Rose is a worthwhile addition to a home or school library.