Finding Value(s) for a Currency of Caring: Exploring Children's Picture Books, A Dollar Bill, and Fine Art Sources

By Reisberg, Mira | Art Education, November 2008 | Go to article overview

Finding Value(s) for a Currency of Caring: Exploring Children's Picture Books, A Dollar Bill, and Fine Art Sources


Reisberg, Mira, Art Education


Interrelated visual sources can provide powerful insights into the cultural messages, aesthetic power, and contemporary relevance of visual images (Darts, 2004; Duncum, 2000; Freedman, 2000; Smith-Shank, 2004). Thus, this article connects fine art, children's picture book illustrations, and the design of a dollar bill to promote social and environmental caring in art education while engaging in discussions about power.

Money and Power in Picture Books

As evidenced by the many children's books about money (Berg & Berg Bochner, 2002; Berger, 2001; Kummer, 2005), learning about the history and numerical value of currency is an important part of some children's educative experience. Children's picture books also provide a primary site for children's initial learning about the world (Galda & Cullinan, 2006; Higgins, 2002; Mitchell, 2003).

The following picture books, So You Want to be President (St. George, 2004); Money, Money, Money: The Meaning of the Art and Symbols on United States Paper Currency (Winslow Parker, 1995); Harvesting Hope, The Story of Cesar Chavez (Krull, 2003); and Americans Who Tell The Truth (Shetterly, 2005), provide resources to critically investigate the history of paper currency and/or issues of power. These books, along with artists who work with currency as an art form, provide a conceptual framework for creating a currency of caring.

So You Want to be President (St. George, 2004) looks at power in conventional terms, i.e., who gets to be president of the United States of America. It notes that no woman has ever been president, nor has any person of color. It remains to be seen in the year 2008 if this will change. The book perpetuates the belief that anyone can be president, stating, "If you care enough, anything is possible" (p. 43). While this may have been true in the past, this is certainly no longer the case where it requires millions of dollars for someone even to consider running for president. David Small's Caldecott Medal illustrations are elegant caricatures with oversized heads and tiny bodies, perhaps commenting on the supposed brainpower of presidents, or, perhaps just trying to be funny.

In examining picture books, paying attention to what is omitted is equally as important as examining what is included. For example, how have different presidents treated Native Americans, or what is the influence of presidential advisors such as Karl Rove? So You Want to Be President (St. George, 2004) describes a range of motivations for striving to be president, including serving one's country, making the world a better place, or having power, wealth, and prestige. While celebrating past presidents, the book provides opportunities to discuss what the presidency and leadership could and should be.

Another children's picture book that deals with presidential power and money, Money, Money, Money: The Meaning of the Art and Symbols on United States Paper Currency (Winslow Parker, 1995), historically contextualizes U.S. paper currency. The book highlights the meanings and practicalities behind paper currency as a powerful artifact of American visual culture by decoding currency's many symbols and providing information about the presidential portraits. The book also provides information about less positive historical events, such as Jackson's persecution of the Cherokee Nation and the extreme corruption of Grant's administration. This information can facilitate deeper discussions about the complexity of power.

Harvesting Hope, The Story of Cesar Chavez (Krull, 2003) looks at a different kind of power - the power of popular social activism. Illustrated by Yuyi Morales,1 this multi-award winning biography of Cesar Chavez, co-founder of the National Farm Workers Association (UFW),2 provides many opportunities for critical discussions and art activities related to poverty, racism, environmentalism, workers' rights, immigration, and bilingualism. Although this is a wonderful, inspiring story, it fails to mention the support of Chavez's activist wife, Helen Fabela, or Dolores Huerta, who co-founded the National Farmworkers' Association, or others who also participated in the historic 340-mile march for workers' rights. …

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