Author-illustrator Kenesha Sneed is a Los Angeles-based multidisciplinary artist who mines her own artistic background in her evocative first picture book, Many Shapes of Clay: A Story of Healing.
Eisha lives with her mother, a clay artist whose studio is in the basement of their apartment, and their cat, who loves long naps. When Eisha wonders why her mother leaves her molded clay shapes on the shelves instead of playing with them, her mother explains that the shapes are fragile, then gives Eisha a piece of clay to experiment with.
As Eisha moves the clay in her hands, it evokes ideas and memories, including a day last summer when she picked lemons with her father. Eisha molds her clay into the shape of a lemon and paints it yellow. She brings it outside to the apartment stoop when she and Mama take a break from their hard work. “Sweat drips down from the top of her head to the tip of her chin. Mama misses Papa too,” Sneed writes, offering the book’s first indication that Mama and Eisha have suffered a terrible loss.
Outside, Eisha notices that when she taps on the clay lemon, it makes a musical sound, but she taps a little too hard and it breaks, shattering into many pieces. “Each piece reflects the sadness she feels,” Sneed writes. Eisha’s mother acknowledges her daughter’s grief and helps her to create something new from the broken pieces of clay that will help carry her memories and love for her father with her into each new day.
With its subtle and perceptive depiction of grief, Many Shapes of Clay stands out among children’s books that deal with this topic. The story unfolds gently as Sneed slowly reveals the intensity of Eisha and Mama’s loss. Eisha’s contemplation of her inability to put her broken pieces of clay back together is particularly moving: “What Eisha feels is hard to describe—like something that is too heavy to lift. Like something that might last forever.” Sneed’s spare, lyrical prose and earth-tone illustrations come together beautifully to depict the uneven, uncertain process of healing.
Many Shapes of Clay heralds the arrival of a talented new picture book creator.