Freedom's a-Callin Me by Ntozake Shange, illustrated by Rod Brown
Shange is well known as a poet and author, perhaps most notably for For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf. She has written other children's books, We Troubled the Waters—illustrated by Rod Brown—and Coretta Scott and Ellington Was Not a Street, illustrated by Kadir Nelson.
This new book is a collection of poems about the African American slave experience, with the focus on failed and successful efforts to escape to freedom. There is a loose narrative arc, beginning with a poem about a young man who tries to escape. In the second we see he has been caught and is being whipped for it. "Never again?" Hardly. Again he tries, and he seems to get farther this time. The poems aren't all about the same young man, though. We get a poem about Sojourner Truth and a group of slaves who are escaping, one about a slave tracker, and another about a man who is caught while the rest of his group gets away. The swamp, an abolitionist, a secret hiding place, and more make their appearances in Shange's book. The poems are strong of voice and spirit. They are probably too strong in theme for the younger crowd, but their very potency makes them a valuable, moving read for children perhaps 8 or 9 and up. Here's a sample from "Time Tuh Go," in which a wife asks her husband not to go and he replies:
but listen to me
ah jus' can't take it no more
ah am not some animal to be worked from dawn to dusk
livin on the entrails of hogs & such
ah am a livin bein' & ah got to be free
or ah am goin to kill somebody real soon
somebody white who don't even see me
ah don't want to be a killer
ah jus' want to be a free man
When Grandmama Sings by Margaree King Mitchell, illustrated by James E. Ransome
Belle's Grandmama has an amazing voice, and when she gets a chance to tour the South with a swing jazz band, she takes Belle along. The story begins:
My Grandmama Ivory Belle Coles loved to sing. She sang in the church choir. She sang while she cooked and cleaned and worked in the garden. Whenever she wasn't singing, she was humming.
We lived in Pecan Flats, Mississippi. The summer I was eight, Grandmama would come by the house and listen to me read to my sister, Carrie. Grandmama couldn't read herself. But she always had a song to sing.
When Grandmama goes on tour and brings Belle, Belle experiences segregation and discrimination firsthand in the form of whites-only hotels and restaurants, a club manager who refuses to pay Grandmama and the band, and police who pull the group over and dump all of their things on the side of the road just because. Without getting everyone in trouble, Grandmama stands up for what's right as best she can. The book ends with a marvelous concert at the band's last stop, and even though the white people sit on the main floor and the black people sit in the balcony, everyone there loves the same music. When Grandmama Sings doesn't shy away from the hard realities of the era, but it shows how Grandmama perseveres and sets an example of hope for her granddaughter. Belle's voice and the simple narrative keep the book from being preachy, but the story carries a great message just the same.
Next, an homage to one of my favorite poets, Langston Hughes. Did you know it was his birthday a few weeks ago, on February 1? Here's a nice bit of biography from Wiki (see footnotes for original sources):
While in grammar school in Lincoln, Hughes was elected class poet. Hughes stated that in retrospect he thought it was because of the stereotype that African Americans have rhythm. "I was a victim of a stereotype. There were only two of us Negro kids in the whole class and our English teacher was always stressing the importance of rhythm in poetry. Well, everyone knows, except us, that all Negroes have rhythm, so they elected me as class poet." During high school in Cleveland, Ohio, he wrote for the school newspaper, edited the yearbook, and began to write his first short stories, poetry, and dramatic plays. His first piece of jazz poetry, "When Sue Wears Red", was written while he was in high school. It was during this time that he discovered his love of books.
Langston wrote one of his most famous poems at the age of 17 as a he rode a train over the Mississippi. Here is how "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" begins:
I've known rivers:
I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
Langston attended Columbia University for a year or so, but left because of prejudice and his focus on Harlem. He was part of the Harlem Renaissance and a key inventor of jazz poetry. (See photo of Ella Fitzgerald and Dizzy Gillespie, below left.) He also wrote short stories, plays, and numerous essays. Langston began basing his poetry more and more on the rhythms of the street. He explains:
Seventh Street in Washington was the long, old, dirty street where ordinary Negroes hang out. On Seventh Street they played the blues, ate watermelon, shot pool, told tall tales, and looked at the Dome of the Capitol and laughed out loud. I listened to their blues. And I went to their churches and heard the tambourines play and the little tinkling bells of the triangle adorn the gay shouting that sent sisters dancing down the aisle for joy. I tried to write poems like the songs they sang on South Street, ...songs that had the pulse beat of the people who keep going. Like the waves of a sea coming one after another, so is the undertow of black music with its rhythm that never betrays you, its strength like the beat of a human heart, its humor, and its living power. [quoted in the Introduction to Poetry for Young People: Langston Hughes, ed. David Roessel and Arnold Rampersad, Sterling 2006.]
You might call Langston Hughes the father of the "black is beautiful" movement. His own father was ashamed of his race, but Langston worked long and hard to express his love and honor for his people, as in the poem "My People":
The night is beautiful,
So the faces of my people.
The stars are beautiful,
So the eyes of my people.
Beautiful, also, is the sun.
Beautiful, also, are the souls of my people.
Langston was a wise and diligent dreamer, and some of his best poems are about dreams. One that is dear to my heart is titled simply "Dreams":
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.
Certain poems by Langston Hughes are often anthologized, of course. Here is one you may not have seen, "Homesick Blues":
De railroad bridge's
A sad song in de air.
De railroad bridge's
A sad song in de air.
Ever time de trains pass
I wants to go somewhere.
I went down to de station.
Ma heart was in ma mouth.
Went down to de station.
Heart was in ma mouth.
Lookin' for a box car
To roll me to de South.
Homesick blues, Lawd,
'S a terrible thing to have.
Homesick blues is
A terrible thing to have.
To keep from cryin'
I opens ma mouth an' laughs.
I highly recommend two books about Langston Hughes and his poems: the poet's own The Dream Keeper and Other Poems, illustrated by Brian Pinkney (Alfred A. Knopf, 2007) and Poetry for Young People: Langston Hughes, referenced above. You can read an account of the writing of "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" in a picture book, Langston's Train Ride, by Robert Burleigh, illustrated by Leonard Jenkins (Orchard, 2004). Or look for a lovely rendering of the poem itself, The Negro Speaks of Rivers, illustrated by E.B. Lewis (Hyperion, 2009).
Now, here's a nice link to some good books for kids about African American history and achievements. You'll notice that one is a book of poems for children by Langston Hughes, The Sweet and Sour Animal Book.
Finally, a shout-out to some of my favorite black illustrators, whether elder statesmen or up-and-comers:
Ashley Bryan—2012 winner of the Coretta Scott King/Virginia Hamilton Lifetime Achievement Award; among his many wonderful books are three Coretta Scott King winners: Beat the Story Drum, Pum-Pum (1981); Beautiful Blackbird (2004); and Let It Shine: Three Favorite Spirituals (2008). He has won numerous Coretta Scoot King honor awards, as well. One of my own favorites is Ashley Bryan's ABC of African American Poetry. Bryan won the 2009 Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal for his contributions to children's literature. The illustrator uses bold, bright colors with strong lines and shapes.
R. Gregory Christie—Christie won Coretta Scott King honor awards for his illustrations for The Palm of My Heart: Poetry by African American Children (1997), Only Passing Through: The Story of Sojourner Truth (2001), and Brothers in Hope: The Story of the Lost Boys of Sudan (2006). My own favorite book he illustrated is Yesterday I Had the Blues by Jeron Ashford Frame (2008). Christie's style varies by the project, but his baseline voice as an illustrator merges flat shapes and blocks of color with more realistic facial expressions and other details. It's a little different, but it works. (Here's a trailer for his latest, It Jes' Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw by Don Tate, due out in April.)
Bryan Collier—This artist is the Caldecott Honor and Coretta Scott King illustration winner for Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave (2011); Coretta Scott King winner and Caldecott honor for Rosa (2006), and Coretta Scott King winner for Uptown (2001). He has won Coretta Scott King honors for other books, too, including one about Langston Hughes, Visiting Langston (2005). Collier's work has a rich, smooth realism, often with a dark palette.
Leo and Diane Dillon—He's black, she's white, and this husband-and-wife team have been winning illustration awards throughout a 40-year career, including back-to-back Caldecott wins in 1977 and 1978 for Ashanti to Zulu: African Traditions and Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People's Ears, respectively. They've done a slew of book jackets in addition to their picture books. The Dillons won the 1997 Grand Masters Award for their body of work from Spectrum for being Best In Contemporary Fantastic Art, a Virginia Hamilton award for their body of work in children's literature in 2002, and a World Fantasy Convention Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008. They've actually won more body-of-work awards, but you get the picture: people are rightfully impressed! One of my favorite books from the Dillons is To Everything There Is a Season (1997), in which they use art styles from various countries and historical periods to illustrate the famous verses from Ecclesiastes in the Bible. I'm partial to a story called Wind Child, too. But there are just so many to choose from! Though the Dillons do experiment, you can usually recognize their distinctive style, which has a sort of airbrushed look to it. Their latest is Never Forgotten by Patricia C. McKissack.
Kadir Nelson—A talented author/illustrator, Nelson won the Coretta Scott King Award this year for writing for Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans, and he won an Honor for the book's illustrations. As an illustrator, he won Caldecott honor awards in 2008 for Henry's Freedom Box and in 2007 for Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom; the latter book garnered Nelson a Coretta Scott King win. He has won further King awards and honors in both writing and illustration, e.g., for We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball. Nelson's Moses is a wonderfully tender and inspiring book about Harriet Tubman. The illustrator's work is realistic, though slightly stylized. He tends to work with warm tones.
Jerry Pinkney—This 2011 Caldecott winner for The Lion and the Mouse had previously won five Caldecott honor awards and five Coretta Scott King awards, among other honors. Pinkney won a Virginia Hamilton lifetime achievement award in 2000 for his long, highly regarded career as a watercolor genius.
Brian Pinkney—Brian is Jerry Pinkney's son, and he specializes in scratchboard art; he won a Caldecott honor and a Coretta Scott King honor in 1996 for The Faithful Friend, as well as a Coretta Scott King honor award in 1993 for Sukey and the Mermaid and in 1999 for Duke Ellington: The Piano Prince and His Orchestra. The latter won a Caldecott honor award, too. Brian won the Coretta Scott King Award for illustration in 2000 for In the Time of the Drums.
At my day job, I am currently working on curriculum materials for a South Carolina state history book for eighth graders, and I included instructional activities relating to slavery. E.g., I'm having the kids read Julius Lester's To Be a Slave. I've also included an activity featuring Hill and Collier's book, Dave the Potter. I'm heading into the twentieth century soon, so we'll see what that brings. I may not be able to cover the Harlem Renaissance in a South Carolina book, but that won't stop me from thinking about Langston Hughes' wonderful voice, let alone about the artwork and writing in today's children's books that celebrates African American history and present-day experience.
Some people may find Black History Month a little scripted, but I think of all those kids of many races who, if they know nothing else, now understand a few things about Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King. And maybe even about George Washington Carver, Marion Anderson, Thurgood Marshall, Malcolm X, Maya Angelou, General Colin Powell, Toni Morrison, President Barack Obama—and always, please, Langston Hughes.