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Book Reviews

African American Literature

 

Brian Pinkney        Jacqueline Woodson    Mildred D. Taylor   

 


  Brian Pinkney

Bibliographic Citation:
Pinkney, Andrea Davis.  2002.  Ella Fitzgerald: The tale of a vocal virtuoso.  Illustrated by Brian Pinkney.  New York: Hyperion Books for Children.  ISBN 0786805684.

Summary: 
Scat Cat Monroe narrates the life of singer, Ella Fitzgerald.  The feline narrator takes readers through the tracks of Fitzgerald's life as she spends her childhood in Yonkers and highlights her discovery in a talent show in Harlem.  Fitzgerald then joins the Chick Webb Orchestra and sings with Dizzy Gillespie.  Scat Cat follows her throughout her career and success. 

Analysis:

    In Ella Fitzgerald: The Tale of a Vocal Virtuoso, Andrea Davis Pinkney has expertly fitted the biography of the First Lady of Song into a picture book format.  Narrated by Scat Cat Monroe, a feline in a zoot suit, the book contains four tracks about Fitzgerald's life from "Hoofin' in Harlem," down to "Jammin' in Yale," over to "Stompin' at the Savoy," and finally to "Carnegie Hall Scat."  The division of Fitzgerald's life into tracks serves to reinforce the musical theme carried throughout the narrative.  Scat Cat begins with Fitzgerald's childhood that she spent dancing in Yonkers and follows her as she is discovered at a talent competition in Harlem.  From there, Fitzgerald's overpowering voice takes over.  Young readers come to learn that "Ella's voice was its own instrument." (Pinkney 9) 

    One critic stated that, "The prose, while occasionally labored, swings to a syncopated beat and piles on the synesthesia." (Publishers Weekly)  Readers can feel the pulse of the music and the rhythm of the lyrics.  Chick Webb shows Fitzgerald how to shade the high notes and light the lows, to grab hold of a tune, and to wrap her voice around each melody (Pinkney 15).  As Fitzgerald learns to use her voice, Pinkney reflects the lyrical expression in the text.  To her, "[Ella's] voice was quick-fried rhythm, with a brassy satin twist." (Pinkney 17)  Through the author's careful choice of words and rich descriptions, she has recreated the atmosphere of the jazz era.

    Brian Pinkney has constructed his illustrations, so that they reflect his wife's musical words.  When Chick takes Ella under his wing and flies to the Savory Ballroom, Pinkney literally depicts Ella holding Chick's hand as he soars through the air with his feathered wings (10-11).  "The design of this effort is quite remarkable; from time to time, words splash across the pages, and change in font and size, effectively mirroring rhythms and meanings." (Kirkus)  Throughout the double-page spreads, the words continue to dance in rhythm to the music.  Pinkney's description of bebop spreads across the page's illustration as SYN-CO-PATION and LO-CO-MOTION (20).  As Dizzy's trumpet chirps, zips, and sputters, the story's words hop up and down across the page blending into Ella's singing (Pinkney 24-25).    

    One critic commented that, "Brian Pinkney turns out some of his best work yet.  Rendered in a pleasingly high-contrast palette of pastels, the scratchboard illustrations are invested with magical realism, complete with dancers flying off the pages and topsy-turvy musicians." (Publishers Weekly)  To add visual and cultural authenticity to the story, Pinkney was inspired by the works of several Harlem Renaissance artists who were working when Fitzgerald was growing up in Harlem.  He has also chosen to use a color palette from the Art Deco movement, which was also in vogue during Ella's youth (Illustrator's Note).  Bright colors dash across the pages and mingle with the expressive faces of the story's characters. 

    When Fitzgerald first sings, Pinkney has her warm brown face light up against a background of vivid orange and yellow.  These bold color choices highlight the African American features of Fitzgerald.  Pinkney has drawn her with a wide nose, full lips, warm brown eyes, and braided black hair.  Though his illustrations are not meant to be realistic, he manages to capture the spirit and grace of the African American characters in this retelling.  This comes through when Pinkney explains, "Ella's popularity showed [club owners] that a true star has no color--it just shines." (18)    

    I believe that young readers will be drawn into the lyrical rhythm of the story and the vivid illustrations.  Using Scat Cat as the narrator makes the story more accessible to younger readers, who may be reluctant to pick up the book.  Also, "Brian Pinkney's distinctive scratchboard-and-acrylic paintings evoke the rhythm of the text and invite readers along on the ride.  They will enjoy finding Scat Cat himself on most of the spreads.  Bright colors, jazzy words, and energetic artwork bring the music of scat and Fitzgerald to life." (Yusko 2002)  This story serves as a good starting point for further discussions on the jazz era, the Harlem Renaissance, and other African American musicians from the same time period. 

Story Extension:
Play a sampling of Ella Fitzgerald's music, so that young readers can make the connection between the music and the story.

Reference List:
Kirkus.  n.d.  Ella Fitzgerald review.  http://www.bn.com (Accessed June 22, 2006).

Publishers Weekly.  n.d.  Ella Fitzgerald review.  http://www.bn.com (Accessed June 22, 2006).

Yusko, Shauna.  2002.  School library journal: Ella Fitzgerald review.    http://www.bn.com (Accessed June 22, 2006).

 


  Jacqueline Woodson

Bibliographic Citation:
Woodson, Jacqueline.  1998.  If you come softly.  New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons.  ISBN 0399231129.

Summary: 
Told through the voices of a white Jewish girl and an African American boy, Ellie and Miah tell the story of how they meet and fall in love.  As their love deepens, they must endure outside judgment about their interracial relationship and face how they view themselves within the context of their race.  

Analysis:

    In If You Come Softly, Jacqueline Woodson tells the quiet story of an interracial relationship by alternating between Ellie's first-person narrative and Jeremiah's third-person perspective.  Though a prologue hints at tragedy, the reader quickly becomes lost in the world of these two teenagers and their very different voices.  "Both voices convincingly describe the couple's love-at-first-sight meeting and the gradual building of their trust.  The intensity of their emotions will make hearts flutter, then ache as evidence mounts that Ellie's and Jeremiah's 'perfect' love exists in a deeply flawed society." (Publishers Weekly)

    Woodson fully develops the emotions of her two main characters.  "Not only sharply sensitive to the reactions of those around them, Ellie and Miah also discover depths and complexities in their own intense feelings that connect clearly to their experiences, their social environment, and their own characters. In quiet conversations and encounters, Woodson perceptively explores varieties of love, trust, and friendship, as she develops well-articulated histories for both families." (Kirkus)  The story flows naturally from Ellie's voice to Miah's as they learn more about one another and how their relationship fits into the world around them, making the narrative a quick and easy read.  Woodson takes on numerous challenging subjects from racism to homosexuality to divorce.  "Once again, [she] handles delicate, even explosive subject matter with exceptional clarity, surety and depth." (Publishers Weekly)  

    "Even as Woodson's lyrical prose draws the audience into the tenderness of young love, her perceptive comments about race and racism will strike a chord with black readers and open the eyes of white readers." (Publishers Weekly)  The novel's first chapter begins with a statement about race.  "Jeremiah was black.  He could feel it.  The way the sun pressed down hard and hot on his skin in the summer.  Sometimes it felt like he sweated black beads of oil." (Woodson 5)  He discusses how everyone in his neighborhood seems to be some shade of black with "some light-skinned, some dark-skinned, nappy-headed, curly-headed, even a couple bald headed brothers." (Woodson 6)  However, everything shifts for Jeremiah when he takes one step out of Fort Greene in Brooklyn.  "Just one step and somehow the weight of his skin seemed to change.  It got heavier." (Woodson 5)   

    Jeremiah is constantly aware of his skin color.  Thoughts push in from all sides ranging from the positive to the hateful.  "Black is beautiful.  Don't get too black.  Black monkey.  Where's my beautiful black baby child.  You're a black man.  You're a warrior." (Woodson 11)  Woodson peppers Miah's world with cultural reminders from the little girls chanting in the street to memories of his grandmother in the South to the locks of his hair to a Stevie Wonder tune.  She makes the authentic African American culture stand out by interjecting a white character who tries to act "black."  The teen comes up to Miah and says, "My tag's Peter, Peter Hayle, remember?  We kinda hung tight that first day." (Woodson 62)  He asks Miah to come play on the "fly courts" over by him.  Peter's enthusiasm fades, however, when he is asked to come Miah's way into Brooklyn.  He replies, "Nah, I don't do Brooklyn.  Strictly East Side ball is my game." (Woodson 64)  This encounter makes Miah wonder what he is doing at school with all these white boys around him.  Then it hits him, the girl in the hall that he cannot stop thinking about--she's white too.   

    Things are different for Ellie.  Her identity does not revolve around her race.  Miah's father once told him, "Thing about white people.  They don't know they're white.  They know what everybody else is, but they don't know they're white." (Woodson 134)  His father also warned him to never run in a white neighborhood because someone will always assume the worst.  When Miah leaves Ellie at her apartment building, he runs through the park dribbling his basketball and he forgets.  He forgets what his father told him and he does not hear the shouting for him to stop.  As shots ring out and he falls, the reader is abruptly jarred by this change of events.  The narrative switches from a tender love to a shocking hate.  One critic said, "The tragic ending makes a very strong statement about what its like to be a black male in America and what can happen when stereotypes are the basis for behavior towards others. The powerful message is haunting." (Mitchell) 

    I agree with one critic who stated, "Miah's melodramatic death overshadows a tale as rich in social and personal insight as any of Woodson's previous books." (Kirkus)  I was disappointed that this gentle tale about interracial relationships and family took a sudden and stereotypical turn.  Though Miah's death makes a strong argument about the assumptions of African American males, it felt oddly out of place for me and happened so suddenly that I was not ever clear on what had occurred.  Despite the rushed ending, Woodson has presented readers with an honest look at young love and race.  Miah and Ellie endure suspicious looks by old women and taunts from teenage boys, but nothing can stop them from being together.

Reference List:
Kirkus.  n.d.  If you come softly review.  http://www.bn.com (Accessed June 22, 2006).

Mitchell, Diana.  n.d.  If you come softly review.  http://www.bn.com (Accessed June 22, 2006).

Publishers Weekly.  n.d.  If you come softly review.  http://www.bn.com (Accessed June 22, 2006).

 


  Mildred D. Taylor

   

Roll of thunder
hear my cry
Over the water
bye and bye
Ole man comin'
down the line
Whip in hand to
beat me down
But I ain't
gonna let him
Turn me 'round

Bibliographic Citation:
Taylor, Mildred D.  2001.  Roll of thunder, hear my cry.  New York: Phyllis Fogelman Books.  ISBN 0803726473.

Summary: 
Set in Mississippi in the 1930's, Cassie Logan has been sheltered by her family and struggles with the concept of prejudice and discrimination.  From being splattered by the white children's school bus to being waited on last in at the store, Cassie begins to see life as it truly is in this coming of age story. 

Analysis:  

    Winner of the 1977 Newberry Award, Mildred D. Taylor's Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry tells the story of Cassie Logan and her family as they struggle against racism and social injustice.  Set in Mississippi at the height of the Depression, the Logan family is fortunate enough to own their own land.  Papa tries to impress on Cassie the importance of this.  He tells her, "You ain't never had to live on nobody's place but your own and long as I live and the family survives, you'll never have to.  That's important.  You may not understand that now, but one day you will." (Taylor 7)  In a time where most African American families depend on share-cropping and white landowners, the land gives the Logan's a solid foundation of their own. 

    Taylor creates well-developed African American characters with distinct personalities and a Southern dialect.  She begins describing the Logan children as they walk to school on the first day.  Little Man refuses to keep up for fear that he will get his clothes dirty.  He tells the others, "Ya'll go ahead and get dirty if ya'll wanna.  Me, I'm gonna stay clean." (Taylor 4)  Christopher-John takes "little interest in troublesome things, preferring to remain on good terms with everyone." (Taylor 5)  Stacey, at the oldest, gets onto the younger children and has a temper, especially at the prospect of having his mother as his teacher. Cassie is protective of her siblings and optimistic when it comes to the world.  She does not see a division between black and white.  When Little Man refuses to take his school book, Cassie defends him and recognizes that the school board only gave them the books because they did not want them anymore (Taylor 26).  The book was listed as "very poor."  Miss Crocker, however, refuses to see why they would not accept them and switches them both. 

    Cassie continues to encounter racial injustice in her trip to Strawberry.  When Mr. Barnett turns his back on T.J. to help white customers first, Cassie kindly reminds him that they where first.  Outraged at her outspokenness, he calls her a nigger.  This infuriates Cassie who replies, "I ain't nobody's little nigger!  And you ought not be waiting on everybody 'fore you wait on us." (Taylor 111)  She cannot understand why they have to wait, why the white customers are more important.  After being banned from the store, Cassie runs into Lillian Jean who tells her to walk in the street.  When she asks Mama why Mr. Simms acts like Lillian Jean is better than her, Mama explains that it is because she is white and he thinks that means something.  However, she goes on to say, "White is something just like black is something.  Everybody born on this earth is something and nobody, no matter what color, is better than anybody else." (Taylor 127) 

    Taylor accurately reflects the conflict between whites and African Americans during this particular time period.  Papa explains, "You see blacks hanging 'round with whites, they're headed for trouble.  Maybe one day whites and blacks can be real friends, but right now the country ain't built that way." (Taylor 158)  The blacks live in fear.  Whenever the "night men" ride, an African American family suffers.  The Berry's are burned and Mr. Tatum is tarred and feathered.  When Mrs. Barnett identifies T.J. as one of the "niggers" who broke into the store and killed her husband, the night men ride to the Avery house.  They drag T.J. and his family out by force.  If it were not for Mr. Jamison and the sudden fire in the Logan's cotton field, they would have hung him on the spot.  As it is, Cassie learns that though he was spared that night his fate is not any better.  She says, "I had never liked T.J., but he had always been there, a part of me, a part of my life, just like the mud and the rain, and I had though he always would be . . . What happened to T.J. in the night I did not understand, but I knew that it would not pass.  And I cried for those things which had happened in the night and would not pass." (Taylor 276)

    I found Taylor's novel to be powerful and emotional.  She does not soften things or shy away from difficult words or topics.  The reader feels Cassie's frustration and her inability to comprehend the motivations behind racism and prejudice.  Though the violence and language make this hard to recommend to young readers, it is an important one.  Though a fictional story, it is based on historical events and helps creates an accurate picture of our terrible past.  I listened to this book on CD and was amazed by the richness of Taylor's language and descriptions.  I was able to envision Mississippi through Cassie's eyes as she grew up throughout the course of the story.     

 


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