I looked on my shelves, wondering which books to highlight. I have several shelves, scattered around the house. Though I am a school librarian, my home shelves are quite fluid, as in, they’re not strictly organized. Books are loosely grouped by format and size, sometimes by genre. I really don’t have that many books (I love to visit the library!), so I love to poke around the shelves when I have a chance. I welcome serendipity.
I can’t find some of the books I thought I still had. Did I loan that one out? Did I leave it at school for a read-aloud? Though I love dust jackets, many of my books are missing theirs. I enjoy making posters featuring the covers of these beautiful books.
A few books leapt out at me, especially those that have traveled with me throughout the years and miles, as I’ve relocated many times. The others were difficult to select. How to choose only a few, when so many books hold significance or have influenced me in deep ways?
In the end, I chose books that resonate the most with me, in the order in which I first obtained or read them.
Bécassine has been with me the longest. Written by Caumery (Maurice Languereau) and illustrated by J.P. Pinchon, it was first published in 1919. I have a 1970’s edition, given to me by my grandmère when I was a kid. Though I couldn’t read French for many years, I loved browsing the pages of one of the earliest illustrated precursors to the bande dessinées, or comic style of book art. I can now read the text and still enjoy the intricate details of the illustrations, but what I’ve always loved best? The binding.
I could not photograph Bécassine in a stack with other books because the title would not have been evident. With a cloth binding, I’ve always loved holding this book. It has always felt substantial, and special. For me, reading books has always been a tactile experience. No doubt Bécassine helped influence this preference for well made books.
Jacques Rogy and the Little Detectives by Pierre Lamblin and The Dream Keeper and other Poems by Langston Hughes represent the awakening to reading as a rising sixth-grader. When my family moved from a small town to what we considered the big city, I didn’t yet know any other kids. My siblings and I would walk to the library. Though I had been a fine reader before then, it was the public library’s summer reading program that really turned into a Reader. The Lexington Branch library had such an array of books — books by and about people who looked like me.
That’s when I learned of Langston Hughes. Given to me years later by a family friend, The Dream Keeper reproduces the original 1932 edition with an introduction by legendary librarian and storyteller Augusta Baker, who was a friend of Langston Hughes. I remember feeling torn when I received the book. I love many of the poems and the fact that this was the only book of poetry for children written by Langston Hughes. But I was also struck by the illustrations of Helen Sewell. Some are beautiful and some offensive. I keep it as a reminder because it represents so much — history, poetry, privilege, image, and the kindness of a gift.
Jacques Rogy and the Little Detectives by Pierre Lamblin was a book I read during that sixth grade summer as well. It was full of suspense and adventure. I wanted to be part of the band of boys that found the stolen art. I loved the setting in France, complete with sinister château, in this non-formulaic mystery.
The Journey Home by Yoshiko Uchida made a powerful impression on me. Though I also felt strongly about Journey to Topaz, the first book featuring Yuki and her family, Journey Home felt more intense. I appreciated the way Yoshiko Uchida confronted the difficult issues surrounding the internment of Japanese families during World War II. The Journey Home deepened by fondness for historical fiction, the best of which transports you to another time and place, giving little known people a face.
I loved reading the varied stories in The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales told by Virginia Hamilton and illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon. There’s such a range of stories, from animal tales to ghost stories, and the most hard-hitting ones: the freedom tales of slaves. I laughed with some of the characters, cried with others, and cheered with the rest. These stories highlighted our deep cultural connections to Africa I hadn’t seen in children’s books before.
The People Could Fly, along with Virginia Hamilton’s other amazing books, led to my first publication. After reading the many books she wrote, I was surprised that there wasn’t a children’s book about her life. So I decided to write one. Virginia Hamilton became my first book.
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor was another historical fiction book that touched me deeply. Cassie Logan and her family captivated me from the start. Details of life in small town Mississippi, where my father’s family is from, infuriated me. But the depiction of how the Logan family dealt with the terror and trauma of every day life in the depression era South also filled me with a sense of pride. They modeled strength, courage, and compassion in the face of immense adversity, like so many of my ancestors.
Because of Mildred Taylor’s Mississippi connection, I felt compelled to find out more. Her path to publishing intrigued me as well, and led me to write a biography about her for young readers.
The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros pierced through the noise in my life when I first read it. Clear, concise, candid — often beautiful and heartbreaking at the same time. Like Virginia Hamilton’s work, I marveled at Sandra Cisneros’ use of language and word choices. Her vignettes are spare and full at the same time. I could hear and see life as Esperanza did, and feel the intensity of her emotions as if they were my own.
Talkin’ About Bessie by Nikki Grimes, illustrated by E.B. Lewis combines my favorite genres: poetry, historical fiction, and biography, into a beautiful picture book format. Presenting multiple perspectives through people who would have known her best, Nikki Grimes highlights the life of trailblazing aviator Bessie Coleman. I love how this book shows us that for every ‘famous’ person, there are constellations of people behind them, influencing and supporting.
Rounding out my choices with historical fiction set in 1968 Oakland, California, One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia is one of my ‘newer’ favorites. Though Rita Williams-Garcia’s earlier YA books first struck a chord in me, I love Delphine and her younger sisters, in this first book of the Gaither Sisters trilogy.
Like most of Rita Williams-Garcia’s characters, Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern, jump off the page and into your room. They are real kids, with earnest and complex feelings about all that’s happening in their lives. And, like kids everywhere, they bring humor and joy to the adults in their lives, including their mother, Cecile, whom they are just getting to know.
I still marvel at Rita Williams-Garcia’s ability to breathe life into her characters, creating such vivid, fully-fleshed and intriguing personalities that I would love to meet in person. One Crazy Summer reminds me of when I actually met Rita Williams-Garcia, and had the opportunity to listen and learn from her. Her stories continue to propel me forward.