Julius Lester

Jack­ie:  Julius Lester loved lan­guage and he loved story.

Phyl­lis:  Lan­guage, Lester wrote, is not just words and what they mean; music and rhythm are also part of the mean­ing.  Just read­ing his books for chil­dren makes us want to read them out loud to hear that music and rhythm along with his gift for putting words together.

Uncle Remus The Complete TalesJack­ie:  He seems to have con­sid­ered it one of his mis­sions to res­cue sto­ries, sto­ries with worn-out stereo­typed images, that no longer fit com­fort­ably in our cul­tur­al nar­ra­tive, and shape them into bril­liant, humor­ous, human­is­tic sto­ries. He re-told the Uncle Remus sto­ries in The Tales of Uncle Remus (1987), illus­trat­ed by Jer­ry Pinkney. He writes in the intro­duc­tion: “The pur­pose in my retelling of the Uncle Remus tales is sim­ply: to make the tales acces­si­ble again, to be told in the liv­ing rooms of con­do­mini­ums as well as on the front porch­es of the South.”

On Writing for Children and Other PeoplePhyl­lis:  Julius Lester wrote over four dozen books, both fic­tion and non­fic­tion, about Black Amer­i­can his­to­ry — his­to­ry that bound black lives togeth­er “like beads strung on a neck­lace of pain.”  In On Writ­ing for Chil­dren and Oth­er Peo­ple Lester says that sto­ries help us con­nect with oth­ers.  “I write because our lives are stories.”

He once wrote, “If enough of these sto­ries are told, then per­haps we will begin to see that our lives are the same sto­ry. The dif­fer­ences are mere­ly in the details.”  His books include both pic­ture books and longer works.

Sam and the TigersJack­ie:  One of my all-time favorite of his pic­ture books is anoth­er col­lab­o­ra­tion with Jer­ry Pinkney, anoth­er re-telling, Sam and the Tigers (1996). In an after­ward, Julius Lester writes of the orig­i­nal book by Helen Ban­ner­man, “It would be unfair to say Ban­ner­man had a racist intent in cre­at­ing Lit­tle Black Sam­bo. … Inten­tion­al­ly or not, Lit­tle Black Sam­bo rein­forced the idea of white supe­ri­or­i­ty through illus­tra­tions exag­ger­at­ing African phys­iog­no­my and a name, Sam­bo, that had been used neg­a­tive­ly for blacks since the ear­ly sev­en­teenth cen­tu­ry. … Yet the sto­ry tran­scend­ed its stereo­types … There was obvi­ous­ly an abid­ing truth … I think it is the truth of the imag­i­na­tion, that incred­i­ble realm where ani­mals and peo­ple lived togeth­er like they don’t know any bet­ter, and chil­dren eat pan­cakes cooked in the but­ter of melt­ed tigers, and par­ents nev­er say,  ‘Don’t eat so many.’”

Sam and the Tigers
illus­tra­tion &#169 Jer­ry Pinkney from Sam and the Tigers, writ­ten by Julius Lester, Puf­fin Books

In their re-telling, Lester and Pinkney aim direct­ly for the truth of the imag­i­na­tion. Sam lives in the town of Sam-sam-sa-mara where every­one is named Sam. Sam, his moth­er, and his father all are named Sam. “Nobody was named Joleen or Natisha or Willie…. One day Sam and Sam and Sam went to the mar­ket place to get some new clothes for school.” They start­ed out at Mr. Elephant’s Ele­gant Habil­ments.  Sam insist­ed to his par­ents that he be allowed to pick out his own clothes. “Sam looked at Sam. Sam shrugged. Sam shrugged back. Sam nod­ded. Sam nod­ded back. Sam and Sam looked at Sam and nod­ded togeth­er. Sam grinned.”  I am grin­ning, too, as I read this sen­tence to myself. What fun!

Over the course of the shop­ping trip Sam picks out a coat as “red as a hap­py heart,” pants as “pur­ple as a love that would last for­ev­er,” a shirt “as yel­low as tomor­row,” sil­ver shoes “shin­ing like promis­es that are always kept,” and an umbrel­la “as green as a sat­is­fied mind.” The sounds of the words and the sim­i­les are so sat­is­fy­ing I could go shop­ping with Julius Lester and Sam all day long.

Of course we know what hap­pens with the tigers. (And Jer­ry Pinkney’s tigers threat­en to jump off the page and demand my sweater, soft as a song of for­give­ness and grace.)

Illustration from Sam and the Tigers
illus­tra­tion &#169 Jer­ry Pinkney from Sam and the Tigers, writ­ten by Julius Lester, Puf­fin Books

The tigers grab each oth­er by the tail and run “Faster and faster and faster and faster…until — they melt­ed into a pool of but­ter as gold­en as a dream come true.” When Sam gets home his moth­er makes pan­cakes for the neigh­bor­hood. The talk is of five tigers who have dis­ap­peared. And the pan­cakes, orange and black-striped, are deli­cious — butter‑y. Sam ate a hun­dred and six­ty-nine. “Wear­ing all them col­ors can real­ly make a boy hungry.”

This is a sto­ry to drop into lit­tle free libraries all over town, to read with kids of all ages, to read before and after pan­cakes. Thanks to Julius Lester and Jer­ry Pinkney for giv­ing it back to us.

Black Cowboys, Wild HorsesAfter they col­lab­o­rat­ed on Sam and the Tigers, this same duo wrote and illus­trat­ed Black Cow­boy, Wild Hors­es, a true sto­ry of Bob Lem­mons. Lem­mons, a for­mer slave, “could look at the ground and read what ani­mals had walked on it, their size and weight, when they had passed by, and where they were going.” He is look­ing to bring in a band of mus­tangs, by him­self. “No one he knew could bring in mus­tangs by them­selves, but Bob could make hors­es think he was one of them — because he was.”

This is not just a sto­ry of a cow­boy and mus­tangs, it’s also Pinkney’s won­der­ful paint­ings and Lester’s sat­is­fy­ing sim­i­les. Though pub­lished in 1998 it is so fresh and dra­mat­ic it could have been pub­lished yesterday.

John HenryPhyl­lis: Pinkney and Lester also gave us the Calde­cott Hon­or Book John Hen­ry, (1994).  Though it is so much more, the book starts like a tall tale. Almost as soon as John Hen­ry was born “he grew so big he broke through the porch roof.” The next day he rebuilt the porch, adding “one of them jacutzis” for his par­ents.  Soon after he decid­ed to go on the road with his daddy’s gift of “two twen­ty-pound sledge­ham­mers with four-foot han­dles made of whale bone.” When he met a road crew stymied by a huge boul­der even dyna­mite wouldn’t touch, John Hen­ry swung his two ham­mers so hard a rain­bow set­tled around his shoul­ders.  John Hen­ry beat the boul­der into “the pret­ti­est and straight­est road,” then head­ed off to find work on the crew build­ing the Chesa­peake and Ohio Rail­road, which had encoun­tered a moun­tain so big it made even John Hen­ry feel small.

When John Hen­ry heard that a steam engine said to out-ham­mer ten men was being brought in to drill through that moun­tain, he chal­lenged the steam drill to see who could tun­nel the far­thest through the moun­tain.  Swing­ing his two twen­ty-pound ham­mers with “mus­cles hard as wis­dom” John Hen­ry beat the steam drill by a mile.

As he walked out of the tun­nel to cheer­ing folks, though, John Hen­ry fell dead.  “He had ham­mered so hard and so fast and so long that his big heart had burst.”  Folks swore they heard the rain­bow whis­per, “Dying ain’t impor­tant.  Every­body does that.  What mat­ters is how well you do your living.”

Julius Lester wrote that when he was asked to write about John Hen­ry, he talked to Jer­ry Pinkney, who had researched the sto­ry to illus­trate it, and asked him  what he saw in John Hen­ry  As they talked, wrote Lester, “the image of Mar­tin Luther King, Jr., came to me … I sus­pect it is the con­nec­tion all of us feel to both fig­ures — name­ly, to have the courage to ham­mer until our hearts break and to try to leave our mourn­ers smil­ing in their tears.”

Tues­day, April 20, 2021, almost a year after the mur­der of George Floyd, a jury found the police offi­cer, who knelt on Floyd’s neck until he died, guilty on all three charges.  In the peo­ple who bore wit­ness, the peo­ple who tes­ti­fied, the jury who decid­ed, the count­less many who have worked and marched and protest­ed for account­abil­i­ty and jus­tice with boots on the ground, that same spir­it — courage as hard as wis­dom — lives on. 

George Floyd Memorial
Pho­to attrib­uted to Lorie Shaull, George Floyd memo­r­i­al at the inter­sec­tion of Chica­go Ave
and E 38th St in Min­neapo­lis, Min­neso­ta CC BY-SA 2.0
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Norma Gaffron
Norma Gaffron
3 years ago

Out­stand­ing arti­cle. Glad to see that you con­tin­ue to write for Bookol­o­gy. So much sol­id think­ing goes into this pub­li­ca­tion. So many resources. Takes me away from TV and news­pa­per, etc.