Culture 2: African American Lit

Feathers by Jacqueline Woodson

Woodson, Jacquline. 2007. Feathers Book Cover. Book cover designed by Linda McCarthy. From

Woodson, Jacqueline. 2007. FEATHERS. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. ISBN 9780399239892

Sixth grade is a year of introspection, observation, and ultimately faith and understanding for 12 year old Frannie. When Frannie first hears Emily Dickinson’s poem about hope being “the thing with feathers,” she’s not quite sure what to think. Unfortunately, this is not the only uncertain thing in Frannie’s life. A new boy has arrived in her classroom and is almost instantly nicknamed “Jesus Boy.” Frannie can’t figure out Jesus Boy, white kids don’t go to Frannie’s all-African-American school. White kids stay on the other side of the tracks. To complicate matters, her mother is pregnant again and the whole family is worried that she will miscarriage or, worse, that this baby, like one born years ago, will not survive very long. These events are the catalysts that propel Frannie, bilingual in English and signed American Sign Language, to examine the world around her by observing her devotedly religious best friend, her deaf older brother Sean, as well as the Jesus Boy and her other classmates.

Set in 1971, the time period is brought to life through the slang Frannie and her classmates use and the pop culture references throughout the book. For instance, Frannie loves Michael Jackson, then a young member of the Jackson Five. These references aren’t gratuitous, they are a natural part of Frannie’s observations. Woodson does not present a sugarcoated version of the racial and socioeconomic tensions of 1971. Although Frannie mentions events in the larger world that belay these issues, it is in the classroom and in the schoolyard that these issues are driven home for Frannie and her classmates.

The book is divided into four parts and written in short, episodic chapters. Although the pacing of the book is on the slower side, the short chapters keep the momentum moving forward. Woodson’s text is filled with symbolism and subtext. In addition to the many references to hope, light, snow, and feathers, sound and music play a major role in Frannie’s world. This is further emphasized by her relationship with her deaf older brother, Sean. American Sign Language is an integral part of Frannie’s life and she often finds herself signing without thinking. Signed dialogue is denoted by italics.

The characters in the book portray a wide range of religious ideas, most easily seen in Frannie’s mother, Samantha and the Jesus Boy. Frannie observes her mother, who has learned to live with the pain of losing a child, but who still finds hope in the world. Unlike her mother and her friend, preacher’s kid Samantha, Frannie struggles to understand and reconcile religion with the pain, suffering, and injustice she has seen and experienced. “A part of me stood there promising myself that from now on, I’d go to church more and listen to my grandma when she started preaching. But another part of me knew that the part of myself that was making those promises was lying” (p. 37-38). Jesus boy starts out as a mysterious, enigmatic, character, but by the end of the book Frannie realizes he’s just a boy. He’s human like everyone else.

Frannie herself is a compelling character. Frannie’s voice is intellectually mature in it’s reasoning, but she is childlike in her behavior. Frannie wants to be like the big kids, the “jive talkers,” but she still wants to be the baby of the family, to sit on her Mama’s lap and be cuddled.
She observes the little things that make a scene come to life. The way the light falls on her mother or how Sean signs his words.

Although this book is firmly grounded in Frannie’s world of 1971, many of the major themes, hope, faith, and religion, are universal. Kids will also be able to identify with specific situations, like being the new kid or being bullied for being different.

ALA Notable Book
Newbery Honor Book

Review in SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL: “With her usual talent for creating characters who confront, reflect, and grow into their own persons, Woodson creates in Frannie a strong protagonist who thinks for herself and recognizes the value and meaning of family. The story ends with hope and thoughtfulness while speaking to those adolescents who struggle with race, faith, and prejudice. They will appreciate its wisdom and positive connections.”

Review in KIRKUS REVIEWS: “The theme of “hope” recurs in the description of the Black Power movement, and in Frannie’s musings on the Emily Dickinson poem, “Hope is the thing with feathers.” Developing this metaphor, Woodson captures perfectly the questions and yearnings of a girl perched on the edge of adolescence, a girl who readers will take into their hearts and be glad to call their friend.”

Starred review in PUBLISHER’S WEEKLY: “Set in 1971, Woodson's novel skillfully weaves in the music and events surrounding the rising opposition to the Vietnam War, giving this gentle, timeless story depth. She raises important questions about God, racial segregation and issues surrounding the hearing-impaired with a light and thoughtful touch.”

*Several songs of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s are mentioned in the book. Play one or more of these songs and talk about what the lyrics might mean to the characters in the book.

Page 69: The Jackson 5. 1970. ABC. Music & lyrics by The Corporation: Berry Gordy, Jr., Freddie Perren, Alphonzo Mizell, & Deke Richards. 1970.
Page 100: The 5th Dimenson. 1969. AQUARIOUS/LET THE SUNSHINE IN. From the musical HAIR. Music by Galt MacDermot. Lyrics by James Rado & Gerome Ragni. 1967.
Page 117: Simon, Paul & Garfunkel, Art. 1970. A BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED WATER. Music & lyrics by Paul Simon. 1970

*Have the kids complete the writing exercise assigned by Frannie’s teacher, Ms. Johnson, (page 105). She asks the students to write down the things they have in common with one another.

*Other middle grade books by Jacqueline Woodson:
Woodson, Jacqueline. 1990. LAST SUMMER WITH MAIZON. ISBN 978-0385300452
Woodson, Jacqueline. 1992. MAIZON AT BLUE HILL. ISBN 978-0606059183
Woodson, Jacqueline. 2009. LOCOMOTION. ISBN 978-0784826294
Woodson, Jacqueline. 2010. PEACE, LOCOMOTION. ISBN 978-0606145961

*Other books about African-American children in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.
Magoon, Kekla. 2009. THE ROCK AND THE RIVER. ISBN 978-1416975823
Williams-Garcia, Rita. 2010. ONE CRAZY SUMMER. ISBN 978-0060760892

*Other chapter books that discuss religion and faith:
L’engle, Madeleine. 1981. A RING OF ENDLESS LIGHT. ISBN978-0-374-36299-7
Speare, Elizabeth George.  1961. THE BRONZE BOW. ISBN 978-039507113-7

*Read a variety of poems that deal with the subject of hope. Encourage children to write their own poems about hope. Have a “Hopeful Poetry Reading.” Try using some of the following poems:
Auden, W. H. “Postscript from the Cave of Nakedness.” In Give Me Wings, edited by Lee Bennett Hopkins. Illustrated by Ponder Goembel. New York: Holiday House, 2010. ISBN 978-0823420230
Dotlich, Rebecca Kai. “Wake Up Wings!” In Give Me Wings, edited by Lee Bennett Hopkins. Illustrated by Ponder Goembel. New York: Holiday House, 2010. ISBN 978-0823420230
Silvestein, Shel. “Invitation.” In Where the Sidewalk Ends. New York: Harper Collins. 1974. ISBN 978-0060572341

Mirandy and Brother Wind by Patricia McKissack, Illustrated by Jerry Pinkney

McKissack, Patricia. 1988. Mirandy and Brother Wind Book Cover. Illustrated by Jerry Pinkney. From

McKissack, Patricia C. 1988. MIRANDY AND BROTHER WIND. Ill. Jerry Pinkney. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. ISBN 034887654

It’s spring and Mirandy is getting ready for the junior cakewalk jubilee tomorrow. Mirandy decides that if she Brother Wind was her partner, she’d be sure to win. Her mother tells her an old saying, “Whoever catches the Wind can make him do their bidding.” So Mirandy sets out to capture wily Brother Wind. Her best friend, Ezel, tells her she’ll never catch Brother Wind, but Mirandy is determined. She gets advice from many people in her community, but no matter what Mirandy tries Brother Wind is too quick and clever for her. Will Mirandy catch Brother Wind or will she dance the cakewalk with Ezel?  

The book not only presents a fanciful tale, but also highlights themes of friendship and determination. Throughout the book it is clear that Mirandy is sweet on Ezel, but she just won’t admit it. She’s also a stubborn, determined girl and once she’s announced that she’s going to dance with Brother Wind she won’t back down. This builds up the suspense; if Mirandy dances with Brother Wind, who will Ezel dance with? Ultimately, Mirandy figures out she does not have to choose between Ezel and Brother Wind and she ends up dancing with both of them.

The story builds anticipating slowly, each failed attempt adding fuel to the fire slowly but surely. The plot follows the rule of threes: Mirandy tries three times to catch Brother Wind before she manages to capture him in the hen house. Between each of Mirandy’s efforts McKissack has inserted interactions for Ezel and Mirandy. These conversations not only show the relationship between the characters, but also build interest and excitement for the outcome of the story.

The setting, the rural South in the early 1900’s, is an important element of the story. The time and place is established by the historical detail of the illustrations, as well as the black dialect used in the dialogue and description, “Talk had it that Mis Poinsetta wasn’t a for-real conjure woman like the ones in New Orleans. But didn’t nobody mess with her, just in case talk was wrong.” The pencil and watercolor illustrations present a realistic environment, a kitchen full of historically accurate furniture and canning jars, a farmyard with a water pump and piles of firewood, the spectacular cakes and delicate punchbowl at the cakewalk jubilee.

The textual descriptions firmly root the story in historical African-American rural culture; this is especially evident in Mirandy’s interactions with the diverse members of the community. For instance, Mirandy gets advice from Mr. Jessup at the corner store and Mis Poinsettia, the local conjure woman. The text helps to transport the reader into the past and because it is written in black dialect it creates an intimate experience, as though someone is telling the story for you while sitting in a kitchen or by the fire.

The backgrounds of the illustrations feature the dusty browns and lush greens of the country. The richly detailed and expressive illustrations feature realistic people and settings, except for Brother Wind. His presence elevates this story from being a slice-of-life story to a fantastical tale. All of the characters in the story are depicted as African-Americans, even Brother Wind. Although he is a magical character, rendered in see-through blue, it is clear that he is African-American as well.

Author’s note at the beginning of the book describes the photograph that inspired McKissack to write this book. She also includes a brief explanation of the cakewalk tradition and what a cakewalk dance looks like, which would be useful to read to audiences before reading the book out loud. It would have provided a richer context, however, if the photograph of her grandparents had been included.

The only major weakness in my opinion is the representation of the cakewalk jubilee. I would have liked to see would have been more compelling, movement-oriented illustrations of the cakewalk jubilee. After such a build up, it was disappoint to see only two, rather stiff, illustrations at the end of the book.

Caldecott Honor Book
Coretta Scott King Award Winner
Best Books For Children, 6th Edition

Review in PUBLISHER’S WEEKLY: “Told in spirited dialect and rendered in lavish, sweeping watercolors, this provides an intriguing look at a time gone by…After the colorful description of cakewalking in the author's note and the anticipation created through Mirandy's own eagerness, the brief and rather static scenes portraying the dance itself are a letdown.”

Review in BOOKLIST: “Warm colors and homey scenes enhance the story's strong sense of a turn-of-the-century rural black community. Inspired by a family story, McKissack's tale is both fanciful and grounded in affectionate remembrance.”

Review in SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL: “Sultry watercolor washes in a realistic flowing style spread luxuriously and consistently over every two pages in this story set in the rural south…A captivating story, with a winning heroine, told in black dialect.”

*Have the kids dance the cakewalk like Mirandy and Ezel do in the book. You could even give a decorated cake to the winning couples as was traditionally done or give cakes to couples based on the squares they finish on. The cakewalk was usually danced to music in 2/4 time.

*Show this short video of historical clips of cakewalk dancing:
Teten, Carol (Director). 2003. “Cakewalk Dance Clips.” from America Dances! 1897-1948: A Collectors Edition of Social Dance in Film. Dancetime Publications. Accessed on October 2, 2012:

*Although the cakewalk began as a dance, the term is now used as a noun to describe something that is very easy to do. Discuss the second meaning of the term. Do you think it was a cakewalk for Mirandy to win the cakewalk? Explain your reasoning.

*Other books written by Patricia C. McKissack and illustrated by Jerry Pinkney:
McKissack, Patricia C. 2001. GOIN’ SOMEPLACE SPECIAL. Ill. Jerry Pinkney. ISBN 978-0-689-81885-1
McKissack, Patricia C. 2007. THE ALL-I’LL-EVER-WANT CHRISTMAS DOLL. Ill. Jerry Pinkney. ISBN 978-0375837593

*Other books featuring African-American characters and fantastical characters/plots:
Lyons, Mary E. 2005. ROY MAKES A CAR. Ill. Terry Widener. ISBN 978-0689846403
Nolen, Jerdine. 2007. THUNDER ROSE. Ill. Kadir Nelson. ISBN 978-0152060060
San Souci, Robert D. 1989. THE TALKING EGGS. Ill. Jerry Pinkney. ISBN 978-0803706194
San Souci, Robert D. 1996. SUKEY AND THE MERMAID. Ill. Brian Pinkney. ISBN 978-0689807183

Black Cowboy Wild Horses: A True Story by Julius Lester, Illustrated by Jerry Pinkney

Lester, Julius. 1998. Black Cowboy Wild Horses: A True Story Book Cover. Illustrated by Jerry Pinkney. From

Lester, Julius. 1998. BLACK COWBOY WILD HORSES: A TRUE STORY. Ill. Jerry Pinkney. New York: Dial Books. ISBN 0803717873

This book is a fictionalized account of the real life black cowboy, Bob Lemmons, who had a legendary gift for herding wild horses on the plains of the West. The story follows Lemmons as he and his spirited horse, Warrior, depart from the corral out onto the plains. As the days pass, Lemmons endures storms and freezing temperatures as he tracks, observes, challenges, and finally takes charge of a herd of wild mustangs.

 Like Lemmons life, this story is grounded in respect and love for the natural world. Weather and natural elements are a major part of the story and affect Lemmons’ journey as he tracks the herd. The setting of the plains of the West is very important, both in the text and illustrations. Nature is a major presence in the story; The flora and fauna of the plains are incorporated into every page.

The first half of the book holds the reader in suspense as Lemmons bides his time observing and acclimating to the herd. The pacing is slow, but steady. The second part of the book begins when Lemmons and Warrior walk into the herd, then the book races to the finish line as Lemmons takes control of the herd and leads them back to the corral.

The text is written in the third person present tense. This allows Lester to provide background information about Lemmons, such as the fact that he was once a slave and that he never learned to read or write. Lemmons is a calm, patient, and disciplined man. He is confident, but not overly proud of his abilities. Lester and Pinkney have created a compassionate, but strong hero of the Wild West. Lemmons is a man who understands the importance of the laws of nature. He understands that he must become a part of the plains for the horses to accept him. When one of the mustang colts is trampled by the herd, Lemmons also shows that he respects the natural order of the plains. 

Lemmons is clearly the center of the story; however the main transformation is seen in the way he is viewed by the mustangs. Although Lemmons achieves his goal by the end of the book, he does not experience a major change. Yes, he undergoes a physical change in order to become accepted by the herd, but it seems like this is something Lemmons has done many times before.

The text is almost entirely descriptive, with only two lines of dialogue in the entire story. The imagery and figurative in the text is beautiful and evokes the plains by describing the sights, sounds, and atmosphere utilizing nature elements. For example, “High above, a hawk was suspended on cold threads of unseen winds”, “The rain came hard and stinging as remorse.”

Matching the tone of the text, the illustrations realistically depict the vast, endless landscape of the plains. Cinematic angles are used to bring the story to life. Pinkney’s illustrations are full of movement, most of which travels left to right propelling the reader to turn the page in anticipation of coming events. The horses are anatomically correct, you can almost see their muscles rippling and hear them snorting and stamping their feet. The most impressive illustrations are those that simultaneously feature real life mustangs running across the plains and the ghostly outlines of horses running through the voluminous clouds of the endless sky.

The illustrations accurately depict Lemmons as an African-American man with dark curly hair and dark sun-baked skin, however, besides the title, the text only references his race once in passing, “Bob had been a slave and never learned to read.” The accurate depiction of Lemmons’ race is important; however the real focus of the book is on the culture of the West and on Lemmons’ unique abilities.

Although the text does not touch on the cultural implications of the story, the author’s and illustrator’s notes at the back of the book provide context by noting that Bob Lemmons was not the only African-American cowboy. In fact, Pinkney writes that, “one out of every three cowboys was black or Mexican.”

International Reading Association - Teacher's Choices, 1999
Bulletin of the Center For Children's Books-Recommended Titles, 1996
NCSS - Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People 1999

Review in BOOKLIST: “Pinkney's earth-colored gouache and watercolor paintings add the look of the Texas plains to Lester's account and capture the energy of the horses as they gallop across sweeping, double-page spreads. Lester and Pinkney's manifest love and respect for the West and cowboys of color, whose contributions have been too long overlooked, distinguish their latest collaboration.”

Review in HORN BOOK MAGAZINE: “Notes from the two creators give a history of the book and reveal their shared fascination with black cowboys. This latest collaboration evokes the legendary stature of one of these real men, as well as the majesty and romance of the Wild West.”

Review from KIRKUS REVIEWS: “The text is ably matched by Pinkney’s big, dappled watercolor scenes of open prairie and muscular, galloping horses. Lemmons may not have the name recognition of Nat Love or Bill Pickett, but his exploits were no less spectacular.”

Review in PUBLISHER’S WEEKLY: “Lester studs his seamless prose with powerful descriptions, such as when a hawk is "suspended on cold threads of unseen winds," or the mustangs sweep toward the corral as "a dark surge of flesh flashing across the plains like black lightning." The fluid brushwork of Pinkney's watercolors seem tailor-made for the flow of muscle, mane and tail of wild mustangs galloping across the prairie. Notable for the light it sheds on a fascinating slice of Americana, this book is essential for anyone interested in the Wild West.”

Review in SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL: “Throughout, both text and pictures emphasize the blending of all life. The linkages between the cowboy, the animals, and the natural world are so strong that lines separating them are blurred. Lester and Pinkney's stated aims were to recast their childhood love of cowboys and the Old West with more recent historical research into the contributions of men of color, both black and Hispanic.”

*Pair this book with poems about cowboys. Try poems from the following collections:
Harrison, David L. 2012. COWBOYS: VOICES IN THE WESTERN WILD. ISBN 978-1590788776
Janeczko, Paul B. ed. 1997. HOME ON THE RANGE: COWBOY POETRY. Ill. Bernie Fuchs. ISBN 978-0803719101

*Other children’s books about black cowboys:
Miller, Robert H. 1994. THE STORY OF NAT LOVE. Ill. Michael Bryant. ISBN 978-082243981
Pinkney, Andrea Davis. 1999. BILL PICKETT: RODEO-RIDIN’ COWBOY. ISBN 978-0152021030

*Non-fiction children’s books about African-American cowboys and settlers in the Wild West:
Katcher, Ruth. 1999. MY HEROES, MY PEOPLE: AFRICAN-AMERICANS AND NATIVE AMERICANS IN THE WEST. Ill. Morgan Monceaux. ISBN 978-0374307707

*Other cowboy picture books for children:
Brett, Jan. 1995. ARMADILLO RODEO. ISBN 978-0399228032
Danneberg, Julie. 2006. COWBOY SLIM. Ill. Margo Apple. ISBN 978-1580890458
Frank, John. 2004. THE TOUGHEST COWBOY: OR HOW THE WILD WEST WAS TAMED. Ill. Zachary Pullen. ISBN 978-0689834615
Gibbons, Gail. 1998. YIPPEE-YAY! – A BOOK ABOUT COWBOYS AND COWGIRLS. ISBN 978-0316309448
Langdo, Bryan. 2011. TORNADO SLIM AND THE MAGIC COWBOY HAT. ISBN 978-0761459620
Timberlake, Amy.2003. THE DIRTY COWBOY. Ill. Adam Rex. ISBN 0374317917
Whitney, Gleves & Whitney, Louise Doak. 2006. B IS FOR BUCKAROO. Ill. Susan Guy. ISBN 978-1585363360

*Other children’s picture books written by Julius Lester and illustrated by Jerry Pinkney:
Lester, Julius. 1987. THE TALES OF UNCLE REMUS: THE ADVENTURES OF UNCLE REMUS. Ill. Jerry Pinkney. ISBN 978-0803702714
Lester, Julius. 1994. JOHN HENRY. Ill. Jerry Pinkney. ISBN 978-0803716063
Lester, Julius. 1996. SAM AND THE TIGERS: A RETELLING OF ‘LITTLE BLACK SAMBO.’ Ill. Jerry Pinkney. ISBN 978-0803720282
Lester, Julius. 2005. THE OLD AFRICAN. Ill. Jerry Pinkney. ISBN 978-0803725645

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