Finding Magic in the Bayou

Maddy’s big sisters have warned her about going to Grandmère’s home deep in the Louisiana bayou. It’s boring, they say; there’s no TV, no mall, no microwave, and no indoor plumbing. Not only that, Grandmère’s a witch. Ten-year-old Maddy has a mind of her own, though, and anticipates adventures far from the glass and concrete world of New Orleans.  Bayou Magic by Jewell Parker Rhodes
The magic begins on the car ride to the bayou. When a firefly perches on the rim of the car door, Maddy’s imagination is fired; surely it’s some kind of sign.
Grandmère doesn’t look like much of a sage. She’s tiny, “bird-boned,” with “bright-white curly hair, luminous like the moon.”  Maddy and her grandmother settle into a cozy routine of humming together, collecting eggs from the hen, doing dishes, and sitting on the porch. As the days pass, Grandmère tells Maddy stories about her ancestors and teaches her important principles such as … respect yourself … pay attention … and leave space for imagination. Under Grandmère’s guidance, she will, over the course of the summer, discover her own power, her place in a long line of Lavaliers, and an enchanted land replete with helpful fireflies and mermaids.
Maddy gets to know the neighbors and makes herself at home in Bayou Bon Temps. “Folks, all colors, live in the bayou,” she muses. “Some are red-haired, some blond or brunette. A stew. They all feel like kin to me. Like a family I didn’t know I had.”
Perhaps best of all, she meets a wiry, energetic boy called Bear, and the two form a strong bond as they run around, get dirty, and explore the bayou together. Her adventure, or at least her imagination, takes off the day she sees a mermaid rise from the dark waters.
At first, Maddy reveals her secret to no one but Grandmère, who believes the girl has encountered the legendary Mami Wata, who followed imprisoned Africans forced to cross to North America in the dank holds of slave ships. Later, as an environmental disaster endangers the Bayou Bon Temps, Maddy calls upon her own powers, as well as help from fireflies and mermaids, to rescue the community she cherishes.
Middle-school girls with a fanciful flair will snap up this novel imbued with magical mystery and a young heroine’s hopeful imagination.

Reprinted with permission from New York Journal of Books.

Don’t miss Jewell Parker Rhodes’s thoughtful comments on diversity in children’s literature.
And see my previous post on Sugar, winner of the Jane Adams Peace Association book award, and check out the author’s Coretta Scott King honor book, Ninth Ward.Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes

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Poetry That Pierces a Dark Past

Poems can reveal multiple layers of the past in ways that prose often fails to do. The recently published I Lay My Stitches Down: Poems of American Slavery illustrates the particular power of the genre to shine a light on myriad aspects of people’s experiences.

Cynthia Grady, a quilter as well as the middle-school librarian at Sidwell Friends in Washington, D.C., has turned her poet’s eye to the past and presents a well-crafted collection of 14 poems for ages 10 and up.

Each poem, ranging from “Log Cabin” to “Basket,” is named for a traditional quilt pattern and employs ten lines of ten syllables, mimicking the square shape of a quilt block. In the process, the poems reflect the “patchwork of circumstances encountered by enslaved people in America,” as Grady notes in her preface. Beneath the poems, she provides brief, interesting notes that weave in relevant references to spirituality, music, or fabric.

One of the poems that seems most evocative to me is “Basket,” spoken in the voice of a woman who takes out her work basket after a long day. Listen to the lyrical biblical language: “my thimble, thread, and needle comfort me./I lay my stitches down and troubles fall/away.” The accompanying acrylic painting by acclaimed artist Michele Wood (I See the Rhythm, 1998) is also the book’s stunning cover image. Employing vibrant colors, folk-art motifs, quilt-related patterns, and multiple historical references such as the image of the man plowing with a mule, the artist deepens the reader’s experience.

With its moving testament to the hopes and sorrows of those who lived in slavery, I Lay My Stitches Down is a must-have title for home or school libraries.

Related, recently published poetry:


The World in Grandpa’s Hands

Margaret Mason’s gentle picture book These Hands features a loving grandfather who has much to teach his grandson. He uses his old and capable hands to show young Joseph how to tie his shoes, how to play the piano, to shuffle cards, and how to hit a line drive.

He also reveals a slice of history neither the boy nor many of us readers realized. “Look at these hands, Joseph. Did you know these hands were not allowed to mix the bread dough in the Wonder Bread factory?”

The tender sepia-toned oil-wash artwork by the renowned Floyd Cooper sheds a warm glow on the earth-toned images of the boy and his grandfather. The illustrations contribute to the reassuring tone and message of this simple, yet powerful picture book.

Grandpa tells Joseph how “these hands joined with other hands. And we wrote our petitions, and we carried our signs, and we raised our voices together. Now any hands can touch the bread dough, no matter their color. Yes, they can.”

The author’s note explains how, in the ’50s and early ’60s, African-American workers at the Wonder Bread, Awrey, and Tastee bakery factories were allowed to sweep and load trucks, but were not permitted to work as bread dough mixers. The author relates how she learned the history from Joe Barnett, a leader of the bakery labor union.

Don’t miss this fine inter-generational story, as it provides so many wonderful opportunities to discuss the role of families and the need to work together to battle injustice in its many forms.

And see …

Love’s Arduous Path

How can an author squeeze sweetness from such bitter facts: A mother must give up her son upon his birth. Forced to work in the cornfields 12 miles away, she gets to see her boy only a few times before she dies.

That motherless child would become the famous writer and activist Frederick Douglass, who wrote in his groundbreaking autobiography, “I do not recollect of ever seeing my mother by the light of day. She was with me in the night. She would lie down with me, and get me to sleep, but long before I waked she was gone. Very little communication ever took place between us. Death soon ended what little we could have while she lived, and with it her hardships and suffering. She died when I was about seven years old, on one of my master’s farms, near Lee’s Mill. I was not allowed to be present during her illness, at her death, or burial.”

In her moving debut, Love Twelve Miles Long, Glenda Armand takes us back to 1820s Talbot County, Maryland, to imagine how precious those few visits could have been for the two. Wrapped in her shawl, Mama arrives late at night, bringing Frederick her full heart and a slice of ginger cake. Mr. Bootman strews soft candlelight in his lush watercolor painting of the reunited mother and son sharing smiles no one can buy or sell.

Of course, the boy longs to spend more time with his mother, but she tells him it’s too far for him to walk. How, then, does she do it?

“The way I walk makes the journey shorter,” she says.

“Tell me how you walk, Mama. Tell me how you make it shorter.”

What follows is a beautiful evocation of the mother’s loving ritual, as she makes each mile special. The first is for forgetting: “I forget how tired I am. I forget that my back hurts and my hands and feet ache. I forget that I’ve worked all day and have to be in the fields again at sunup. And when the forgetting is done, I start remembering. That’s what the second mile is for.”

Other miles are spent observing the stars, praying, singing, remembering happy times, giving thanks, hoping, loving, and dreaming of a good life: “We’ll have our own land, and we’ll work for ourselves. There will be no slaves or masters. . . . You are going to do big and important things one day. But right now it’s time for you to go to bed.”

In a story brimming with hope and love, the real-life horrors of slavery lie elsewhere, where an older audience can grapple with them. The author’s note gives additional information about Frederick Douglass, who changed his surname in order to obscure his identity from the master he escaped. Douglass wrote that his mother, Harriet Bailey, taught him a powerful lesson: that he was not “only a child but somebody’s child.” How remarkable that she accomplished this under such despicable constraints.

But let us leave the mother with her miles to go before she sleeps. We can all use a comforting story of love, even—or especially—if it is ripped from a brutal past.

Reprinted with permission from New York Journal of Books

Freedom on the Menu

Carole Boston Weatherford is the vibrant author of some of the best children’s books  exploring African-American history.  I met Carole a year ago after she flew up from North Carolina to come visit our school library. As a snowstorm barreled in that day, we felt forced to change our schedule. Carole mastered the situation with grace and verve, adjusting each of her three sessions to relate perfectly to the age group. She recited poems to the youngest; she had children participating by chanting, jingling bells and tapping a triangle. They left the library joyous and inspired!

A section of lunch counter from the Greensboro...

Image via Wikipedia

With the fourth and fifth-graders, she discussed Freedom on the Menu: The Greensboro Sit-Ins and presented a sensitive and nuanced look at Jim Crow as it still existed when she was a child in Baltimore. She showed a photograph of the park where she and her family were not allowed to go. The students were solemn and spellbound. Carole Boston Weatherford knows how to make history real to children.

Freedom on the Menu (Dial, 2004), is one my favorite read-alouds for Black History Month. Told from the point of view of eight-year-old Connie, the story takes readers to the Woolsworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, NC. Connie and her mother often stop there for a soda after shopping downtown. Connie would like to sit down and have a banana split instead, but can’t; only whites may sit at the counter.  “All over town signs told Mama and me where we could and couldn’t go,” Connie lamented. Lagarrigue’s somber, impressionistic paintings show the hateful Jim Crow signs that warp the community. Changes are in the air, though, as the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. comes to town. Connie sees her older siblings become politically involved and join in the lunch counter sit-ins. As the protests spread through the South, laws change. Six months later, Connie gets to savor her banana split at the counter, and it tastes like so sweet — like freedom. The author’s note about the 1960 Greensboro sit-ins provides additional information that will help young people understand the Civil Rights movement. See Weatherford’s web site for lesson plans inspired by this exemplary picture book, which works well with ages 6-10.

And don’t miss these treasures …

For older children:

The Beatitudes: From Slavery to Civil Rights. illus. by Tim Ladwig. Eerdmans, 2009. Ages 7-12. Anyone looking for a picture book to illustrate the role of religion in helping people survive and eventually overcome tragedy should take a look at this beautiful book. Weatherford illuminates the path from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount to African-Americans’ long struggle for freedom and equality. From the dark Middle Passage in the bowels of slave ships to the inauguration of Pres. Barack Obama, people have found hope, strength, and inspiration in their religious faith. Concise biographical profiles of famous African-Americans are included.

Birmingham, 1963. Wordsong, 2007. Ages 10+ This stunning little masterpiece pairs actual black-and-white photographs with Weatherford’s poems to describe the ruthless bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church that killed four girls, an event that became a turning point in the struggle for equality. Told from the perspective on an unnamed fictional girl, we hear how

The day I turned ten
Our church was quiet. No meetings, no marches.
Mama left me in Sunday school
With a soft kiss and coins for the offering plate.

In addition to her moving poems, Weatherford provides a section that profiles the four young girls who died in the bombing. Additional historical background and photo citations are included, as well.

Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom. illus. by Kadir Nelson. Jump at the Sun, 2006. Ages 7-12. This fictionalized story of Harriet Tubman focuses on the spiritual journey of the woman who risked her life time after time to help others escape from slavery, as she had done. In spare, poetic text, we hear how she flees Maryland, in hopes of reaching Pennsylvania. “A boatman rows her upriver. Back on shore, hounds snarl, sniff for Harriet’s trail. She races as fast as she can. Lord, I can’t outrun them. God speaks through a babbling brook: SHED YOUR SHOES, WADE IN THE WATER TO TRICK THE DOGS.” As Tubman encounters a series of dangers along the way, she calls upon God for help each time. When she reaches the free state of Pennsylvania, she finds her journey has just begun. Now it is time to help others. Nelson’s grand, atmospheric oil and watercolor paintings won a Caldecott Honor and the Coretta Scott King Award. Weatherford provides an accessible foreword on the institution of slavery, as well as an author’s note with a brief biography.

For younger children …

Before John Was a Jazz Giant: A Song of John Coltrane. illus. by Sean Qualls. Holt, 2008. Ages 5-7. Read it and then put on some Coltrane and dance!

First Pooch: Malia and Sasha Pick a Pet. illus. by Amy Bates. Marshall Cavendish, 2009. Ages 5-8. Light-hearted story of the First Family choosing their first dog.

Jazz Baby. illus. by Laura Freeman. Lee & Low, 2002. Ages 4-7. Rollicking, rhyming fun for little ones


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