"To Make a Poet Black, and Bid Him Sing": African American Poetry for Children

Book Links: December 2002/January 2003 (v.12, no.3)

by Henrietta M. Smith

Countee Cullen (1903-46) has long been recognized as a leading poet of the Harlem Renaissance. He was the author of several books of poetry and a publisher of major anthologies of poetry by African American writers of the early twentieth century. Cullen also wrote two books with particular appeal for young readers. My Lives and How I Lost Them (1942) is the "autobiography" of Cullen's cat, Christopher. Now on his ninth life, Christopher shares with readers how he lost the other eight. He lost his first life the very day it began when he fell out of the top hat in which he was born!

The Lost Zoo (1940) is a series of allegorical poems explaining why certain animals did not make it onto Noah's Ark and were therefore lost to the world forever. Legend has it that Cullen, at this time a public-school teacher, wrote The Lost Zoo to help his young students learn the fruitlessness of certain types of unacceptable behavior. In the book, "The Hoodinkus-With-The-Doublehead" drowns because his two heads fight about which one should lead the way, while the "Squilililigee" lets the waters cover him rather than continue being laughed at because of his name, demonstrating the not-at-all-harmless consequence of constant teasing. The most popular selection, "The-Snake-That-Walked-Upon-His-Tail," speaks out against vanity; the snake waits to make a grand entrance as the last one to board the ark, his newly grown feet get tangled in a vine, and with no help available, he sinks ignominiously beneath the waters. Cullen accepted the accolades of his peers with modesty, as is reflected in one of his best-known poems, "Yet Do I Marvel," in Color (1927). He writes of all the wonders of God's work and closes with these lines:

". . . Yet do I marvel at this curious thing: To make a poet black, and bid him sing!"

Reflecting on the reality that poetry is a genre of literature that is often avoided as "boring" or "too hard to understand," this bibliography of works from the pens of African American poets is presented with an invitation to examine any or all of the titles, embrace the joy of poetry alone, or share it in read-aloud sessions. Many titles in this bibliography are winners of the Coretta Scott King Award for text or illustrations. All selections have been chosen for their potential to be used in areas of the school curriculum, in library programming, or in family or community activities.

Bibliography

Angelou, Maya. Now Sheba Sings the Song. Illus. by Tom Feelings. 1987. 56p. Dutton, o.p.
Gr. 9-12. For mature readers, Angelou sings the praises of black women in words that are strong, tender, courageous, caressing, and delicately sensuous. Surely these words embody the essence of Sheba's song: "My songs wreathe the people in banners of hope, wisdom and some just plain laugh out loud." Feelings' sepia-toned illustrations of "the ordinary black woman" bring to life the strength, tenderness, and sensuality of which Angelou writes.

Bryan, Ashley. Ashley Bryan's ABC of African-American Poetry. 1997. 32p. Simon & Schuster/Atheneum, $16 (0-689-81209-4); Aladdin, paper, $6.99 (0-689-84045-4).
All ages. The short verses and excerpts from the works of poets from different eras are excellent examples of the universal appeal of this literary form, regardless of the age of the reader. The book is not designed to teach the alphabet, and as Bryan states in the foreword, he includes "only the lines of each poem that inspired the image, and I'd capitalize the alphabet letter wherever it occurred." "F . . . There are words like Freedom / sweet and wonderful to say," or "M . . . My grandmothers were strong." This volume provides an attractive invitation to conduct an in-depth exploration of the excerpted poems in their entirety.

Clifton, Lucille. One of the Problems of Everett Anderson. Illus. by Ann Grifalconi. 2001. 32p. Holt, $16.95 (0-8050-5201-1).
K-Gr. 3. Clifton has the gift of speaking in verse to even the youngest of listeners about serious and difficult concerns. In Everett Anderson's Goodbye (Holt, 1983), Clifton guides young readers through the steps of dealing with the death of a family member with poignant simplicity. Young Everett's problem in this volume focuses on child abuse. He knows something is wrong when his best friend, Greg, comes to school with bruises: "And he had the saddest, saddest face, / like he was lost in the loneliest place." Wisely, Clifton does not portray Everett as the problem solver, but lets the reader know that his mother will help.

Feelings, Tom. Soul Looks Back in Wonder. 1993. 32p. Dial, $15.99 (0-8037-1001-1); Puffin, paper, $7.99 (0-14-056501-9).
Gr. 4-8. For his first book illustrated in color, Feelings selected works by various poets whose themes spoke of hope for young people's future and that represented the beauty of their blackness. In his entry, "History of My People," Walter Dean Myers addresses a sad-faced youth, "They say that beyond the blues-moan / there is continuance / Triumph and continuance." Mari Evans celebrates blackness by exclaiming, "Who / can be born / black / and not exult!" These poems create a sense of faith and confidence in words and images.

Grimes, Nikki. Danitra Brown Leaves Town. Illus. by Floyd Cooper. 2001. 32p. HarperCollins, $15.95 (0-688-13155-7).
Gr. 2-4. This book is a joyous reunion for those readers who first became acquainted with the feisty Danitra in Meet Danitra Brown (HarperCollins, 1994). Danitra informs her best friend, Zuri, that she is going to spend the summer with her cousins in the country. This news is met with anger and jealousy. A series of rhyming letters compare what each is doing during the summer, which ends with a joyous reunion. The girls greet each other with face-to-face enthusiasm that can't be captured in a letter: ". . . glad / you're home again / 'cause that is ten times better." Cooper's illustrations contain the exuberant energy of the characters and activities in each setting.

Grimes, Nikki. Jazmin's Notebook. 1998. 112p. Dial, $15.99 (0-8037-2224-9); Puffin, paper, $4.99 (0-14-130702-1).
Gr. 5-7. Although not a book of poetry, the sensitive poems that open each chapter in this novel crystallize in a thought-provoking way the contents that follow. Harlem-born Jazmin, determined, courageous, and optimistic, lives with her older sister Ce-Ce. With their father gone and their mother hospitalized in a mental institution, they are living on the edge of poverty. The sensitive poems are Jazmin's observations about such matters as the wonders of the public library (which she views almost like a cathedral), the small-minded teacher who tries to ignore her in class, and warm recollections of her father. Grimes' well-written poems make this already excellent novel even more memorable.

Grimes, Nikki. A Pocketful of Poems. Illus. by Javaka Steptoe. 2001. 32p. Clarion, $15 (0-395-93868-6).
K-Gr. 3. Tiana finds the secret of writing poetry as words and letters spill skippingly from her pocket. The merry rhymes, a blend of standard verse and haiku, celebrate the seasons and pay tribute to pumpkins, caterpillars, and other joys of nature. The book invites lighthearted discussion about rhyme forms, and how words can meaningfully chase each other across a page. A Pocketful of Poems can be read for fun or serve as a springboard for students to create their own verses.

In Daddy's Arms I Am Tall: African Americans Celebrating Fathers. Illus. by Javaka Steptoe. 1997. 32p. Lee & Low, $15.95 (1-880000-31-8); paper, $6.95 (1-58430-016-7).
Gr. 4-up. This collection from a variety of poets is an exciting example of the universality of themes in poetry. The selections are from the pens of poets honoring their African American fathers, but the thoughts and sentiments reach out to fathers everywhere. Steptoe dedicates his poem to his father, the late illustrator John Steptoe, writing, "I became the words I ate in you. / For better or worse / the apple doesn't fall far from the tree."

Johnson, Angela. Running Back to Ludie. Illus. by Angelo. 2001. 56p. Orchard, $15.95 (0-439-29316-2).
Gr. 8-12. Johnson, a Coretta Scott King Award winner, has mastered the craft of telling a story in magnificent poetic prose. The heroine, who remains nameless, wonders how it will feel to be reunited-if only briefly-with the mother she has not seen for many years. As she prepares, her thoughts wander to the people who are a real part of her life-her aunt Lucille, her neighbors, and her school friends. With subtle implications, the reader learns of the apparent success of the reunion: "The days after Ludie / were just that; / days . . . / But slowly I started / to make room for / her in my Grrls Address Book . . . / Put a picture of her / smiling into the sun on my / corkboard."

Myers, Walter Dean. Brown Angels: An Album of Pictures and Verse. 1993. 40p. HarperCollins, $17.95 (0-06-022917-9); HarperTrophy, paper, $6.99 (0-06-443455-9).
Preschool-Gr. 3. Using a basic rhyme scheme and the flavor of the language of the turn of the last century, Myers celebrates "the child in us . . . our most precious part." Period pictures from Myers' vast photographic collection accompany each selection, poems that speak of friendship, wisdom, and just plain fun.

Myers, Walter Dean. Harlem. Illus. by Christopher Myers. 1997. 32p. Scholastic, $16.95 (0-590-54340-7).
Gr. 4-6. In poetic prose, Myers traces the steps from Africa, through the deep South, and then up north to that distinctive enclave in New York City called Harlem. The poetry embraces the sights and sounds of worshippers "in storefront temples," pays heed to men playing checkers in the street, observes family members cooling on a fire escape or listening to jazz at Smalls, and comments on marching mourners on the "Big Avenue." Even if home isn't Harlem, the poetry's nostalgic tone captures that mixture of place and emotion we call home.

Nelson, Marilyn. Carver: A Life in Poems. 2001. 112p. Front Street, $16.95 (1-886910-53-7).
Gr. 9-12. A series of original poems recount the life of noted scientist George Washington Carver. The diminutive man who was born a slave won global recognition for his agricultural discoveries, his practical inventions, his endless curiosity, and his character as a gentle humanitarian. Nelson's vignettes, told in blank verse, include insights into his personal life and his relationship with his students, incidents of rejection, and even a piece describing his deftness with a crochet needle! This uniquely crafted biography is a Coretta Scott King Honor Award winner.

The Palm of My Heart: Poetry by African American Children. Edited by Davida Adedjouma. Illus. by Gregory Christie. 1996. 32p. Lee & Low, $15.95 (1-880000-41-5); paper, $6.95 (1-880000-76-8).
Gr. 6-8. Poems written by their peers can often be a catalyst to stir the creative juices of young people. Chicago neighborhood children composed these poems in a writing workshop. The authors range in age from 12 to 14, with one selection by an 8-year-old. Among other topics, the brief pieces deal with history and self-esteem: "Black history flows / through our veins / like blood." "Blue is nice, / and orange is neat, / But they can't compete / because / Black is beautiful / Black is me / Tall, dark, and wonderful / see!"

Perdomo, Willie. Visiting Langston. Illus. by Bryan Collier. 2002. 32p. Holt, $15.95 (0-8050-6744-2).
Gr. 2-4. Capturing the voice of a child, Perdomo pays tribute to poet Langston Hughes in the year of his hundredth birthday. He tells of a young girl who dreams of becoming a poet as she tours Hughes' Harlem home. Included in the concise text is a description of Hughes' writing, which "sang like love / Cried like blues . . . / [and] could tell you / What Africa means to me." Collier's collage illustrations add a realistic feeling to the text.

Pinkney, Sandra L. Shades of Black. Photos by Myles C. Pinkney. 2000. 40p. Scholastic/Cartwheel, $14.95 (0-439-14892-8).
Preschool-Gr. 3. There is a unique rhythm in the simple one-line descriptions that define the pride embodied in the differences in skin tones, hair texture, and the color of one's eyes that are the heritage of African American children. Photographs capture the beauty of the one whose skin is the "gingery brown in a cookie" or whose eyes match "the delicate streaks of amber in a Tiger's eye," and send a message of self-esteem.

The Quiet Storm: Voices of Young Black Poets. Selected by Lydia Okutoro. 1999. 144p. Hyperion/Jump at the Sun, paper, $4.99 (0-7868-1320-2).
Gr. 9-12. Teenagers who can relate to the poetry of their peers will enjoy The Quiet Storm, which contains verses written by young people. The selections show outstanding creativity in the writing styles and breadth of subject matter-from self-esteem to concerns for the future and an interest in heritage and history.

Weatherford, Carole Boston. Remember the Bridge: Poems of a People. 2002. 56p. Philomel, $17.99 (0-399-23726-7).
Gr. 6-12. Original poems narrate the story of African Americans from captivity to freedom. In addition to historical information, the deeds of heroes and heroines are cited, from those as early as Madam C. J. Walker, millionaire businesswoman, to boxer Joe Louis, a man of "muscle and grace," to Dr. Mae Jemison, who "rocketed through the space frontier." A uniquely designed historical document in words and pictures.

Weatherford, Carole Boston. The Sound That Jazz Makes. Illus. by Eric Velasquez. 2000. 32p. Walker, $16.95 (0-8027-8720-7).
Gr. 4-6. Rhyming couplets trace the history of jazz, from the drum beats and kalimba strumming of Africa to the plaintive tones of slave songs and the exhilaration of gospel, whose strains are still heard in the rhythms of big bands and of rappers with their boom boxes on city streets. Velasquez's illustrations clearly identify not only the musical instruments but also the faces of certain jazz greats-Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, and Billie Holiday. Poetry to swing to.

What a Morning! The Christmas Story in Black Spirituals. Selected by John Langstaff. Illus. by Ashley Bryan. 1987. 32p. Simon & Schuster/Aladdin, paper, $4.99 (0-689-80807-0).
All ages. This collection is an excellent example of the idea that songs are simply poetry set to music. The selections of Negro spirituals celebrate the joy of freedom by honoring the Christ child. This title represents a transition from suffering, as exemplified by slave spirituals, to the joy found in these religious songs, which were more often plaintive, hopeful, and full of anticipation.

Words with Wings: A Treasury of African-American Poetry and Art. Selected by Belinda Rochelle. 2000. 48p. HarperCollins/Amistad, $16.95 (0-688-16415-3).
All ages. This anthology's selections come from the pens of writers whose lives span two centuries. The themes range from the agony of slavery in Lucille Clifton's "The Auction Street" to the celebration of relationships in Rita Dove's "Fifth Grade Autobiography," to William Braithwaite's "Rhapsody": "I am glad daylong for the gift of song, / For time and change and sorrow; / For the sunset wings and the world-end things / Which hang on the edge of tomorrow." Paintings from early and contemporary artists complement each selection. Biographical information is included for each poet and artist.

Henrietta M. Smith, professor emerita, teaches children's and young adult materials at the School of Library and Information Science at the University of South Florida in Tampa. She is a past chair of the Coretta Scott King Task Force and the Coretta Scott King Jury and also the editor of Coretta Scott King Awards Book, 1970-1999 (ALA Editions, 1999).