WHEN I step through the door each weeknight, my children, after our hugs and kisses, want just one thing from me. "Read book?" my 2-year-old both asks and demands. "Books!" adds my 6-year-old. So as soon as they have on pajamas and we've gathered bedside drinks and pillows, we read, first one child and then the other.
When I became a parent, I could remember snatches of classics like Winnie-the-Pooh and all the Dr. Seuss books, and looked forward to rediscovering them. But, as an African-American parent, I was also eager to find picture books featuring children such as mine, books that I hoped would also help them to learn something about black history and culture.
Happily, at libraries and book stores, we've found a good number of such picture books by African-American authors or illustrated by African-American artists. The range of subjects is wide. Many of the stories concern families in all sorts of situations: young children spending meaningful hours with grandparents or adjusting to new situations, from the loss of a parent to weekends with a divorced father. There are also whimsical and delightful folk tales, poetry collections, a black Mother Goose and similar books that help young children learn the alphabet and numbers. And while some authors and illustrators -- including Ashley Bryant, Eloise Greenfield, Jerry Pinkney, Lucille Clifton and the late John Steptoe -- have published many books over the last 20 years or so, talented newcomers appear each year.
Sometimes deliberately, sometimes indirectly, most books by these writers provide glimpses of black life and culture. A young girl and her aunt, planning a long car ride, pack fried chicken in a shoebox lined with wax paper, just as the aunt did when she was little (Just Us Women, by Jeannette Caines; illustrated by Pat Cummings, Harper & Row, 1982). Another girl, living around the turn of the century, dreams of winning the cakewalk (Mirandy and Brother Wind, see below). Two children, planning to spend the summer with their great-aunt at her house in the country, make the long train ride by themselves for the first time (The Train to Lulu's, by Elizabeth Fitzgerald Howard, illustrated by Robert Casilla, Bradbury Press, 1988).
Unfortunately, such books, like so many worth reading, aren't always easy to find. Local libraries and bookstores that specialize in children's books or black books have the best selection.
What follows is a sampling of some of the better picture books by African-American authors or illustrators for young children.
Tell Me a Story, Mama, by Angela Johnson, illustrated by David Soman (Orchard Books, 1989). In this poignant story, a young girl, at bedtime, begs her mother to tell her any old story from her own childhood. But before the mother can begin, the child tells several, all ones she's heard many times over. Like the one about the time the mean old lady who lived close by frightened her mother's younger sister, prompting the older sister to throw mud on the woman's fence. She was forced to apologize -- but got a big kiss and an extra sweet roll that evening. As the child retells her mother's stories, full of love and longing, she is comforted by the knowledge that what her mother experienced and felt during her childhood was not so different from what she sometimes feels now.
Grandmama's Joy, by Eloise Greenfield, illustrated by Carole Byard (Philomel Books, 1980) and Grandpa's Face, by Eloise Greenfield, illustrated by Floyd Cooper (Philomel Books, 1988). Both these books revolve around children and their relationships with their grandparents. In the first, a young girl realizes her grandmother is sad and tries everything she can think of to cheer her up. Finally her grandmother explains that they have to move from the house where she's lived for years because she can no longer afford the rent. The child coaxes the worried grandmother into retelling the story of how, as a baby, she came to live with her grandmother after her parents were killed in an automobile accident. "Long as I have my joy, I'll be all right," her grandmother had said at the time. Now she realizes that she still has "her joy," and they'll be all right, no matter what the future holds. In the second book, Tomika treasures her "talk-walks" with her grandfather, who lives with her family. But then she sees her grandfather, who frequently acts in community productions, rehearsing one day in his room. The cold, mean look on his face scares her, and she's frightened that one day something she may say or do will cause him to turn that face on her and stop loving her.
Mirandy and Brother Wind, by Patricia C. McKissack, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney (Knopf, 1988). In this delightful tale set around the turn of the century, Mirandy badly wants to win the junior cakewalk, a dance in which couples dance around a square with grace and style to banjo and fiddle music. She figures she has a chance if she can catch "Brother Wind" and get him to be her partner, for "whoever catches the Wind can make him do their bidding." So Mirandy tries everything she can think of, even visiting a conjure woman for advice. Pinkney's lush and warm watercolors are an extra treat.
Daddy Is a Monster . . . Sometimes, written and illustrated by John Steptoe (Lippincott, 1980). Steptoe writes about a father with two children, who have the same names as Steptoe's own children. Daddy is a lovable and generous father most of the time. But at times, when they try his patience, he turns into a monster, like "in the scary movies," his voice becoming a growl. Once he read Bweela and her brother Javaka a story, kissed them good-night, turned out the lights, and then let them get out of bed to use the bathroom. But when the two started arguing in their room, it was the monster, not their loving father, who stormed up the stairs.
Jambo Means Hello, by Muriel Feelings, illustrated by Tom Feelings (Dial, 1984) and Who's in Rabbit's House, by Verna Aardema, illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon (Dial, 1977). These two books are a good introduction to Africa. Jambo is an alphabet book featuring Swahili words that, through text and pictures, shows village life in East Africa. Children learn, for example, that N is for ngoma, which "means both drum and dance as drumming and dancing are often done together." In Who's In Rabbit's House, Masai villagers watch a play. Rabbit returns to his house one day to find the "Long One" inside, threatening everyone who would try to drive him out. Several animals try to help Rabbit, but in each case their method would destroy Rabbit's house as well as the Long One. Finally Rabbit accepts Frog's offer of help, after turning him down earlier, and learns that intelligence and common sense are more effective than brawn.
Jimmie Lee Did It, written and illustrated by Pat Cummings (Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1985). "Jimmie Lee is back again. And nothing is the same," begins this entertaining book. Angel stalks the mysterious and elusive Jimmie Lee, who makes a mess of things and causes trouble whenever her brother Artie is around.
Light (Greenwillow, 1981) and Truck (Greenwillow, 1980), both written and illustrated by Donald Crews. Crews, a powerful illustrator, has created a whole slew of books on things that fascinate young children (Flying, Freight Train, Carousel and Parade are among his other titles). Using minimal text, they feature page after page of riveting, vivid pictures. Light, for example, shows all manner of natural and artificial light, including flashing (neon) lights, glimmering lights, lightning, floodlight, moonlight and starlight. In Truck, a loaded freight truck makes its way across busy city streets and highways, through tunnels and across bridges, in good weather and bad. Each page is visually challenging, full of the sort of details that hold children's attention.
The Best Time of Day, by Valerie Flourney, illustrated by George Ford (Random House, 1978). William knows it's time to get up when he hears his father's car in the morning, driving off. After eating breakfast with his mom, playing at the community center with a babysitter and spending time with his grandparents, he knows the best time of day finally arrives when his father returns home.
The Bells of Christmas, by Virginia Hamilton, illustrated by Lambert Davis (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989). This book is probably intended for children who are in the upper elementary grades. But it's a heartwarming and rich story and, if read chapter by chapter (there are seven, with illustrations on every other page), it can be enjoyed by younger children as well. The setting is Springfield, Ohio, in 1890, where 12-year-old Jason Bell impatiently awaits Christmas and the visit of his favorite cousin. Finally the holiday arrives, and readers share the Bell family's moving Christmas celebration, capped by an evening at church. Part of the appeal of this book is being able to learn what life was like for a family 100 years ago.
Jeanne Fox-Alston is director of recruiting/News for The Washington Post.