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Perhaps spring has finally arrived in Iowa. The sun is shining, flowers are blooming, even a few bees are buzzing. It’s time to celebrate a new season. And one of the best ways to celebrate is by reading a good book. Good picture books should not be limited to the lap-sitter set. Good picture books are satisfying to all ages.
“1619 Project Born on the Water“ (Penguin Random House, 2021; $18.99), written by Nicole Hannah-Jones and Renee Watson, illustrated by Nikkolas Smith, is a story told by a grandmother to acquaint her family with their ancestors. “Come, let me tell you our beginning. /Let me tell you where we’re from.”
Grandma tells the family their ancestors had “a home, a place, a land.” They had a language: “They spoke Kimbundu, /had their own words/for love/for friend/for family.” They had skills, were good at math and science, knew how to make music, create rhythms. Then they were kidnapped. “They did not get to pack bags stuffed/with cherished things, with the doll grandmama/had woven from tall grass …/They could not hug their fathers and mothers, /daughters and sons, /”
Hannah-Jones and Watson have written a series of moving poems that tell of the kidnapping of slaves, the Middle Passage in the hull of a boat. Many died. Many threw themselves overboard. But some survived: “And that is why the people say, /We were born on the water. /We come from the people who refused to die.”
The poems recount the hard work in the tobacco field, the cruelties of slavery — the physical cruelty, the deep anguish of broken families. “It is wrong, always and forever, to treat/human beings like things. / The people fought back. / For 250 years, /the people resisted every day/in ways big and small./ For 250 years, the biggest resistance of all/was that the people kept living.”
The last double paged spread details the legacy of the people born on the water. “They wrote songs,/ created jazz and hip-hop, / rhythm and blues. / They became inventors and athletes, /nurses and cooks,/ pilots and architects, farmers and housekeepers,/ singers and artists, /dancers and poems,/ mathematicians and scientists. In the illustrations we can recognize Shirley Chisolm, Frederick Douglas, perhaps Madame C.J. Walker, perhaps a Tuskegee Airman. This is a story for all of us — all ages, all colors, a story of resilience and determination.
“The Year We Learned to FLY” (Nancy Paulson Books Penguin Random House, 2022; $18.99) was written by Jacqueline Woodson and illustrated by Rafael Lopez. It is a follow-up story to their bestseller “The Day You Begin.” Two children, stuck inside on a rainy day complain of boredom. Their grandmother responds: “Lift your arms, /close your eyes, /take a deep breath, /believe in a thing./ Somebody somewhere at some point/ was just as bored as you are now.”
The two kids close their eyes and “We were flying over the city we’d known/our whole lives, but/ it was suddenly different. Exploding/ with every kind of flower/ we’d ever dreamed of growing.”
When the two fight, Grandmother reminds them, “Stop being so mean about everything. / Somebody somewhere at some point/ was just as mad as you are now.” And they fly again.
This book, too, talks about ancestors: “They were aunts and uncles and cousins/ who were brought here on huge ships, / their wrists and ankles cuffed in iron,/ but my grandmother said, nobody can ever cuff/your beautiful and brilliant mind./ So our people learned to fly, she said./ They dreamed a thing and made it happen./ Closed their eyes and flew away home.”
When the siblings move to a new neighborhood “where the kids look at us funny/ and didn’t even answer when we asked them/ if they wanted to play,” they fly again. Soon the kids on the ground join them.
This is a warm story, beautifully illustrated, of the powers of the imagination. In an endnote, Jacqueline Woodson pays lovely tribute to Virginia Hamilton’s classic “The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales” (paper 1993; Knopf; $12). Woodson says, “I realized that through her beautiful story, I was learning to fly. Not with wings, but with words. Her book is the story of how enslaved people escaped their hard lives by lifting up and flying away home …”
These books allow us all to fly, to see other worlds, to come back seeing our world anew.
Jacqueline Briggs Martin of Mount Vernon writes books for children.