Langston Hughes (Poetry for Young People series) edited and with introduction by Arnold Rampersad & David Roessel; illustrations by Benny Andrews

“There are words like Freedom / Sweet and wonderful to say. / On my heartstrings freedom sings / All day everyday.”

“There are words like Liberty / That almost make me cry. / If you had known what I know / You would know why.”

     As one of more than 25 poems – or parts of poems – included which span the groundbreaking literaryLangston  career of one James Langston Hughes, pieces like the above ‘Words Like Freedom, ‘ simple enough in its message, this wonderful children’s picture book has proven a pleasure to peruse – over and over again. One of more than two dozen titles in the Poetry for Young People series, this treasure of a book – complete with bold, colorful artwork by the accomplished illustrator – indeed fills its niche completely, coherently, and with a real sense of passion and purpose.

As a writer myself, and more specifically a poet who has led workshops and other programming on poetry and poem-crafting for children and adults alike, I really appreciate the value of children’s literature such as this piece, where the focused intent can be seen as introducing young people to the craft of such varied and colorful ranges of poetry, in general, with emphasis on individual poets, specifically – their background (brief introductory bio included), the life experiences that have shaped each individual artist, and an age-appropriate “examination” of the circumstances – social, economic, historical, personality – of each poet included in the series. A sampling of others would reveal such motley personalities as Lewis Carroll, Emily Dickinson, Edward Lear, Edna St Vincent Millay, Edgar Allan Poe, Carl Sandburg, Shakespeare, Longfellow, Whitman and Wordsworth. I simply cannot say enough about how much I enjoy the Poetry for Young People series – and how, years later, as I’m going back and re-reading a number of the titles – such as my current Langston Hughes – I would indeed highly recommend any and all that are available for checkout here at the library.  Whether in aiding oneself with a poetry program, or as curriculum tie-in to the spoken and/or written arts; whether as a welcome tool to precisely fit the need in introducing a group of children to some of the rather significant poets in America’s historical, modern and contemporary schools of literary tradition(s); even simply as a beautifully-attractive, well-conceived and often poignant introduction to a number of poets who are or have been ‘on the scene,’ as it were, to share with one’s own child (or inner child, yes?); this series, I’d be willing to bet, is sure to please even the most “poetry-skeptic” among us. 

And why?  Within the roughly 45 pages of each picture book, not only are the sampling of poems presented in a rather logical order – in helping tell the story of WHO the poet is and WHY he/she explores such themes and HOW, stylistically, that process is undertaken; the reader simultaneously is treated to a healthy dose of the words borne from such inspired imaginations, with each individual poet’s edition arranged and introduced by scholars in the field who, by very nature of their work and focus of research, are uniquely qualified to offer tasty insight into the significance of particular poems, the unique motifs and – as in the case of L. Hughes – the background material that benefits the young reader in mentally “rounding-out” just where the writer is coming from.

A strong believer in, for example, the struggle of African-Americans (indeed the larger-scale issues of social justice for all) at a time when much of the gains now enjoyed had not yet realized fruition, as this was decades before the civil rights movement in our country, without a doubt such issues are examined by Hughes’ impressive body of work – whether it be his poetry, prose, journals, memoirs, etc.  And so here, in the form of a highly accessible children’s picture book, these words and poems and stories are made more brilliantly poignant, treating the reader to gorgeous illustrations which co-exist on the page alongside the poems, resulting in a generous offering of multi-sensory word-meets-image and image-compliments-word.

     I could doubtless go on and on waxing poetic (perchance already have?) on the multitudinous merits of this series in filling that gap which might exist in the consciousness of children and young people in our lives when it comes to instilling a true appreciation for such seminal works as those of Hughes – and others before and since – but suffice it to say: Though many of us adults might already have an appreciation for and (at least) rudimentary understanding of such poetic giants as Hughes, the main point herein is that this title (and others like it in focus) can and should serve as a catalyst for introducing our little ones to such beautiful, earnest, straightforward words and concepts as freedom, liberty, Weary Blues and Homesick Blues, Dream Keeper and I Dream a World, where “I, too, sing America / the darker brother / They send…to eat in the kitchen / When company comes” … who nevertheless laughs, eats well and grows strong. Who is beautiful and shall tomorrow be at the table … whose people, laden with so many struggles, hardships and absolute cruelties, have kept the dream alive, through the social and cultural glue that has incorporated (among other phenomena) the spirituals, the blues, jazz, and a sense of community as perhaps best exemplified by those artists (and not only poets, to be sure) of the Harlem Renaissance, upon whom Hughes drew so much of his inspiration and was shaped as a writer and as a human being.

Perhaps it’s a strange occurrence: a book such as this, which undoubtedly is first and foremost a children’s picture book, focusing on a single poet of the last century in America – which at the same time delves into such meaningful and complex realms as social, political, cultural, linguistic, and economic issues as they relate to the American experiences of justice and injustice … a landscape at times full of hot jazzy music; other times lamentation for the dread of downtrodden reality.

(Jonah Meyer, Circulation Department)

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