Sunday, October 29, 2006


By Bryan Collier. Here is a picture book that celebrates the life of Harlem. One boy who lives there takes us on a tour of all his favorite places, including a show at the Apollo Theater, Ruckers Park for some hoops, shopping on 125th street, singing with the Boys Choir and watching the sun set over the Hudson river. He tells us his grandfather says “Jazz and Harlem are a perfect match – just like chicken and waffles.” I’ve never tried chicken and waffles but now I want to! The illustrations are a collage of color and vibrant with life. I read on the link below in this post that he learned about color and design as a child watching his grandmother quilt. It shows in this lovely book. The perspective changes on every page and Buddy enjoyed searching for the boy in each scene.

Two of the places he visits that caught my attention were the barbershop and the photographers. I keep hearing about black barbershops being a locus of cultural connection where black men and boys bond and pass on wisdom and strength. Jaiya Johns mentions how delighted he was to finally discover a good barber when he went off to college. His mother always cut his hair and didn’t know what she was doing. Not only did he finally have someone care for his hair correctly, he also relished the scents and laughter and conversations that took place in the shop. I cut my boys hair and I have worked on learning to do it right, but I am wondering if the money saved is a vital opportunity lost. For me to decide I need to budget the $20 a month it would take to bring my boys to a barber would mean cutting something else from the roll, which would probably be food or heat. How do low income African American families find the money to pay for hair care? I know it is a HIGH priority, but it also is expensive! I am not talking about cutting a movie night or one less restaurant meal; those are long gone from my life. One less pair of shoes and we would be barefoot.

I also enjoyed reading that when the boy in this story went to the photographers shop he saw a picture on the wall of his grandparent’s wedding. The family history implication of that simple statement speaks volumes. The picture shows him sitting on a chair waiting somewhat impatiently for his turn with the photographer. Behind him on the wall are a collection of photographs and frames. It is so easy to feel myself and my boys in that moment of anxiety and boredom and also to appreciate the historic importance of those childhood photo sessions.

This is just a perfect example of how simple text and fantastic illustrations do a masterful job of portraying complex human experiences. A great picture book is like a haiku. The more you read it an appreciate it the more you get out of it. I am so glad we give these gifts to children and I am so grateful to be one of the ones who reads them to children! More on Bryan Collier here.


1 comment:

Jae Ran said...

I saw an exhibit about African American illustrators at the Chicago Museum of Art this past summer and Bryan Collier had several books on exhibit there. What a wonderful artist. I was really moved by his work.