This retelling of a folktale from the Ila-speaking people of Zambia is truly beautiful and inspiring. Ashley Bryan’s bold, colorful paper-cut collages dance off the pages. His aviary of rainbow birds full of life and energy remind me of a playground full of children. During the day they are busy and noisy and full of enthusiasms, while at night they cozy up together in family nests to rest and dream of black. The love their colors but think that the blackbird is the most beautiful of all because “his feathers gleam all colors in the sun.” They dance around blackbird singing and doing the Show Claw Slide:
“Beak to beak, peck, peck, peck
Spread your wings, stretch your neck.
Black is beautiful, uh-huh!
Black is beautiful, uh-huh!
Tip tap toe to the left, spin around,
Toe tap tip to the right, stroke the ground.
Wings flip-flapping as you glide,
Forward and backward in a Show Claws Slide.”
This text is so musical it begs to be read aloud and sung in a chant. I think children hearing this a few times will be saying it at recess while they skip rope or hop down the path. Ashley is such a wonderful storyteller. There is an audio book available with him reading this and other folktales that I have requested from the library. I think we are going to love listening to this in the car on the way to school or in the kitchen while I am cooking dinner.
As the story goes on the birds beg Blackbird to share his beautiful blackness with them all. To the Ringdove who asks: “Blackbird, Blackbird, coo-coo-roo, coo-ca-roo, would you color me black so that I’ll be black like you? My neck is plain and that’s a shame, ‘cause Ringdove is my given name.”
He says “Color on the outside is not what’s on the inside. You don’t act like me. You don’t eat like me. You don’t get down in the groove and move your feet like me. But come tomorrow to the Sun-Up-Dance. I’ll brew some blackening in my medicine gourd. Then I’ll swing a ring around your neck to go with your name.”
Sure enough, in the next few days he mixes up some black in his pot and uses a feather to paint patterns and designs of black on all the birds. How delightful to see the host of heaven sporting their new designs and patterns of black! I just love the message that each one of us is an individual with our own internal beauty AND we can generously share all of our beauty, inside and out, with everyone around us. This is a joyful, uplifting tale for every one, child or adult.
• Best Children's Books of the Year, 2004; Bank Street College of Education; United States
• Capital Choices, 2003; The Capital Choices Committee; United States
• Choices, 2004; Cooperative Children's Book Center; United States
Awards, Honors, Prizes:
• Coretta Scott King Awards Winner 2004 Illustrator United States
Audio book available, this and other folktales read by Ashley Bryan.
Publisher’s author page with biography and list of books.
Review in the Journal of African American Children’s Literature
Great biography of Bryan, a resident of Maine