It is important that youngsters learn not only the themes, elements and styles of literature, but about the authors themselves. Before beginning shared reading selections, make it a habit of introducing tidbits about the author. (I sometimes have xeroxed photos on hand so the children get a true sense of the individual and his or her work.) By introducing the author, children learn that much of what is shared in literature is the result of acquired views, interpreted observations, and/or experiences encountered during an author's lifetime. Most important, children internalize that they too can be writers.
Among my and my students' favorites are John Steptoe, Patricia Polacco, Eloise Greenfield, and Langston Hughes. These authors bring a lot of culturally interactive, personal experience into their writing which perhaps makes their works so enticingly wonderful for all children.
John Steptoe, for example, began as a painter/illustrator and was better-known for his innovative artistic know-how. Steptoe, however, loved to draw pictures and jot down stories ever since he was a child. By age 16, he had begun working on his first picture book,
. The book was published by Harper and Row in 1969 and continues to captivate young readers today. A graduate of the New York School of Art and Design, he also worked as a teacher in the Brooklyn area. Steptoe took particular pride in his cultural heritage and the original homeland of Black people, Africa, as is reflected in
. (As previously noted in Section 1, Steptoe illustrated this book based his studies about the ruins of an ancient city in Zimbabwe, South Africa.) Bweela and Javaka, his two children, are included in
My Special Best Words
Daddy Is A Monster Sometimes
. John often noted that one of the incentives for getting into writing children's books was the great and disastrous need for books that Black children could honestly relate to. He also indicated he was amazed to find that during his lifetime, no one had successfully created books written in the dialect that many black children speak. That view is revealed in many of his short story creations, for over the years, Steptoe interchangeably used colloquial language and formal English in many of his books. Born in Brooklyn, New York on September 14, 1950, John passed away in 1988, but his works continue to brighten and inspire the lives of many.
Patricia Polacco will readily share that she recalls sitting around with family and friends, listening to the old ones tell stories of their past. The legacy continues, for Patricia knows well how to weave a story. Born to parents of Russian ancestry, she bases many of her books on family history and life experience. Two of my student's favorites are
Pink and Say
(background information concerning these titles is contained in Section 1). The first was based on a family friendship during her childhood days in Oakland, California; the latter resulted from Civil War memories shared by her great-great-grandfather and passed down through the ages, leaving an indelible impression on the author. The holder of Bachelor's and Master's Degrees in Fine Art from Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, and a Ph.D. in Russian and Greek iconographic history from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Patricia embraces people across cultures on a global scale, and that attribute is masterfully depicted in her work. The recipient of numerous awards, all of Polacco's books are heartwarming and beautifully illustrated by the author herself.
Eloise Greenfield, a resident and teacher of creative writing in Washington, D.C. schools, recognized the desperate need for more black literature for children. The recipient of numerous literary awards for excellence in children's literature, she is the author of over 20 children's book titles. Early on in her career, Ms. Greenfield set a goal: to create literature in which black children see themselves, and their lives and history reflected. The author notes that "reading generates a special kind of excitement, and she always writes books that children will want to live with and live in for as long as it takes them to read it, hoping that some part of the book will stay inside them for the rest of their lives." Eloise has adhered to her commitment, as evidenced in such works as
Me and Neesie, Nathaniel Talking,
She Come Bringing Me That Little Baby Girl
. The creator of over 20 children book titles, children of all ages are drawn to her literary creations which include biographies, fiction and poetry.
Langston Hughes was a phenomenal poet and writer from the Harlem Renaissance era. A world traveler, poet laureate, and Columbia University graduate, his works are based on his love of black people and experiences encountered throughout his lifetime. Hughes' literary works—in many instances suitable for children—are not often presented in picture book form. Nevertheless, his poems and short stories are often contained in children's book anthologies and poetry collec- tions. (My students thoroughly enjoyed three of his poems featured in
Pass It On
[see Section 1: Picture Book Resources].) Rather than elaborate further on the author herein, I recommend reading
The Langston Hughes Reader
. It provides an in-depth view of his life, along with excerpts of his literary creations over the years. Additionally, before introducing your students to his Hughes' works, read Floyd Cooper's
, noted in Section 1.