A FEW OTHER EVENTS FOR
JANUARY 27:

  • Happy birthday Jean Merrill (The Pushcart War, The Girl Who Loved Caterpillars) and Harry Allard (Miss Nelson is Missing! ).
  • It’s the birthdate of Lewis Carroll (1832–1898) Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Through the Looking-Glass, and composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791).
  • In 1825 the U.S. Congress approves Indian Territory (in what is present-day Oklahoma), clearing the way for forced relocation of the Eastern Indians on the Trail of Tears. Read Only the Names Remain: The Cherokees and the Trail of Tears by Alex W. Bealer, illustrated by Kristina Rodanas.
  • Happy birthday to The National Geographic Society, founded in Washington, D.C., in 1888.

On January 27, 1939, Julius Lester was born in Saint Louis, Missouri. Son of a Methodist minister, he lived in Kansas City and Nashville, where he attended Fisk University. Later Lester embraced the Jewish religion, which he wrote about in Lovesong: Becoming a Jew. One of those rare multi-talented individuals who can do many things well, Lester worked as a musician, an editor, a photographer, a college professor, and a radio and television host, as well as a writer. In the 1960s he wrote books for adults including Look Out, Whitey! Black Power’s Gon’ Get Your Mama! Then his adult editor suggested that he try his hand at children’s books.

Like Jerry Pinkney, Walter Dean Myers, and John Steptoe, Lester became one of the first group of extraordinarily talented Black writers and illustrators to integrate the all-white world of children’s books. His first book, To Be a Slave, published in 1968, contains first-person narratives of former slaves, originally collected by the Federal Writers’ Project. This Newbery Honor Book remains one of the most powerful indictments against slavery published for children. He then turned to the short-story format to provide a perspective on history in Long Journey Home: Stories from Black History.

Certainly one of the most felicitous pairings in children’s books has been Julius Lester and artist Jerry Pinkney. The two became collaborators, friends, and over the years have inspired each other to do their best work. Their first rendition of the Uncle Remus tales began in 1987 with The Tales of Uncle Remus: The Adventures of Brer Rabbit. Lester’s lively text and Pinkney’s spirited artwork bring the stories alive for a modern audience—and remove any material that would seem offensive today. Lester did much the same for his retelling of Little Black Sambo. In Sam and the Tigers: A New Telling of Little Black Sambo he retains the charm of the story that always enchanted young readers but removes the racial sting that became associated with the tale.

It was a book that he initially did not want to write that stands as one of his greatest contributions to children’s literature. John Henry had been Jerry Pinkney’s hero all his life, and he wanted to create a book about him. When Jerry suggested that Martin Luther King might be viewed as a modern-day John Henry, Lester saw how he could approach the text. The resulting book, John Henry, stands as one of the finest picture books of the 1990s—beautifully worded and structured, a seamless combination of art and text.

Articulate, passionate, dedicated to preserving African-American folklore, often acting as a spokesperson for the African-American community, Julius Lester has served as the conscience of the children’s book community for over four decades. Happy 72nd birthday Julius. May you have many, many more.

Here’s a page from Sam and the Tigers:


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Originally posted January 27, 2011. Updated for .

Tags: African American, Award Winning, Caldecott, Folktale, Multicultural
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COMMENTS

  1. Diane Croft says:

    The role of the trickster – as shape-shifter and sacred messenger of nonconventional behavior – has been kept alive thanks to Julius Lester. His birth IS something to celebrate.

  2. I am honored to be the birthday honoree for January 27. Thank you for the warm description of my career. One correction for the record. It is true that when Phyllis Fogelman, my and Jerry’s editor, called me to inquire about my doing the text for John Henry, I did not connect to the idea, but I wanted to talk to Jerry before making a decision. I knew the story well from my days as a folk singer in the ’60s, and I knew the story ends with the death of John Henry. I had to resolve that problem in my mind before I could see my way to writing the text. In talking with Jerry there was something he said – and I don’t recall what it was – that made me think of Martin Luther King, Jr. And from there I recalled hearing a story from Rev. Will Campbell, a legendary Southern baptist, who told me of conducting a funeral and asking the congregation to stand and applaud the life of the deceased. The combination of those two solved the problem of how to handle John Henry’s death, and I told Jerry I would do the text.

    And to Diane Croft: Thank you for your words. They moved me deeply.

  3. Anita says:

    Thank you so much for your comment and clarification. I have always thought your text for John Henry one of the finest picture books ever written. When I adapt the Almanac for a book, I will use your words to explain what you thought about before its creation.

  4. Thank you, Anita! That is high praise, indeed, and especially appreciated because I recall vividly sitting down at the computer, staring at the screen, and wondering what I’d gotten myself into by agreeing to write a text for the John Henry story. But one of the wonderful aspects of collaborating with Jerry was that our mutual respect led us to do even better work than we might have in the past. And I also wanted to create a text that would express Jerry’s regard for John Henry. The other important element in creating the text was the character of the Sun. I enjoyed his presence and role in the story. Finally, I think I enjoyed playing with language more in John Henry and Black Cowboy, Wild Horses than in any other books. I have always found figures of speech very difficult to come up with, and in those two books I seem to have stumbled into a diamond mine of metaphors and similes, and it was great fun!

  5. Mary Milligan says:

    It is now my morning ritual to sip my first cup of coffee and read your Book-A-Day Almanac entry. What a gift! I love each day’s essay and always find something insightful on your calendar. I enjoy the way you add a book recommendation with the day’s events. Thank you.

    For today’s commemoration of the creation of the Indian territory, I would add two books: Crossing Bok Chitto by Tim Tingle and Black Elk’s vision by S.D. Nelson.

  6. Anita says:

    Mary: Thanks for the kind comments — and great recommendations.

  7. Happy, happy birthday greetings to Julius Lester! You are one of my all-time favorite authors. I didn’t know it was your birthday this week, but I’ve been reading SAM AND THE TIGERS all week to the kids who come into the elementary school library where I work. They enjoy listening as much as I enjoy reading this book, as well as your other books. The words you write are so much fun to read aloud. Thank you, sincerely!

  8. G. Perry says:

    Happy birthday Julius! Wonderful work.

  9. First Graders of Browne Academy says:

    Dear Mr. Lester,

    Today in library we read “Sam and the Tigers”. Thank you for writing the book. It was really funny and we loved it. Our favorite part was when the tigers ran around so fast that they turned into butter. We also liked Sam, Sam, and Sam. Happy birthday!

    Love,
    The first graders of Browne Academy
    (Alexandria, VA)

  10. Anita says:

    To the first graders of Browne Academy: Thank you for this post!

  11. Kim says:

    I had the honor of meeting Mr. Lester at the U Mass Children’s Literature conference. Truly a great man!

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