MAY 19:

  • Happy birthday Pauline Clarke (Return of the Twelves), Peter J. Lippman (Archibald: Or, I was Very Shy), Judith Hendershot (In Coal Country), Arthur Dorros (Abuela), Sarah Ellis (Odd Man Out), Elise Primavera (Auntie Claus), Kimberly Bulcken Root (Birdie’s Lighthouse).
  • It’s the birth date of Mary V. Carey (1925-1994), The Three Investigators series, and Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965), A Raisin in the Sun.
  • Malcolm X (1925-1965) was also born on this day. Read Malcolm X: By Any Means Necessary by Walter Dean Myers and Malcolm X by Arnold Adoff, illustrated by Rudy Gutierrez.
  • It’s May Ray Day. Read The Day Ray Got Away by Angela Johnson, illustrated by Luke LaMarca.

On May 19, 1933, Tom Feelings was born in Brooklyn, New York. An African-American, he chose to spend many years of his adult life in Africa, seeking to understand his heritage. As an artist and picture book illustrator, he presented what he discovered about African culture and history.

While in Africa in the 1960s, Feelings found himself stunned by the physical beauty of the people and the landscape. During this period he created books for the government of Ghana. Even in his early work, Feelings excelled in portraits and faces; the human spirit can be seen in so many of his drawings. He tried to show what he saw in people. As he wrote about his subjects, “[I saw] a glow that came from within, from a knowledge of self, a trust in life, or maybe from a feeling of being part of a majority in your own world. I had seen the same glow in the faces of very young black children in America, the ones who hadn’t yet found out that they were considered ‘ugly.’”

When he returned to the United States, he sought to illustrate the works of black writers. He added his luminous artwork to Julius Lester’s To Be a Slave (1968), Eloise Greenfeld’s Daydreamers (1981), Nikki Grimes’s Something on My Mind (1978), and Maya Angelou’s Soul Looks Back in Wonder (1994). Then from 1970–1974 he worked with his wife, Muriel, to create picture books about their experience in Africa.

Two of their books, Jambo Means Hello: Swahili Alphabet Book and Moja Means One: Swahili Counting Book, won Caldecott Honors, although Feelings, like so many extraordinary black artists, never won the medal itself. I still get a chill when I think of the first time I saw Jambo Means Hello, as a young assistant editor at the Horn Book. Because my boss, Editor Paul Heins, was a kind and generous man, he allowed me to attempt a review of this masterful work.

What these books do so brilliantly is to focus on all the things that Feelings loved about Africa—the beauty of the people, the verdant land, food, animals, and customs. Rarely have those from another country been treated with such respect in a book for American children. While harsh rhetoric and riots engulfed American cities over Civil Rights, Moja Means One and Jambo Means Hello demonstrated peace, love, and the integrity of a culture.

Feelings spent over two decades working on his most powerful book, The Middle Passage (1995). Just as his two previous picture books remain some of the sunniest offerings of the 1970s, The Middle Passage and its depiction of the slave trade stands as one of the darkest books of the twentieth century, both in tone and content. Much longer than Feelings’s picture books, The Middle Passage has been used in middle and high school but requires a mature reader and is often most appreciated by adults.

Tom Feelings died in 2003 at seventy years old, much too young. He left a small body of books—unique, authentic, intense, and transcendent—that still stand as some of the great works of their time.

Here’s a page from Jambo Means Hello:


Originally posted May 19, 2011. Updated for .

Tags: African American, Award Winning, Caldecott, History, Multicultural, Slavery
Instructional materials from TeachingBooks.net for


  1. Sarah says:

    Thank you for introducing this book to me. I will certainly buy it for our collection since alphabet books and books about world cultures are popular here.

  2. Kristi Hazelrigg says:

    I discoverd this book when I became a school librarian. Although children do not often check it out (a shame), I could never bring myself to weed it because I think it’s beautiful. I also love Feelings’ work in I Saw Your Face. Just beautiful.

  3. Maria Simon says:

    Wonderful – thanks! During the summer reading program, “One World, Many Stories!” we are featuring community members reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar in over 15 languages. A new firiend, Oluwadamilare, will be reading it in Swahili – so this will be a perfect companion. I am requesting a copy and ordering it now!

  4. This is beautifully done tribute to Tom Feelings. I remember weeping the first time I saw The Middle Passage.

Leave a Comment

Daily children’s book recommendations and events from Anita Silvey.

Discover the stories behind the children’s book classics . . .

The new books on their way to becoming classics . . .

And events from the world of children’s books—and the world at large.