Book Review: Stories of Fantasy, Freedom and Racial Understanding

How many ways can we teach children about tolerance? One new noble attempt is a book by Julius Lester, author of an assortment of fascinating books. He tackles this hot-potato subject head-on with his title: Let’s Talk About Race (HarperCollins, $15.90, ages 6 to 10). With a keen sense of his young audience, Lester boils this topic down to one thing: a story. Each one of us has a story, and race is just a part: “I am so, so, so many things besides my race.” He goes on from there, never mincing words, in much more of a thought-provoking poem than a lecture. We get to know him a little: he’s black, Jewish, asthmatic, a loud laugher, and quite clearly a complicated person. We want to listen to him talk about race, and kids will want to join in. The invitation becomes all the more appealing as it unfolds, thanks to Karen Barbour’s bold, Picasso-style images that pull our eyes into every painting.

More food for thought during Black History Month is a lustrous new edition of Virginia Hamilton’s The People Could Fly. An important part of black folklore, this story is a fantasy about American slaves who possess the magic words from Africa that enable them to literally fly away to freedom. It garnered awards when it was published in a folktale collection with the same name in 1985, and now, in a new edition, The People Could Fly: The Picture Book (Knopf, $16.95, ages 9 to 12), Leo and Diane Dillon have re-illustrated it in glorious color. Their images haunt this gripping story, lovingly retold by Hamilton (herself the granddaughter of a slave), who soars in a farewell appearance on the final page.

Kathleen Krull