Monday, February 18, 2008

Finding a Voice: A Song for Harlem by Patricia McKissack

Noted Tennessee author Patricia McKissack takes on the task of making the concept of the Harlem Renaissance come alive for beginning chapter readers in her latest in the Scraps of Time series, A Song for Harlem: Scraps of Time 3 (Scraps of Time).

McKissack uses the device of a frame story in which the three Webster children, digging up mementos in their Grandmother Gee's attic, uncover a journal kept by their great-great-aunt of a summer spent in Harlem in 1928. An aspiring young poet selected for The Harlem Young Writer's Workshop, Lilly Belle makes the trip from Smyrna, Tennessee to stay with her glamorous Aunt Odessa. Twelve-year-old Lilly is wide-eyed at the day and night bustle and energy of Harlem. Her classes, conducted by famous writer Zora Neale Hurston, meet in the mansion of A'Lelia Walker, daughter of famed black entrepreneur Madame C. J. Walker, and her summer experiences bring her into contact with Countee Cullen, James Weldon Johnson, Bojangles Robinson, and W. E. B. Du Bois, who publishes her group's work in his legendary Crisis magazine.

Lilly Belle Turner encounters her first posh bathroom and has her first long-distance telephone conversation, sees her first movie, wears stylish dresses from her aunt's upscale shop, and with a full makeover in Madame Walker's hair salon, appears in print advertisements for her products. Lilly also encounters her first experience with intraracial prejudice in Alice Gaylord, a rich student who condescendingly calls the small-town summer students "country mice" and "Russians," the term for poor blacks who "rush-in" to imitate the Harlem upper class. Although challenged by a bit of culture shock and Zora Hurston's high standards for their writing, Lilly's strong family grounding and hard work enable her to find her own voice through this life-changing experience, and as we learn from Grandmother Gee at the book's end, as an adult she becomes a reporter for the Pittsburgh Courier.

McKissack slyly tucks in a preview plug for her next book in this series, The Homerun King (Scraps of Time), forthcoming in December, when the Webster kids find among Lilly's treasures an old baseball autographed by Josh Gibson, Satchell Paige, and other Negro Baseball League greats. Previous books in the Scraps of Time series include Abby Takes a Stand (Scraps of Time), in which Grandmother Gee tells how as the ten-year-old Abby she was turned away from a department store circus-themed restaurant and joined the 1960 Nashville sit-ins, and Away West (Scraps of Time), in which a Civil War medal found in the attic gives Grandmother a chance to describe their ancestor's service in the Union Army and his son's trek with a wagon train to the freed slave settlement of Nicodemas, Kansas.

For Black History Month activities, McKissack's substantial but simple chapter novels involve modern readers in American history through the eyes of children who lived during these significant eras. Patricia McKissack is also the author of the Caldecott Honor Book Mirandy and Brother Wind (Dragonfly Books), Color Me Dark, the Diary of Nellie Lee Love, the Great Migration North, Chicago, Illinois 1919 (Dear America, Early 20th Century 1900's - 1930's Book 3), the award-winning The Dark-Thirty: Southern Tales of the Supernatural: (Newbery Honor Book, Coretta Scott King Author Award, ALA Notable Children's Book) (Coretta Scott King Author Award Winner), and has a string of biographies of significant African Americans to her credit.

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  • Hi, I have a friend who works as a teacher in school and she tells me kids love this book. Now I kind of corroborated it. Thank you. Great post.

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