In a reflective tribute to the African-American community of old, noted poet Ntozake Shange recalls her childhood home and the close-knit group of innovators that often gathered there. These men of vision, brought to life in the majestic paintings of artist Kadir Nelson, lived at a time when the color of their skin dictated where they could live, what schools they could attend, and even where they could sit on a bus or in a movie theater. Yet in the face of this tremendous adversity, these dedicated souls and others like them not only demonstrated the importance of Black culture in America, but also helped issue in a movement that "changed the world." Their lives and their works inspire us to this day, and serve as a guide to how we approach the challenges of tomorrow.
The illustrations are very well done. Each one provides a visual for a small part of the poem. There is a page in the back of the book that describes each of the men that the poem refers to. Each biography has the illustrated picture of the man.
Media: Oil paint
Ellington Was Not a Street won the 2005 Coretta Scott King Award for illustration. Two other Kadir Nelson books have won the award since, and it’s easy to see why. His oil paintings are elegantly composed, gorgeously controlled in their use of color and specific in the details of their portraiture. Yet his art is also enormously appealing to children, possibly because it is subtly informed by comics and imbued with a gentle but pervasive humor. The cute little girl and her brother provide a visual anchor within each two-page spread. When Shange writes “Our house was filled with all kinda folks/our windows were not cement or steel/our doors opened like daddy’s arms/held us safe and loved” Nelson does everything right to illustrate her words. The house, with its beautifully patterned furnishings, becomes more than a setting, but a character, imbued with grace and warmth. Over his career Nelson has used his talents to capture the power of Black heroes and the warmth of loving Black families. He has said “My focus is to create images of people who demonstrate a sense of hope and nobility. I want to show the strength and integrity of the human being and the human spirit.” His art provides a needed entry point for young readers to insert themselves into Shange’s powerful words.
Why should librarians know this book? In addition to being lovely, it’s also useful for assignments and a natural recommendation to give teachers. Although it is in picture book format it could easily be used in high school or even college classes. For librarians not familiar with all of the figures referenced here it provides a brief introduction to them. The biographical details in the back could even help with collection development, serving as a reminder to check our collections to make sure we have adequate information on these great men, as well as good representations of Shange and Nelson’s work in our libraries. You may note that although this is Black History Month that is not the first use of this book that comes to mind. I think that the book itself may be partly behind my questioning of that impulse. Shange’s recollection of a time before Ellington was a street (or there was a Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard running through every ghetto) seems to me to be a subtle criticism of how America handles the stories and names of Black leaders. Black History Month can be seen as a sort of ghetto itself, an admission that we are not learning or teaching Black History year round. In one short poem she puts forward a powerful and complex idea that I think educators and librarians need to consider: that we need to know more about these men and the ideas and conversations they cared about if we are to present a meaningful narrative of U.S. history and the place of social movements within it. Otherwise we are complicit in collecting names and places like emblems while congratulating ourselves on how far we’ve come. As Raina Kelley wrote in a recent op-ed for Newsweek, “The End of Black History Month? Why I’m Not Ready to Ditch it – Yet? “Black History Month is a measure of how fully or accurately our story is being told and a reminder of the work yet to be done.” Both in terms of the world of publishing and the composition of library collections, I would argue that until we have a lot more books like Ellington Was Not a Street getting written and widely read, we haven’t yet come far enough. Championing books like this through reader’s advisory, book lists, reviews and awards committees are ways that we can help such works find the largest possible audience.
Nelson, Kadir. "About the Artist." The Art of Kadir Nelson. Feb 2010. Web. 15 Feb 2010.
Kelley, Raina.“The End of Black History Month? Why I’m Not Ready to Ditch it – Yet?” Newsweek 29 January Year 2010. Web. 15 February 2010
Shange, Ntozake. Ellington Was Not a Street. Ill. Kadir Nelson. New York: Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing, 2004.
Critique of Genre: This is an excellent example of poetry because it incorporates rhythm with imagery. It is a lyrical poem, meaning that the poet provides his personal expression in response to something (i.e., Ellington Street). He says, “it hasnt always been this way / ellington was not a street…”
Critique of Style: (See star rating above)
- Illustration of a poem by Ntozake Shange, about the African-American luminaries that gathered at her home when she was a child. Roughly one line per two page spread. Brief biographies of the men mentioned (Paul Robeson, Duke Ellington, Kwame Nkrumah) are included at the end, as is the text of the poem. The real highlight here are the illustrations by Kadir Nelson, which make the words live.
- Recommended for ages 4-10, and up.
- Not explained by radical change.
- Ken Marantz and Sylvia Marantz
The text of Shange's emotion-packed free verse is spread, a line or two, across the tall double pages. It is rich with the memories of a Harlem childhood, warm with family love, and filled with encounters with men of vision "who changed the world," such as Paul Robeson, W.E.B.Dubois, "Dizzy" Gillespie, and Duke Ellington. All those mentioned appear at the end with small portraits and descriptions of who they were. Naturalistic oil paintings, almost like a family album of color photographs, record the details of rooms and the people in them; a posed group shot of 30 friendly people adds specific vitality to the text's more general memories. The final full-length portrait of Ellington is stunning in its elegant directness, illuminating the man's gentle spirituality. 2004 (orig. 1983), Simon & Schuister Books for Young Readers, Ages 8 up.
This is an example of poetry because the author's words are arranged in a beautiful manner. Each word has a place in the overall text. The author's words tell as story (narrative poetry) that invoke feelings and emotions in the reader. Because of these criteria, this book is a good example of poetry.
(Stars for style)
I did not really understand this book at all until I read the part after the story was finished.
In the end the story was lined up like a poem, and it made me think that it could be a poem, although it seemed like realistic fiction, up until that point. I'm not sure where this book falls to be honest.
The setting is the home of the young girl, the speaker in the poems, circa 1960-1970. Cultural markers include references to prominent African American leaders and their work. The sparse verse allows the illustrations to dominate the page, but the poignancy of the language allows the reader to enter into the home and mind of the young girl as she attempts to make sense of these important visitors.
Highly recommended for elementary, middle, and high school libraries.
The paintings are beautiful, the text is short enough that it flows between the pages which make it easy and enjoyable to read for kids. The author for the most part only uses the first of last name when mentioning the important African American men that came into her life. I did not know a few of them so I appriciated the short bios at the end of the book. I also really liked that on the very last page the text that appears on each page throughout the book is in one place and in the form of a poem.
Beautiful illustrations combine with a poem to show major figures in the early civil rights movement and major players in black music through the eyes of a child.
In the classroom: introduction to black history, storytelling, how to tell a story of your life
Critique: This is a great example of a picture book of poetry because the text is strictly poetry (an entire poem pieced up so that phrases fit together on a page) but where the pictures tell as much about the story as the words of the poem do. Style: One thing that is unique about this style of writing is that the author does not use any punctuation. The result is that the text comes across as one long, continuous, flowing thought rather than a series of small thoughts (as sentences usually do).
Media: oil paint
This book is a tribute to an African American community and the characteristics that come along with being a part of this scenario. Stories reflect the family-like relationship that is established in these communities. Shange sends an overall message of the importance of Black culture in both American and as "a movement that changed the world."
Though this story manly portrays the characteristics of Historical fiction, the presence of poetry is also apparent. Young readers will find interest in the intricate stories of the family basis in these African American communities. The book could be a useful tool in establishing this same sense of community in a classroom, club or even at home.