Ellington Was Not a Street

by Ntozake Shange

Other authorsKadir Nelson (Illustrator)
Hardcover, 2004





Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers (2004), Edition: 1, 40 pages


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.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member aconant05
This is a poem about a young African American girl who grew up having visitors that changed society for their race.
LibraryThing member Ed490
Ellington Was Not a Street is Ntozake Shange’s recollection of her childhood. In it, she remembers all of the influential African American men who gathered at her house to meet with her father. Combined with Kadir Nelson’s beautiful paintings, this book is a touching tribute to all who worked to ensure freedom and equality for African Americans. The text is difficult to understand, until one realizes that it is a poem written by Ntozake Shange set to imagery. The sophisticated language and biographical references make it much more appropriate for middle to high school classrooms, but the beautiful paintings add a great touch of realism and humanity to this historical poem.… (more)
LibraryThing member Mluke04
This book is an example of poetry because it uses the poem "Mood Indigo" to tell the story. Each line of the poem has a page and illustration in the book.
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
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LibraryThing member nboria05
Most of this story was told through pictures and was really hard for me to follow. It was written with no punctuation or capitals and was from a very young girl's perspective. This poetry was hard for me even to understand the main point of the story, but the pictures communicated an important message of change for African-American culture. I really enjoyed the illustrations!… (more)
LibraryThing member APoteet
The text is the poem 'Mood Indigo' by Ntozake Shange. The author reminisces about the great men in her community who changed the world of 20th- century America and black culture.
LibraryThing member limeminearia
Ntozake Shange’s poem Mood Indigo, which forms the text of this book, is a remembrance of a childhood surrounded by “men who changed the world.” Friends of her wealthy Saint Louis family included actor Paul Robeson, W.E.B. DuBois, Dizzy Gillespie and Duke Ellington. Shange’s tribute to these men is therefore unusually intimate. She writes: I remember/ I was there/I listened in the company of men/politics as necessary as collards/music even in our dreams. The elegiac tone underscores that she is not merely paying tribute to these men as icons, but writing an ode to black masculinity and agency, and to an era when their dignity transformed our culture. Short biographical notes on each of the men and a page with the full text of the poem conclude the book. Although some reviewers have faulted Shange for not including an author’s note or for focusing exclusively on the men of the era, I would argue that the book stands beautifully as it is.
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.
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LibraryThing member rwheeler08
Genre: Poetry

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…”

Age: Intermediate

Critique of Style: (See star rating above)
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LibraryThing member AndreaGough
- 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.
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LibraryThing member kim.maughan
Children's Literature
- 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.… (more)
LibraryThing member mkschoen
Uses art to illustratean existing poem, and mostly to tell a story/non-fiction (great men of Harlem renaissance/jazz)> Not my thing, but well done (liked the art more than the poem.)
LibraryThing member princessofthesea
Subject Area: Language Arts/Social Studies
Genre: Poetry
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)
Age: Intermediate
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LibraryThing member scadd07
Stars for plot

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.… (more)
LibraryThing member rpultusk
This picture-book-in-verse is a poem ("Mood Indigo") about the important visitors that frequented the speaker's home when she was a young girl. Based on the author's actual experiences, the poem makes reference to a number of historically significant African Americans, from Paul Robeson to Dizzy Gillespie to W.E.B. DuBois. The pictures are pencil and watercolor, adding to the nostalgic tone of the verse. The book also includes brief biographical sketches of the visitors at the end.

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.
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LibraryThing member kaitlinc23
This book is a good example of poetry. Each page has one line from the poem about the influential African American men and how it changed the life and influenced the life of a young girl. At the end of the book there are mini biographies on the men mentioned in the book. This would be a good book to discuss poetry, and the meaning behind each line as well as one to discuss during Black History month in February.

Genre: Poetry
Level: Primary
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LibraryThing member leithe
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.… (more)
LibraryThing member JudesThree

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.
LibraryThing member Sassy_Seshat
A cute illustrated poem that introduced children to African American figures from the 50s and 60s.
LibraryThing member KatherineLo
A little girl grows up in a house that constantly had influential black leaders coming in and out. To her they were ordinary people and later on realized what they were doing, changing the world. Nelson does an impeccable job of showing great detail of the house and the people who were often seen there. Each person is drawn true to themselves. The expression on their faces shows when they were talking business or just having fun letting steam off. The pictures make me feel as if I could be the one sitting in that house as a little child witnessing all that happened
In the classroom: introduction to black history, storytelling, how to tell a story of your life
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LibraryThing member MaryEttaJ
This book was a little confusing. It spoke to me in a different way then others might see it. I felt that the author was saying that Ellington St has changed. It was a street where she grew up around, African American men and women who tried to make a difference in the world. Her father worked with politics. It was always people around her house. I was proud to see so many African Americans together in one house.… (more)
LibraryThing member TBegum1
I really did not understand this book much, but I did think that it had really good illustrations in it. The pictures were very neatly drawn and clear. I think that this book would be too complicated for a younger audience to understand.
LibraryThing member Cheryl_in_CC_NV
Gorgeous. Pull up 'mood indigo' (note the title on the album the girl is holding) and listen before and after reading this. Read about all the 'men who changed the world' that this woman was lucky enough to meet, in the note at the end, after seeing each line of the poem richly illustrated with images of these men. I can't recommend strongly enough that every school library should own a copy of this.… (more)
LibraryThing member ckelly16
I did not like this book for two reason. The first reason I did not like the book was because of its plot. I read the book twice because I was confused and I still did not have a full understanding of it. Ellington Street is the topic of discussion and a little girl tells the story of how it was not always just a street. For younger children the plot would be very confusing, especially because there is no historical background for them to refer to. The second reason I did not like the book was because of the writing. Personally I did not find it very engaging or flowing. The author did not use any punctuation, so the sentences went on forever. Another reason why the writing was not very engaging was because younger children will not know who Ray Barretto or Du Boise were without any explanation. Overall the big idea of the story is that there were many influential African American men who changed history that we should each know about.… (more)
LibraryThing member efakkema09
Summary: The poem Mood Indigo is set into a picture book to tell the story of a little girl whose father entertained and worked with some of the most prominent civil rights activists of the 20th century.

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
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LibraryThing member acahil3
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.
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LibraryThing member JPEmmrich5
The illustrations in this book are beautiful and the story is simply written. It’s written from a little girls perspective watching her father and a group of his friends and the changes being made on ellington street. During a time “when the color of your skin dictated where you could live”.


Original language


Physical description

40 p.; 9 inches




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