Works to share in spirit of Kwanzaa


Kwanzaa, which will begin Sunday, is not a holiday that sends shoppers out in a gift-buying frenzy. The only presents exchanged during the seven-day, African-inspired celebration are usually made by hand.

It is a time for the gathering together of family and friends, for the sharing of dreams and stories and histories that illuminate Kwanzaa's seven principles -- unity, self-determination, work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith.

If your family happens to be short on storytellers, sharing books can be the next best thing.

Consider them a celebration of kuumba -- creativity.

* An ideal introduction to the holiday is "Seven Candles for Kwanzaa" by Andrea Davis Pinkney, pictures by Brian Pinkney (Dial Books for Young Readers, $14.99, 32 pages, ages 5 and up).

This wife-and-husband collaboration explains Kwanzaa's origin -- it was created 27 years ago by Maulana Karenga, chair of black studies at the California State University at Long Beach -- and details each of the seven principles.

Mr. Pinkney's handsome scratchboard paintings depict a mother, father, daughter and son celebrating each day of the holiday. The middle-class, domestic scenes are framed by borders inspired by African textiles. Mr. Pinkney has won awards for illustrating books that include "Sukey and the Mermaid" and "The Dark-Thirty." Ms. Pinkney is a senior editor at Essence magazine.

* The Pinkneys also have teamed up on a biography of a man who celebrated his African ancestry through creative expression: Alvin Ailey" (Hyperion Books for Children, $13.95, 32 pages, ages 5-9).

This year marks the 35th anniversary of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and this book is an energetic portrayal of the man whose impact on modern dance will be felt for years to come.

It is a fast-paced, well-written first biography that will whet readers' appetite for more. Unfortunately, the Pinkneys do not include a bibliography.

But they do give us a glimpse into the soul of Ailey's art. Mr. Pinkney's lines swirl and swoop to an imagined beat, and Ms. Pinkney's words paint their own pictures:

He flung his arms and shim-shammed his middle to express jubilation. His dips and slides could even show anger and pain. Modern dance let Alvin's imagination whirl.

* Tom Feelings, the first African-American to win a Caldecott Honor (for "Moja Means One" in 1971), has just illustrated his first full-color book: "Soul Looks Back in Wonder" (Dial, $15.99, 34 pages, all ages).

This is a powerful, inspirational book that pulsates with poems by Maya Angelou, Walter Dean Myers, Maryland author Lucille Clifton, Hari R. Madhubuti, Margaret Walker and Langston Hughes, among others.

Their words share the purpose Mr. Feelings presents in his introduction: "Today -- the present -- is a dangerous place for children of African descent. . . . They are removed from the benefits of ancient initiation rites -- rites of passage designed to ease young people into manhood and womanhood, into the responsibilities and protection of full communal life.

"The artists who came together to create 'Soul Looks Back in Wonder' understand that one way to project our positive hopes for the future is for young people to see their own beauty reflected in our eyes, through our work."

The pages shimmer with that beauty.

* A message of courage and self-reliance courses through "Life Doesn't Frighten Me at All," a poem by Maya Angelou that is illustrated by Jean-Michel Basquiat (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $14.95, 32 pages, ages 5 and up).

The poem was written in 1978 by Ms. Angelou. The paintings by Basquiat, who died in 1988 at the age of 27, were compiled by editor Sara Jane Boyers. The welding of words and paintings is masterful, introducing a new audience to the passion and aggression of Basquiat's so-called "street art."

The editors have included two-page biographies of Ms. Angelou and Basquiat at the back of the book. The story of Basquiat's brief life doesn't gloss over the fact that he abused drugs and died of an accidental drug overdose.

* Walter Dean Myers is best known for his young adult fiction, including "Scorpions," a NewberyHonor Book. His latest book, "Brown Angels: An Album of Pictures and Verse," is a labor of unabashed love.

Mr. Myers has been haunting antique stores and flea markets for several years, hunting turn-of-the-century photographs of black children to add to his collection. Many of the sepia-toned portraits were posed in studios, showing solemn-faced boys and girls in their Sunday best. Others are snapshots taken on front stoops.

Mr. Myers has composed poems that offer his guesses about these strangers' lives, and some are so intimate, it's as if he's writing about relatives. Others are simply silly:

Jolly, Jolly, sweet and brown

Jolly, Jolly, gee

Jolly is the lucky child

Who looks like me!

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