A patchwork of African-American pride


Faith Ringgold invented an art form in 1983, piecing African-American traditions together to create painted story quilts.

Two years ago, she won the Coretta Scott King Award for illustration for "Tar Beach," a Caldecott Honor Book based on her story quilt of the same name. Her flat, folk-art style of painting transferred beautifully to the picture book.

Now she has written and illustrated "Dinner at Aunt Connie's House" (Hyperion, $14.95, 32 pages, ages 5-9), which was inspired by her 1986 story quilt, "The Dinner Quilt."

She has turned the quilt into a history lesson, celebrating the accomplishments of 12 African-American women: Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer, Mary McCleod Bethune, Augusta Savage, Dorothy Dandridge, Zora Neale Hurston, Maria W. Stewart, Bessie Smith, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Marian Anderson and Madame C. J. Walker.

In the quilt, the women appeared only as names stitched on a dozen different place mats. In the book, they come to life as portraits that magically speak to the two children shown in the quilt, Melody and her cousin Lonnie.

Readers find out that Melody loves to visit her Aunt Connie, an artist who lives in Sag Harbor on Long Island with her husband and their newly adopted son, Lonnie. While the grown-ups relax on the beach before dinner, Melody and Lonnie play hide-and-seek in the house. That's when they hear voices coming from the attic.

The voices beckon Melody and Lonnie, who are frightened at first, then skeptical, and finally entranced.

One painting says: "I am Zora Neale Hurston, born in 1901 in Florida."

"I know who you are. You're a famous writer."

"Yes, Melody. In the 1930s I was the most prolific African-American writer. My books -- 'Their Eyes Were Watching God,' 'Moses,' 'Man of the Mountain' and 'Mules and Men' -- are considered among the best examples of American writing."

The others' speeches are just as short and to the point. It's as if the women are standing up, one by one, introducing themselves at the dinner table. These quick glimpses whet the reader's appetite for more information, and it's a shame a short bibliography isn't included.

But then, this book is about inspiration, not education. At the end, Lonnie says he wants to become an opera singer, like Marian Anderson. Melody wants to be president of the United States, "so I can change some of the things that make people's lives so sad. I know I can do it because of these women."

* Another picture book that introduces African-American history is "Our People," by Angela Shelf Medearis, illustrated by Michael Bryant (Atheneum, $14.95, 32 pages, ages 4-8), to be published in March.

It stars a girl of about 5 and her father. After he tells her about an aspect of their heritage, she imagines herself taking part that period of history:

Daddy says our people suffered under slavery, but men and women like Frederick Douglass, William Still, Harriet Tubman, and Sojourner Truth led our people to freedom.

After a double-page spread that shows slaves escaping through the woods, the next page shows the narrator dressed like Harriet Tubman, pretending she is leading her dolls to freedom.

The pretending will appeal to 4- and 5-year-olds, whose imagination will get a boost from Mr. Bryant's fine illustrations. Sharing this book with children just might inspire parents to add their own history lessons, giving kids even more opportunities to play dress-up and pretend.

RTC * An African proverb, "It takes a village to raise a child," inspired "It Takes a Village," written and illustrated by Jane Cowen-Fletcher (Scholastic, $14.95, 32 pages, ages 4-8).

The author served in the Peace Corps in Benin, West Africa, from 1981 to 1983. She takes readers to a typical market day in a modern-day village. Yemi, a young girl, is finally old enough to watch her toddler brother, Kokou, while their mother sells mangoes.

Yemi feels very grown-up when she tells the other fruit vendors that she is watching Kokou "all by myself." They nod, but they know better.

Sure enough, Kokou wanders off. As Yemi frantically searches for him, readers see the adults of the village taking turns feeding, comforting and playing with Kokou. Yemi finally finds her little brother, napping safely on one of the mat vendor's mats.

Ms. Cowen-Fletcher paces the story well, and her colored-pencil illustrations are simple and engaging. This book invites adults to talk to their kids about the importance of community, to talk about it before the ties that survived slavery, segregation and every other kind of suppression have unraveled forever.

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