Celebrating Spoken Soul in Picture Books

James Baldwin, legendary author of The Fire Next Time, described Black English as “this passion, this skill. . .this incredible music.”  “Spoken Soul” was the name another famed African-American author, Claude Brown, coined for black talk. Most African-Americans, including the millions  who like James Baldwin and Claude Brown  are fluent speakers of Standard English, still use Spoken Soul  as an expressive, poetic, and vibrant  language.

We are fortunate that it is not just adult authors who celebrate spoken soul in their writing, but also many picture book authors who draw on this rich linguistic and literary tradition.  Below are several  inviting picture books which use authentic Black English; they are wonderful books to share across cultures  for the high quality of the language, stories, and artwork.

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Hip Hop Speaks to Children:  A Celebration of Poetry with a Beat edited by Nikki Giovanni

Nikki Giovanni creates a wild and wonderful collection here, with her own signature sense of style and passion for language.  “Poetry with a beat. That’s hip-hop in a flash, ” she tells readers.  The poetry celebrations range from those by classic author Langston Hughes to contemporary artists like Queen Latifah.  Giovanni  draws from jazz and blues as well as current hip-hop music, including many of the pieces on an accompanying CD, which allows readers to hear the selections spoken or performed, often by the original artist.  A group of five different visual artists combine to create the book’s vibrant, colorful. and engaging illustrations.  It’s one of those books that can be enjoyed by the whole family, from the youngest toddlers to grandparents.  Treat yourself to hearing Nikki Giovanni introduce the book on YouTube:  Nikki Giovanni on Hip-Hop Speaks to Children.

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Flossie and the Fox by Patricia McKissack, pictures by Rachel Isadora

Author McKissack uses her home language to recount this story, told to her by her grandfather. The main character, Flossie, lives with her grandmother, Big Mama,  in the  rural South.  Big Mama warns her to be careful of the fox when she sends her to deliver eggs to Miz Viola.  Now, Flossie has never seen a fox, and asks, “How do a fox look?”  Her grandmother replies, “A fox be just a fox.”   When Flossie does meet the fox, he tries to frighten her, but she scoffs at him, cleverly  telling him she doesn’t believe he is a fox.   His insistence on proving he is a fox proves his undoing.  This humorous and engaging tale is enhances by Rachel Isadora’s  delicious paintings.

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January’s Sparrow by Patricia Polacco

In the 1860’s, the Crosswhite family fled from slavery in Kentucky to a town in Michigan on their way to freedom in Canada.  Patricia Polacco’s picture book is based on the historical facts of the Crosswhite family’s journey and experiences, with the addition of fictional details that bring the story to life.  The riveting tale is told from the point of view of Sadie, and is told in lyrical language of “spoken soul.”  Children are offered hope against social injustice by the example of a town coming together to protect a family.  Polacco’s illustrations draw the reader in; at times they are unsettling, capturing Sadie’s experiences and reinforcing the tension in the book.

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The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales by Virginia Hamilton, illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon
The People Could Fly is the winner  of  many awards, including the Coretta Scott King Award (1986). Hamilton retells 24  African-American American folk-tales of animals, fantasy, the supernatural, and the desire for freedom.  The tales were “born of the sorrow of the slaves, but passed on in hope.” They are  especially effective because of the use of  the vernacular dialect, which enriches the humorous, clever–and sometimes mysterious–tales in the collection. The Dillons are in top form with their powerful images tailored to meet the mood of each story.  Recommended for all ages.

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Spin a Soft Black Song:  Poems for Children by Nikki Giovanni, illustrated by  George Martins

Not just  an anthologist, Nikki Giovanni is a talented poet in her own right.  This collection is a wonderful introduction to her work–and an invitation to children to the delights of poetry.  George Martin’s simple black and white illustrations are the perfect complement for these poems that tell of the everyday experiences of childhood.  The important role of mommies and daddies, the scary night-time adventures–including monsters!–and the joys of being a child are all captured.

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