Books by William Miller

JOE LOUIS, MY CHAMPION by William Miller
Released: May 1, 2004

One of the watershed moments in African-American history—the defeat of James Braddock at the hands of Joe Louis—is here given an earnest picture-book treatment. Despite his lack of athletic ability, Sammy wants desperately to be a great boxer, like his hero, getting boxing lessons from his friend Ernie in exchange for help with schoolwork. However hard he tries, though, Sammy just can't box, and his father comforts him, reminding him that he doesn't need to box: Joe Louis has shown him that he "can be the champion at anything [he] want[s]." The high point of this offering is the big fight itself, everyone crowded around the radio in Mister Jake's general store, the imagined fight scenes played out in soft-edged sepia frames. The main story, however, is so bent on providing Sammy and the reader with object lessons that all subtlety is lost, as Mister Jake, Sammy's father, and even Ernie hammer home the message. Both text and oil-on-canvas-paper illustrations go for the obvious angle, making the effort as a whole worthy, but just a little too heavy-handed. (Picture book. 5-8)Read full book review >
RENT PARTY JAZZ by William Miller
Released: Oct. 15, 2001

Dignified and joyful illustrations underscore a story of a group of people who find themselves in dire economic straits yet rise above these limitations through their collective creative efforts. In New Orleans of the 1930s, young Sonny Comeaux works for the coal man each morning before school. His work brings him by Jackson Square, where jazz musicians congregate and play for change, sometimes buckets full. When Sonny's mother loses her job, she insists he not quit school even though they may not be able to pay the rent. Worried, Sonny gravitates to Jackson Square every day after school, especially to Smilin' Jack, the trumpet player who has played across the country and whose talent is impossible to ignore. On the third day he stays after the crowd has gone and Jack, picking up on Sonny's blues, asks his name. Sonny reveals his troubles and in quick order Jack tells Sonny to organize a rent party, recalling the tradition from his days in Mississippi. The party is a success in ways beyond the money raised. Sonny feels transported by the music and Jack is humbled and invigorated by the good will displayed by the partygoers. Sonny realizes if he had quit school he likely would never have met Smilin' Jack nor found his new ambition: to play trumpet. In her debut, Riley-Webb captures the strength and energy of New Orleans in thick, bold swirls of acrylic paint that practically burst from the pages. In an afterword, the author provides a useful explanation of the rent party phenomenon in African-American neighborhoods in the first part of the 20th century. Simply terrific. (Picture book. 6-9)Read full book review >
TITUBA by William Miller
Released: Oct. 1, 2000

The intriguingly complicated story of Tituba and the Salem witch trials is presented for a young audience with some liberties taken with the facts that are actually known about her. Miller's history as a poet comes through in his telling, especially during Tituba's description of her homeland to the two girls in her care. She fondly recalls the beautiful birds that would greet her each morning on the way to the river, her gratitude to the water spirits when filling her jar and her ability to tell fortunes by tossing shells. After these revelations the girls have strange dreams and Tituba is accused of being a witch. Brought before a judge and persecuted because she is different, Tituba is told to "confess or die." To avoid execution and to save herself, she tells the court what they want to hear. Sitting alone in jail, when all others have been sent home, she is distraught to the point of wanting to end it all. But her spirit is uplifted when moonlight washes over her, for she realizes that the moon shines on everyone equally. She's released and sold to another family far away. When young slaves from her native island arrive, Tituba becomes their mentor, advising that "a master might own your body, but he can never own your spirit." Unfortunately, most of this story is imagined. Very little is known about what happened to Tituba, as the author himself points out. And it is uncertain whether he even knows what she could have been thinking. While the intent is certainly a noble one, readers deserve to know when a story is fiction and when it is not. Jenkins's art is interesting and often very powerful, although Tituba sometimes seems to be placed on top of the scene. It is unfortunate that it accompanies a flawed text. (Picture book. 6-9)Read full book review >
THE PIANO by William Miller
Released: June 1, 2000

In this gentle story set in the early 1900s, music brings a young African-American girl and an elderly white woman together. Tia searches for the sounds of music as she wanders the streets of her southern town during the summer while her parents work. One day, in the white section of town she hears a recording that transports her to a place of castles and snow. She meets Johnny, who mistakenly thinks she has come about a maid's job. Tia agrees to meet the woman of the house, who is willing to hire the young girl. Tia works hard and shows interest in learning to play the piano. Miss Hartwell, despite her stiff hands, begins to teach her. Miller (Night Golf, 1999, etc.) lightly touches on segregation and contrasts Tia's caring attitude toward Miss Hartwell to Johnny's—"All white people's money is the same. I don't care which I get it from"—but the story emphasizes a relationship that transcends age and class. Keeter's oil paintings enhance the gentle mood. Two-page spreads make space for the pictures to illustrate the text and expand the setting. A scene showing Tia dancing to the music of a blues guitar in front of a general store also gives a picture of the poor part of town. Interior scenes of Miss Hartwell's house give a sense of a well-to-do residence, while close ups of Tia and Miss Hartwell show the growing love between the two. A lovely book with an understated message. (Picture book. 4-8)Read full book review >
THE BUS RIDE by William Miller
Released: July 15, 1998

Miller (Richard Wright and the Library Card, 1997, etc.) reimagines the story of Rosa Parks's historic refusal to give up her bus seat as it might have happened to Sara, a young girl with an intuitive grasp of right and wrong. Parks has written the introduction to this story of Sara and her mother, who ride the bus every morning: Sara to school and her mother, whose stop is before Sara's, to her job cleaning homes. One morning, after her mother had left, Sara becomes curious about what is in the front of the bus, so she wanders forward and sits opposite the driver. He tells her to move back where she belongs. Sara demurs; her new seat will do. The driver slams on the breaks, opens the doors, and orders her off. Sara sits tight, only aware that there is a basic unfairness at work; it's her ingenuous way of making a stand. She is carried off the bus by the police and as she is being booked, the media gets in on the event. Next day, Sara's noble act is splashed across the headlines, which prompts a rider boycott and an overturning of the law. What makes this book so effective are two things: First, Miller keeps the story intimate, without portentous forebodings of history in the making; second, Ward's terrific realistic illustrations make the story utterly accessible. The approach is low-key, but readers will feel the winds of history rustle in these pages. (Picture book. 5-10) Read full book review >
Released: Nov. 1, 1997

An episode from the autobiography of Richard Wright is skillfully fictionalized, resulting in a suspenseful and gratifying story about the power of reading. Growing up in the South in the 1920s, Wright was eager to learn to read, but barred from using libraries because of his race. When he was 17, he went alone to Memphis, where he convinced a white man, Jim Falk, to lend him his library card (so that he could check out books by pretending to get them for Falk). There is a perceptible sense of danger as the librarian (a caricature) quizzes him, and triumph when a whole new world is opened to Wright, who is shown reading all night. While background details are softened and ``colored boy'' is the worst epithet in the book, the book is true to the essence of the events described. Christie's illustrations complement the text; he concentrates on the characters' faces and allows other details to remain less distinct. Readers see Wright's expression change, from when he is alone and most himself, to when he must put on a mask to be safe, to avoid confronting white people. A challenging endeavor, and an accomplished one. (Picture book. 5-9) Read full book review >
A HOUSE BY THE RIVER by William Miller
Released: May 1, 1997

Miller (The Knee-High Man, 1996) finds metaphors in the smooth shell of an egg, in a storm, and in the family bonds with those who have passed away to tell the story of the house that shelters Belinda and her mother from the forces outside their door. The river is rising and Belinda finds herself wishing, once again, for a clean, dry house like the homes of her classmates, closer to school, away from the elements. As the weather worsens, she greets her mother, who reassures her that the house will see them through the storm. As they watch and wait, Belinda's mother tells her about her father, and the dismal state of the house when they first moved in. The storm does pass, and Belinda is grateful for her home—and that's all. The narrative is made of reminiscences and descriptions of the storm's phases; Belinda and her mother happen to be African-Americans, but race is never a factor in the story. Luminous illustrations track the storm's progress and make Belinda's snug surroundings—leaky roof and all—glow. A quiet book—though not one to hand to children in the flood-wracked Midwest—with an unassuming, but sturdy, message. (Picture book. 6-9) Read full book review >
THE KNEE-HIGH MAN by William Miller
Released: Feb. 1, 1996

A traditional African-American folktale retold by the author of Zora Hurston and the Chinaberry Tree (1994, not reviewed), about a little man who wants to become bigger, louder, and meaner than he is. The horse and the bull give him wrong-headed advice; he nearly abandons all hope before an owl shows him that everyone looks knee-high from the top of a tree. The moral is old, but its formulation here is unusually well-told, embellished with selected colloquialisms. The illustrations have a mysterious glassy glow; the knee-high man, however, doesn't really come across as knee-high. (Picture book. 5-9) Read full book review >