Back in print after decades, Baldwin’s warmly vernacular tale celebrates and explores the challenges and joys of childhood on a 1970s-era Harlem block rippling with black life.
French artist Cazac’s original vibrant watercolor illustrations are fully restored in this new edition. In a new foreword, Baldwin’s nephew Tejan Karefa-Smart, affectionately known as TJ, informs readers that “Uncle Jimmy” wrote this book to answer his youthful request: “When you gonna write a book about MeeeeEEE?” Thus 4-year-old TJ stands at the center of the story, with 7-year-old WT and 8-year-old Blinky joining him in an eventful day full of music bumping from Mr Man’s basement apartment, playful fits of African strut-dancing, and the occasional neighborly favor. Baldwin adopts an experimental structure, interrupting the present-day account with background scenes of beauty and tragedy, including a cinematic montage that introduces this familial, close-knit Harlem block through the choreography of a fatal police chase. This is offset by joyous moments, such as TJ’s flashback to family breakfasts on Sunday mornings when the little boy feels Mama’s love and hears Daddy’s lessons: “I want you to be proud of your people.” The people, places, and circumstances that TJ and readers encounter are emblematic of many issues children’s literature still struggles to represent today: Alcoholism, drug addiction, economic disparity, street violence, and racism all make appearances in critical yet loving ways. The editors’ introduction and an afterword by Baldwin’s niece Aisha Karefa-Smart further contextualize this new edition.
Pulled from the past, this is a brilliant exploration of black childhood with profound emotional depth, drawn from the grace and struggles of community and reinforcing the truth that no one knows Harlem like Baldwin. (Fiction. 8-adult)