Have you ever wondered who wrote “Amazing Grace” or thought about the haunting story behind the hymn “I’ll Fly Away”? Ever skipped rope to “Hot Pepper” or counted “Eenie, Meenie, Miney, Mo”? Then Let’s Clap, Jump, Sing & Shout; Dance, Spin & Turn it Out!: Games, Songs & Stories from an African American Childhood is for you. Award-winning author Patricia C. McKissack provides a wealth of delightful and informative surprises in this collection of games, songs, and stories from an African-American childhood. Her thoughtful introductions to individual pieces transform this thoroughly researched compendium into an easy-to-share family album, with roots deep in American history.
McKissack’s hefty treasury is full of youthful energy beautifully captured by Brian Pinkney’s illustrations. “This is an action book, all about movement,” McKissack says. “Brian did a fantastic job of putting that movement into art.” The book begins with hand games and claps the littlest child can enjoy, skips its way through the jump-rope rhymes and circle games kids love, and includes poignant songs and stories inspired by the Underground Railroad and gospel music. McKissack loves listening in on playgrounds during author visits and says she rediscovered many pieces from her childhood by overhearing them played, clapped, and sung in today’s schoolyards.
The collection also includes superstitions and “Mama Sayings” along with riveting works by influential authors Paul Laurence Dunbar and Langston Hughes, pieces McKissack and her teenage peers memorized and delivered growing up. A final section features folk tales with retellings inspired by McKissack’s grandfather, who “told the most wonderful stories in the world,” McKissack recalls. “When Daddy James told a story? We’d sit mesmerized. All those stories came from out of my grandfather’s genius. His stories informed my life.”
McKissack says collecting and researching pieces for the book was “a journey of discovery—things I thought I knew, I didn’t know.” For example, McKissack had visited Ebo Landing and heard the tale of the slaves who had waded into water and been transformed into a flock of beautiful birds seen flying home to Africa, “but I didn’t know ‘I’ll Fly Away’ was based on a real true story. That just floored me.” And the hymn “Amazing Grace,” perhaps the most beloved gospel song in the world? That was written by an English slave runner who, after nearly drowning, became a minister. “Isn’t that something?” McKissack marvels. “I thought that was surely written by black people—had to be. No, it was written by a reformed slave runner. That’s what I mean about discovery.”
A master storyteller, McKissack sets up each piece with notes that balance her desire to draw readers in with her love of teaching. “All my author’s notes are conversational. I’m getting ready to talk about something very serious. I don’t want children to take it lightly, but I don’t want them to be burdened with the weight and the heaviness of what I’m getting ready to tell them.”
Thinking back to her own childhood, McKissack recalls how the stories that influenced her life came from “big old books” like Bulfinch’s Mythology and the Bible. “I grew up in Sunday school where black history and regular history and Bible stories all were interwoven,” she explains. “I understood Harriet Tubman because I understood Moses.”She hopes this book will become another well-worn resource, that hergrandchildren and great-grandchildren will also enjoy its stories, songs, and games, connecting families through time. “That’s what I want this book to be. The one that sits on the mantel—not the one you look at and think, ‘Oh that’s a good book, I’ll read it some day.’ No, it’s a part of your ongoing life experience.”
Jessie Grearson is a writer and graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop living in Falmouth, Maine.