Award-winning author Patricia C. McKissack (born in middle Tennessee, I proudly add) has had a long and distinguished career in the field of children’s literature. Not one to rest on her laurels—I believe she will turn 73 this year—she’s bringing readers this month a superb new book, a volume that I’ve no doubt we’ll judge later as one of the year’s best.
I think, in fact, that this one will have a great deal of staying power. Let’s Clap, Jump, Sing & Shout; Dance, Spin & Turn It Out!: Games, Songs & Stories from an African American Childhood, illustrated by Brian Pinkney, is one for the ages, a book to be paired with the likes of folklorists Iona and Peter Opie’s scholarship on the rhymes, lore, and language of children.
The book collects hand claps, jump rope rhymes, circle games, ring shouts, songs (spirituals, hymns, and gospel music), parables, psalms, stories, superstitions, fables, performance pieces, “Mama Sayings,” poems, folktales, and more – all of which McKissack recalls from her own childhood in the South. “Our earliest toys are our hands, feet, and voices,” she writes in the book’s introduction, adding that her play activities when she was young were also an important part of her growth and intellectual development, though she didn’t realize it at the time. (This book is a timely, and welcome, celebration of creativity and the play of children, given the repeated discussions today about the decreasing amount of play in many preschools in order to make way for more rigorous academic instruction.)
Some of the book’s material originated in Africa or among early slaves in the United States and the Caribbean, while other material in the book isn’t African in origin yet was assimilated into the culture of black children and made their own through the addition of Afro-Caribbean music and movements. Oftentimes, children would also change the lyrics. All of this background sets the stage in the book’s intro for the vibrant stories, music, and poetry that follow, accompanied by the effervescent and playful watercolor illustrations of Pinkney. How many ways can he show black children dancing with joy? Countless ways. And each painting is a sublime blur of movement and unmitigated cheer.
One of the book’s strengths is the intimacy with which McKissack writes about many of the songs and stories that fill her memories. She makes vivid connections with the reader, such as when she recalls her mother introducing her to the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, as well as other Harlem Renaissance poets, when she was but a young girl. Her mother, she explains, would recite poetry from memory, while the two of them swung on the front porch. “My mother used to read Dunbar to me at bedtime, and when she’d finish a piece,” she writes, “I’d beg her to read another and another, until at last she’d send me off to bed.”
She also recalls her grandfather, whom she and her family called Daddy James, and how he introduced her to the ballad of John Henry. Her grandfather would combine fact and fiction to tell stories of the legendary character in such a way that was “special to us,” McKissack writes, adding that, much like John Henry himself, her Daddy James was a laborer who worked vigorously but for little pay. In another instance, when introducing the section on spirituals, hymns, and gospel music, she recalls singing, as young as age six, in the church choir with her friends. When writing about superstitions, she admits to still wearing a small gold cross to ward off vampire attacks. These personal stories pull the reader in.
Each entry is accompanied by a succinct bit of research into the origin of the song, rhyme, chant, story, or poem. There are many fascinating tidbits here – from the story of John Newton and the creation of “Amazing Grace,” to the origin of “I’ll Fly Away” on St. Simon’s Island in Georgia (a story I’d never heard that gave me chills), to the very meaning of “on program” and “Mama Sayings” – even the notion of Bugs Bunny as a descendant of the character Zomo the Hare. Further notes about many entries close the book. In the closing acknowledgments, McKissack pays tribute to those who assisted her with her research, including her late husband Fredrick. She writes that he did “most of the research for this book before his death … and there are those, perhaps, who helped him without my knowledge.”
Word has it that Kirkus will run an interview with McKissack next week. I, for one, am eager to hear her talk about this inspired collection. It’s a book that sings – in more ways than one.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.
LET'S CLAP, JUMP, SING & SHOUT; DANCE, SPIN & TURN IT OUT! GAMES, SONGS, & STORIES FROM AN AFRICAN AMERICAN CHILDHOOD. Copyright © 2017 by Patricia C. McKissack. Illustrations © 2017 by Brian Pinkney. Illustrations reproduced by permission of the publisher, Schwartz & Wade Books, New York.