Lil Alan is excited to head out with Sis, Momma, and Daddy to go “down home” to a family reunion. Down home is where Lil Alan’s great-grandma Granny lives, and she is there to greet them when they pull up to her wood-frame house in the country. “She’s right there where we left her after last year’s reunion,” we read in Going Down Home with Daddy, Kelly Starling Lyons’ big-hearted story of one boy’s attempts to honor the family he loves.
Lyons’ own family (as well as her husband’s) is evidently the inspiration behind this story about paying tribute to one’s heritage. As the publisher likes to say, the book is a celebration of the Black family reunion culture itself. Lyons’ story sings with specificity, and the lush illustrations from Daniel Minter are deeply moving.
Though Lil Alan looks forward to the reunion and hanging out with his cousins, he’s also apprehensive, because family members are expected to share tributes at this anniversary celebration. Sis plans to sing Granny’s favorite song, “His Eye Is on the Sparrow”; their cousin Isaiah plans to read a poem by Langston Hughes; and Devin has made a scrapbook in Granny’s favorite color. Lil Alan is anxious, because his hands are empty. He is at a loss as to how to pay tribute to his family and their ancestors.
After spending time at the reunion, however, inspiration hits. The camaraderie with Grandma Loretta, Grandpa James, and all his aunts, uncles, and cousins; the tractor ride he takes with Daddy to see the land and hear stories about Daddy’s deceased Pa; the family’s savory meal of smoked turkey, collards, mac and cheese, biscuits, and more; the expressions of gratitude at the table (“Nothing is more important than family,” Granny says); the church service on Sunday; taking in the black-and-white photos of generations pictured on the walls of Granny’s home; and much more: All of this inspires Lil Alan, who begins to ponder his family far into the past.
“I think about everything I see when I’m here. … I think about walking in Pa’s and
Granny’s footsteps, in those of our people and Native people long before. I think
and collect treasures from our land. I lift my head to the sun.”
And it is with a bit of stage fright that Lil Alan then makes his offering, as the family gathers at twilight on the front porch and on metal lawn chairs to celebrate — but it is also with great conviction that he presents those “treasures from our land” to his family.
Lyons writes vividly and with evocative figurative language about Lil Alan’s experience, making this one especially delicious to read aloud. The night skies of this tale are described as “dark with sleep,” as possessing “a sweep of sparkling stars,” and, later, as “satin.” There are sunbeams that “tickle” Lil Alan’s face, who sits up “straight as pines” when he first sees Granny. And remember how she is standing there when the family first pulls up to her home? Lyons writes that she is “scattering corn for her chickens like tiny bits of gold.” The details are also precise, rewarding readers in that we feel as if we are right there with this loving family. Granny has “peppermint kisses,” and her dishes are “love-made.” My favorite detail is the addition of mayhaw jelly on the family’s table, placing this story (if you didn’t already know) squarely in the South. (As this Southern Living piece notes, a mayhaw is a “berry Southern thing.”)
Minter’s acrylic wash illustrations are layered and simply exquisite; be sure you find a copy of this one and take lots of time poring over this artwork, teeming with patterns, details, and textures. A cool blue and exuberant yellow dominate the palette, with rich rust colors mixed in and the spare and effective use of shades of purple. Plants, as well as trees and their roots, are repeated symbols throughout the book, either in stenciled images or line drawings.
This joyful, tender portrait of an exceptionally close family captures a specific moment in time, and it’s one worth going down home to visit repeatedly.
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.
GOING DOWN HOME WITH DADDY. Text copyright © 2019 by Kelly Starling Lyons. Illustrations © 2019 by Daniel Minter. Illustration above reproduced by permission of the publisher, Peachtree, Atlanta.