The death of author Virginia Hamilton in 2002 was a blow to the world of children's literature, no question. Hamilton was an extraordinary writer, creating complex fantastical books for children that seamlessly integrated contemporary interesting situations with aspects of African-American culture. Heck, one of the first ways I learned about the Underground Railroad was through her "House of Dies Drear". I hadn't read her collection of black folktales entitled "The People Could Fly" though I intended to. I was a little confused, therefore, when a brand spanking new "The People Could Fly" was published in 2004. I soon learned, though, that the book had taken one of the stories from the original collection, in a beautiful retelling of the amazing title story. This is a book that is beautiful to look at and a joy to read and reread.
For you see, they say the people could fly. Long ago in Africa there lived people who had beautiful bright black wings and who could soar in the sky. When they were captured by white slavers, the people shed their wings in the tight confines of the slave ships and forgot how to soar. They were sent to work in the field under the whips of the "masters" and overseers. One day, a woman and her babe were suffering too much to go on much longer. With the ancient words of the old man Toby, the woman and the babe remember how to fly and soared away from the farm. The story recounts how the people who knew how to fly learned to do so again with the help of old Toby and how the slaves who did not know how to fly watched them escape and retold the story to their children just as this book tells it to you.
It's a lovely story, all the lovelier due to the illustrations of Leo and Diane Dillon. The Dillons have illustrated the covers and books of Ms. Hamilton for years, so it is not surprising that they should do so again here. I've always been a huge fan of the Dillons, and this latest effort of theirs is as beautiful as anyone could hope. Even its endpapers are gorgeous, all matt black with shimmery feathers floating down the pages. What "The People Could Fly" does best is introduce children to the concept of slavery within the context of a folktale. Through this story kids understand the horrors of enslavement, rejoice in the escape of some, and understand that most slaves remained trapped and unable to fly. What really set this book apart for me, though, was the use of Editor and Author's Notes. Some great picture books (such as "Ellington Was Not a Street") are beautiful and interesting but never set their story within any context and leave you feeling very confused. "The People Could Fly", on the other hand, tells you everything you need to know about Hamilton, the origins of this tale, the various interpretations of flight (and how you can find a similar idea in Toni Morrison's excellent "Song of Solomon"), and the degradation of slavery.
All intelligent dialogue aside, this book is just a great read to kids. It'll capture their attention with the beautiful pictures, and the words will give them the additional thrill of wondering what it would be like to fly with wings. It's written with slightly older children in mind. Those kids who still like picture books but may want something a little more sophisticated than your average "Horton Hears a Who". With all the folktales out there, it's sometimes difficult to find African-American tales that aren't ALL based on Brer Rabbit. Fortunately, we now have this story to read to all the children we can find. This is a gorgeous addition to any collection and should be adored for as long as it exists.