of the Center for Children's Books:
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I first heard Julius Lester speak at a national conference on storytelling in Raleigh, North Carolina. He told a story that was soon to be a picture book: The Man Who Knew Too Much, a tale from the Baila of Zambia about a father who, through his inability to accept the unexplainable, causes the death of his infant son. The powerful themes that are evident in Lester's written work were evident in his storytelling as well. The audience left the auditorium silent, thoughtful, and impressed.
Lester's books have received a Newbery Honor Medal, ALA's Notable Book Award, The New York Times Outstanding Book Award, a Caldecott Honor medal, and the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, among others. Looking at his body of work over the last thirty years there is evidence of a ferocious intensity, colored with humor, that gives his work lasting impact.
If The Man Who Knew Too Much sounds like difficult subject matter, Lester is no stranger to difficulty. Son of a Methodist minister, he spent much of his childhood in the South of the 1940s and 1950s, where he was witness to the effects of racism and segregation. Lester's work in the civil rights movement and his writings on American culture and race relations are early evidence of his passionate interest in politics and culture. (In the mid-1960s he joined SNCC, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. His photographs of the civil rights movement are included in exhibitions at the Smithsonian Institute, and are part of the permanent photographic collection at Howard University.) Lester's unique voice works just as well on the written page as it does spoken on the air. In a 1995 Booklist interview, Lester linked the storytelling voice that is evident in so many of his writings to his Methodist minister father, saying that "Black ministers in the South, at least when I was growing up, were noted for storytelling, and I was raised hearing those stories." Lester's Knee-High Man and Black Folktales are on many librarian's "must have" lists because the stories are succinct and "ready-to-tell" in a way that other folktales are not. His four collections of Uncle Remus tales (recently released by Dial in a four-in-one volume, Uncle Remus: Tales from the Briar Patch) made an indelible mark on children's literature and is an outstanding contribution to the preservation of African American folklore. Lester says the voice he uses in these retellings is "a storytelling voice, that is, a southern voice, an older voice, somebody who certainly has long memories. It's a voice that's inside me, a voice I know very well. It's an amalgam of my father's voice and all kinds of voices that I heard throughout my growing up."
His willingness to tackle the complex and controversial (as seen in Sam and the Tigers, a spirited retelling of Helen Bannerman's Little Black Sambo, and From Slave Ship to Freedom Road, an emotional inquiry into slavery in American history) challenges preconceptions about race, history and storytelling. While mellowing over time may be something to strive for, Lester appears to have different ambitions: recent titles tackle preconceptions about religion, God, and faith, in the joyous creation tale What a Truly Cool World, and in When the Beginning Began: Stories About God, the Creatures, and Us, a collection of original midrashim.
As literary lions go, Lester has teeth.
--Janice M. Del Negro, editor
Selected Titles by Julius Lester
This page was last updated on October 1, 1999.