Sunday, February 5, 2012

Langston's Train Ride by Robert Burleigh, illustrated by Leonard Jenkins

"I'm madly scribbling words down now, rapidly one after another. (Poems are like rainbows, don't you think? They escape if you're not quick!)"

In celebration of Black History Month, I am attempting to read more black authors and books about important African Americans. This picture book is the story of Langston Hughes' train ride to visit his father in 1920 where he was inspired to write one of his most famous poems The Negro Speaks of Rivers. It is also the moment he began to believe in himself as a writer.

Imaginative and striking, Leonard Jenkins' illustrations transport you through young Langston's journey with his bold strokes and haunting facial expressions. It's as if Hughes is boring into your soul with his determined gaze.

Equally as stunning is Robert Burleigh's ability to bring the reader inside Langston's emotions as he discovers his inspiration for this iconic work of American literature.

Langston Hughes is probably my favorite poet of all time. When I took African American literature in college, I remember Hughes' writing being the most vivid and empathetic of the writers we studied. As a white woman of middle class privilege, I can't claim to understand the plight of African Americans in our country. Hughes helped me to view this plight with empathy, compassion, and greater understanding. His writing makes you feel a solidarity with our African American brethren and ignites a desire for deference and contrition.

This picture book stirs up those same emotions in me as Hughes' poems themselves. As Tom Stoppard once said about words: "If you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a little." Writers like Langston Hughes were able to do that with their words and books like this that pay such reverent homage to one such man should be commended and celebrated. 

Langston's Train Ride by Robert Burleigh, illustrated by Leonard Jenkins
Published: October 2004
Publisher: Scholastic
Pages: 32
Genre: Non-fiction/Poetry/Picture Book
Audience: Middle Grade

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