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Julius (Bernard) Lester (1939-) - Sidelights

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In addition to his work as a respected educator, historian, and performer, Julius Lester has had a long career as a writer, and many of the books he has published since the late 1960s have been penned for younger readers. Through his efforts to reintroduce American children to traditional folk tales, Lester has made a lasting contribution to the field of children's literature through his many focusing on African-American history and culture. An outspoken advocate of books for black children that are penned by black authors, Lester has also advocated for a re-visioning of children's literature. As he once noted in Publishers Weekly, too much of children's literature is out date and has no relevance to young people living in modern society.


In books such as To Be a Slave, Long Journey Home: Stories from Black History, and This Strange Feeling, as well as in his many retellings of the "Uncle Remus" stories, Lester has helped to preserve the history of black Americans, often focusing on black experience in the rural Deep South, especially during slavery and the Reconstruction period following the U.S. Civil War. Throughout, he has been acclaimed for his blend of realistic detail, dialogue, and storytelling—all contributing to important historical knowledge about African Americans. Through his historical work he illustrates themes central to black history and the civil rights movement of the twentieth century, such as oppression and racism, and ultimately hopes to politicize young readers; according to Eric Foner and Naomi Lewis in the New York Review of Books, Lester's goal is to provide readers with "a sense of history which will help shape their lives and politics." Despite this serious intent, Lester also reveals his lighthearted side in books such as Ackamarackus: Julius Lester's Sumptuously Silly Fantastically Funny Fables, which features a quirky assortment of animal characters in a book characterized by what Booklist reviewer GraceAnne A. DeCandido described as "rampant silliness" and an "inventive" text. Praising the storyteller's lighthearted approach, Wendy Lukehart noted in School Library Journal that Lester manages to weaves "pithy morals brimming with wisdom and wit" within his "alliterative language" and "turns of phrase that dance off the tongue."

As he wrote in an article for School Library Journal, Lester "grew up during a time when racial segregation and discrimination in the North and South were as common as dandelion fluff." He was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1939, the son of a Methodist minister, and his family relocated to Kansas City, Kansas, when Lester was two years old. In Kansas He experienced a combustible world in which black men and boys were lynched for even looking at a white woman. "In such a world, childhood was a luxury my parents could not have afforded for me even if they had known how," he wrote. As a contrast to the violence of the times, the sermons and stories of his father brought him into contact with black traditions, and the soothing rhythms and expressions common to the black population of Nashville, where he and his family moved in 1954. Summers spent on his grandmother's farm in rural Arkansas allowed Lester to also experience rural speech patterns and learn a wealth of new stories.


Enjoying music and reading as a child, Lester found in books an escape from reality, and at a young age he became an avid reader of Western and mystery novels despite his limited access to libraries. Eventually turning to the adult books in his father's library, he was particularly struck by a biography of early twentieth-century civil rights leader W. E. B. DuBois. Another significant inspiration was a comment his father made in response to an advertisement offering to trace one's family tree. When his father told Lester to throw it away, the boy asked why his father was uninterested in the family history. As Lester later wrote in School Library Journal, his father simply laughed and told him that he knew where they came from: "'Our family tree ends in a bill of sale. Lester is the name of the family that owned us.'" Lester recalls the incident as "one of the defining moments of my life," and added: "So much of my writing has been dedicated to putting faces to the bills of sale."


Lester graduated in 1960 from Nashville's Fisk University with a degree in English and moved to New York City the following year. In the mid-1960s he joined the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), at a time when the group advocated that blacks assume a more militant stance to fight racism. As head of the SNCC's photo department, he traveled to North Vietnam during the Vietnam War to document the effects of U.S. bombing missions, and went on to write several adult books on political themes.

In New York City Lester was encouraged to embark upon a publishing career when the editor of his book Look out, Whitey! Black Power's Gon' Get Your Mama was impressed with his writing. As Lester explained to Something about the Author, "She asked if I had ever thought about writing children's books. I had not. she asked if I would like to meet the children's book editor. I said yes and told the children's book editor about my idea of using the words from former slaves to tell the story of slavery." The result was 1969's To Be a Slave, as well as Black Folktales.

Runner-up for the Newbery Medal, To Be a Slave is an historical narrative based on quotes from slave testimonies. Praised for bringing to light "tremendously moving documents" by John Howard Griffin in the New York Times Book Review, To Be a Slave was described by Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books reviewer Zena Sutherland as "moving and explicit" in its description of slavery from "capture to auction, from servitude to freedom." Evelyn Geller remarked in School Library Journal that Lester's book "quietly lays bare the shame of American history while making slavery, suffering, and resistance part of [a] black child's heritage."Black Folktales features tales featuring both human and animal characters drawn from African legends and slave narratives. "Although these tales have been told before, . . . Lester brings a fresh street-talk language . . . and thus breathes new life into them," wrote John A. Williams in a review of the book for the New York Times Book Review.


Lester has continued to produce books that reflect his interests in African-American history, folklore, and politics. The Knee-high Man and Other Tales collects six black folk tales, including those of the famous Brer Rabbit, that feature humor and political satire. In one story, "The Farmer and the Snake," Ethel Richard noted in the New York Times Book Review that "the lesson is that kindness will not change the nature of a thing—in this case, the nature of a poisonous snake to bite." Lester's four compilations of "Uncle Remus" tales—The Tales of Uncle Remus, More Tales of Uncle Remus, Further Tales of Uncle Remus, and The Last Tales of Uncle Remus—separate that stock figure from the Uncle Tom stereotype and make him accessible to modern readers.

Originally compiled by newspaperman Joel Chandler Harris between 1876 and 1918 and narrated by the fictional Uncle Remus in an approximation of nineteenth-century Southern black dialect, these stories featuring the quick-minded Brer Rabbit have African roots: folklorists have long noted similarities between the quick-witted rabbit and Anansi, the spider trickster of West Africa, and Wakaima, the hare trickster of the continent's west coast. Lester has been praised for retelling these tales in a contemporary idiom without losing the bite of the original. A Kirkus Reviews critic dubbed the four-volume collection "a landmark retelling," while Betsy Hearne concluded in a review of The Last Tales of Uncle Remus for Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books that "respect is a key word here. That's what Lester shows for the largest body of African-American folklore collected in this country. You can't get any more respectful of a cultural tradition than recharging the elements that helped it survive and that affirm its kinship with other peoples of the world."

More folktales are served up by Lester in How Many Spots Does a Leopard Have? and Other Tales, which includes ten African stories and two tales with traditional Jewish roots. Intended for children of all ages, "the stories in this collection are as rich, various, and intriguing as the titles," according to Susan Perren in Quill & Quire. In Sam and the Tigers: A New Retelling of Little Black Sambo Lester takes on the now-controversial story of the African lad whose trick caused a group of hungry tigers to turn into butter. With his politically sensitive retelling readers can, according to Rayma Turton in Magpies, "enjoy this new version for what it is—a joyous romp with a true storyteller's pattern."

Retellings of a different sort are contained in Lester's award-winning picture-book collaborations with illustrator Jerry Pinkney. John Henry, Black Cowboy, Wild Horses, and The Old African. Lester takes on the legendary steel-drivin' man in John Henry, a tall tale that "bursts to life," according to Elizabeth Bush in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books. Jack Zipes commented in the New York Times Book Review that "Lester's eloquent prose . . . incorporates light, humorous remarks and sayings," and the book as a whole suggests "that we still have a lot to learn from folk heroes, even if they may not have existed."

In Black Cowboy, Wild Horses, Lester turns his historian's eye to the story of Bob Lemmons, one of many unheralded slaves who became cowboys and helped build the American West. In doing so he creates a picture book for older readers that is "rich with simile and metaphor," according to Booklist contributor Michael Cart. Noting the "spirit of freedom" reflected in Lester's text, a reviewer for Publishers Weekly described Black Cowboy, Wild Horses as "notable for the light it sheds on a fascinating slice of Americana."

In the picture book From Slave Ship to Freedom Road Lester traces the history and effects of slavery in America. Working with illustrator Rod Brown, he sets forth the entire 250 years of black history in America, from the arrival of the first slave ships to Emancipation. "This is a powerful book, and it is an important one," commented Shirley Wilton in School Library Journal.A retelling of the Creation story from a black point of view is the subject of What a Truly Cool World, and a companion volume titled Why Heaven Is Far Away contains an adaptation of two folk tales. Lester focuses on the characteristics all humans share in Let's Talk about Race. The author uses the metaphor of a story to describe an individual, then explains a person's race "as just one of many chapters" in that story, according to School Library Journal reviewer Mary Hazelton. Encouraging interaction with young listeners by explaining that people are all pretty much the same under their skin, he uses what Hazelton described as a non-threatening and "engaging tone" that helps children "to appreciate a common spiritual identity." Praising Lester's direct approach and "lighthearted" tone, a Kirkus reviewer noted that Let's Talk about Race "speaks to a child's concrete understanding of the world." In addition to writing for young children, Lester has produced several novels for adults as well as original fiction for young-adults readers. When Dad Killed Mom is the story of two children who must deal with family violence. The book is narrated by twelve-year-old Jeremy and his fourteen-year-old sister, Jenna, each of whom tell the story in alternating chapters. After learning that their psychologist father has shot and killed their mother, the two try to understand the tragedy, in the process gradually revealing family secrets—such as a dead child from a former marriage, the death of a younger sibling, and a romantic affair—that may have triggered the awful event. While several reviewer noted the book's melodramatic quality, Horn Book critic Deborah Z. Porter praised the story as "undeniably gripping" while a Publishers Weekly critic described Lester's depiction of the emotional state of Jeremy and Jenna as "subtly and credibly done." Francisca Goldsmith, writing in School Library Journal, praised the skills Lester demonstrates in When Dad Killed Mom: "excellent research, a willingness to confront and present controversial topics, . . . and insight on how young people's concerns do not necessarily match those of their elders."

Some of Lester's novels for older, more sophisticated readers often draw on literature and history. With Othello he adapts William Shakespeare's play, making Iago, Othello, and Emilia African immigrants living in England, resettling the Moor in London and making the issue of race more central to the action. In the process he creates "a wonderful achievement," according to Margaret Cole in School Library Journal, while Nancy Menaldi-Scanlan added in the same periodical that Othello serves as a useful touchstone in discussions of "the assimilation of race and of varying approaches" to Shakespeare's dramas.

Returning to biblical themes, Lester tells the story of Moses from a fresh point of view in Pharaoh's Daughter. As all Hebrew boys are being killed under the command of Ramses the Great, Moses's older sister, Almah, saves her infant brother. Educated and independent-minded, Almah leads Meryetamun, Ramses' daughter, to rescue Moses in the bulrushes. Meeting Almah, Ramses is struck by the young woman because she resembles his dead wife, and soon the pharaoh proclaims that she is, in fact, his daughter. As Almah takes the place of Meryetamun, Meryetamun becomes drawn to Hebrew society; meanwhile, Almah grows immersed in the Egyptian court and becomes a priestess. Growing to manhood, Moses is torn between his Hebraic roots and the Egyptian lifestyle he enjoys as a grandson of the pharaoh.

Told from the alternating viewpoint of Almah and Moses, Pharaoh's Daughter is a "stunning blend of imagination and research," according to Horn Book contributor Mary M. Burns, while Barbara Scotto praised the book in School Library Journal as a "rich and fascinating retelling" of a much-told tale. Booklist reviewer Ilene Cooper noted that Lester "writes with verve and obvious pleasure" and introduces readers to a "strong cast of characters who struggle with life-and-death issues, physical and philosophical."

Lester's interest in rejuvenating and restoring traditional stories and classic themes in ways that will interest newer generations of readers is a result of his strong belief in the ability of books to change young people's lives for the better. "What children need are not role models but heroes and heroines," he told an audience of the New England Library Association in a speech reprinted in Horn Book. "A hero is one who is larger than life. Because he or she is superhuman, we are inspired to expand the boundaries of what we had thought was possible. We are inspired to attempt the impossible, and in the attempt, we become more wholly human. . . . The task of the hero and heroine belongs to us all. That task is to live with such exuberance that what it is to be human will be expanded until the asphyxiating concepts of race and gender will be rendered meaningless, and then we will be able to see the rainbow around the shoulders of each and every one of us, the rainbow that has been there all the while."


Biographical and Critical Sources

BOOKS

Children's Literature Review, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 2, 1976, Volume 41, 1997.

Lester, Julius, All Is Well, Morrow (New York, NY), 1976.

Lester, Julius, Lovesong: Becoming a Jew, Holt (New York, NY), 1988.

St. James Guide to Young-Adult Writers, edited by Tom Pendergast and Sara Pendergast, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.

Twentieth-Century Children's Writers, 3rd edition, edited by Tracy Chevalier, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1989, pp. 575-576.


PERIODICALS

Black Issues Book Review, September, 2001, Khafre Abif, review of The Blues Singers: Ten Who Rocked the World, p. 76.

Booklist, October 14, 1994, Hazel Rochman, review of The Man Who Knew Too Much: A Moral Tale from the Baila of Zambia, p. 4342; November 1, 1995, p. 494; June 1, 1996, p. 1727; January, 1997, p. 768; February 15, 1998, p. 1009; May 1, 1998, Michael Cart, review of Black Cowboy, Wild Horses, p. 1522; April 1, 2000, Ilene Cooper, review of Pharaoh's Daughter, p. 1474; July, 2000, Hazel Rochman, review of From Slave Ship to Freedom Road, p. 2025; February 1, 2001, GraceAnne A. DeCandido, review of Ackamarackus: Julius Lester's Sumptuously Silly Fantastically Funny Fables, p. 1056; June 1, 2001, Marta Segal, review of When Dad Killed Mom, p. 1862, Stephanie Zvirin, review of The Blues Singers, p. 1870; October 1, 2002, John Green, review of Why Heaven Is Far Away, p. 345; October 1, 2004, Hazel Rochman, review of On Writing for Children and Other People, p. 321; November 15, 2004, Hazel Rochman, review of The Autobiography of God, p. 562.

Book World, September 3, 1972, William Loren Katz, review of Long Journey Home, p. 9.

Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, April, 1969, Zena Sutherland, review of To Be a Slave, pp. 129-130; May, 1982; February, 1994, Betsy Hearne, review of The Last Tales of Uncle Remus, pp. 179-180; October, 1994, Elizabeth Bush, review of John Henry, p. 54; February, 1998, p. 212; May, 1998, p. 327.

Horn Book, March-April, 1984, Julius Lester, "The Beechwood Staff," pp. 161-169; September-October, 1988, Mary M. Burns, review of More Tales of Uncle Remus, pp. 639-640; January-February, 1996, Julius Lester, "John Henry," pp. 28-31; September-October, 1996, p. 536; July-August, 1998, p. 477; July-August, 2000, Mary M. Burns, review of Pharaoh's Daughter, p. 460; May-June, 2001, Deborah Z. Porter, review of When Dad Killed Mom, p. 330.

Kirkus Reviews, January 1, 1994, review of The Last Tales of Uncle Remus, p. 70; November 15, 1997, p. 1709; May 1, 1998, p. 661; September 15, 2002, review of Why Heaven Is Far Away, p. 1393; October 1, 2003, review of Shining, p. 1226; October 15, 2004, review of On Writing for Children and Other People, p. 1009; December 15, 2004, review of Let's Talk about Race, p. 1204.

Magpies, March, 1997, Rayma Turton, review of Sam and the Tigers: A New Retelling of Little Black Sambo, p. 27.

New York Review of Books, April 20, 1972, Eric Foner, and Naomi Lewis, review of Long Journey Home: Stories from Black History, pp. 41-42.

New York Times Book Review, November 3, 1968, John Howard Griffin, review of To Be a Slave, p. 7; November 9, 1969, John A. Williams, review of Black Folktales, 10, 12; May 24, 1970, Julius Lester, "Black and White: An Exchange," pp. 1, 34, 36, 38; February 4, 1973, Ethel Richard, review of The Knee-high Man and Other Tales, p. 8; May 17, 1987; November 13, 1994, Jack Zipes, "Power Rangers of Yore," p. 30; November 19, 1996, p. 34.

Publishers Weekly, February 23, 1970, Julius Lester, "The Kinds of Books We Give Our Children: Whose Nonsense?," pp. 86-88; February 12, 1988, Barry List, "Julius Lester," pp. 67-68; December 1, 1997, p. 54; April 6, 1998, review of Black Cowboy, Wild Horses, p. 77; April 1, 2000, review of Pharaoh's Daughter, p. 1474; October 2, 2000, review of Albidaro and the Mischievous Dream, p. 81; February 12, 2001, Sally Lodge, "Working at His Creative Peak" (interview), p. 180; May 14, 2001, review of The Blues Singers, p. 81, review of When Dad Killed Mom, p. 83; December 22, 2003, review of Shining, p. 60; October 25, 2004, review of The Autobiography of God, p. 28.

Quill & Quire, December, 1989, Susan Perren, review of How Many Spots Does a Leopard Have? And Other Tales, p. 24.

School Librarian, May, 1988, Irene Babsky, review of The Tales of Uncle Remus, p. 72.

School Library Journal, Mary, 1969, Evelyn Geller, "Julius Lester: Newbery Runner-Up"; April, 1995, Margaret Cole, review of Othello: A Novel, p. 154; November, 1997, p. 41; February, 1998, Shirley Wilton, review of From Slave Ship to Freedom Road, pp. 119-120; June 1998, p. 113; August, 1998, p. 43; June, 2000, Barbara Scotto, review of Pharaoh's Daughter, p. 148; November, 2000, review of Albidaro and the Mischievous Dream, p. 126; March, 2001, Wendy Lukehart, review of Ackamarackus, p. 214; May, 2001, Francisca Goldsmith, review of When Dad Killed Mom, p. 155; June, 2001, Tim Wadham, review of The Blues Singers, p. 138; January, 2002, Julius Lester, "The Way We Were," pp. 54-58; October, 2002, Miriam Lang Budin, review of Why Heaven Is Far Away, p. 118; November, 2003, Anna DeWind Walls, review of Shining, p. 105; February, 2004, Nancy Menaldi-Scanlan, review of Othello, p. 83; March, 2004, Casey Rondini, review of The Last Tales of Uncle Remus, p. 86; October, 2004, Alison Follos, review of On Writing for Children and Other People, p. 202; December, 204, Ginny Gustin, review of The Blues Singers, p. 61; January, 2005, Mary Hazelton, review of Let's Talk about Race, p. 112.

Voice of Youth Advocates, April, 1998, p. 43; June, 1999, Kathleen Beck, review of When the Beginning Began, p. 194.


ONLINE

Scholastic Author Studies Home Page, http://www2.scholastic.com/ (November 27, 2002), "Julius Lester's Biography," and "Julius Lester's Interview Transcript."
University of Massachusetts-Amherst Web site, http://www.umass.edu/ (November 27, 2002), "Julius Lester."*

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