Tuesday, November 30, 2010


YESTERDAY I FINISHED an exhaustive series on Langston Hughes's children's books, and with its close I want to take this opportunity to solicit feedback. Did the series run too long? Did you find yourself saying, "Oh, great, another Langston Hughes post. Boring," or was it more of a "Wow, this is fascinating."? I tried to mix things up by looking at artists and other related authors at the same time. Did that work? In short, for other authors with this many books, would you prefer that I spread them out here and there or should I do another long series? (Don't worry, my next few authors won't have nearly as many books. I'm going to try to get back to the big reveals, the "He wrote a children's book!" moments, which is a lot of the fun.)

Any other comments in general would be great too. I know I have a lot of new readers thanks to Today's Inspiration's generous post last week. Take a moment to introduce yourselves, let me know what you want to see (more of, less of, none of). Old reader's too. Feel free to suggest titles. In short, hit that post a comment button down there or shoot me an email. I want to know what you think.

Monday, November 29, 2010


MY ENTRIES FOR THE PAST TWO MONTHS have focused on the children's books of Langston Hughes and his associates. Hughes was prolific in every form that he worked in, and perhaps incredibly there are an additional five children's titles that appeared in his lifetime and several others that were published after his death. Here is a cursory look at those titles with links to lots of scans that I've posted on my Flickr sets that range from introductions to interesting excerpts to nearly complete texts.


LANGSTON HUGHES'S FINAL TWO ENTRIES in Franklin Watts's The First Book series were The First Book of The West Indies (1956) and The First Book of Africa (1960). The West Indies were important to Hughes as we saw in his first children's book Popo and Fifina: Children of Haiti. In many ways The First Book of the West Indies sets out to achieve the same goal as Popo and Fifina, offering American children a glimpse into the very different world of the Caribbean. He tries to pepper it with chapters that would hold particular interest to children ("Pirates and Parrots," "Children in the West Indies"), but for the most part the book's chapters break down to the different nations ("Haiti," "The Dominican Republic," "Puerto Rico," etc.). The book is illustrated by Robert Bruce and I have posted all of Bruce's illustrations (which amounts to almost the entire book) as a Flickr set here.

The First Book of Africa takes the same form as The First Book of the West Indies and reads as a relatively dry school book. The first half of the book is dedicated to African history ("Great Kingdoms of Black Africa," "Livingstone and Stanley: Explorers," "Cecil Rhodes: Empire Builder") and the rest of the book discusses modern nations ("Kenya: A Trouble Spot," "South Africa: Land of Apartheid"). The book is illustrated with photographs and I have posted two of the more interesting chapters ("Primitive Peoples of Africa," and "Children of Africa") as a Flickr set here.

To learn more about Hughes's other First Books see my blog posts:

The First Book of Negroes
The First Book of Rhythms
The First Book of Jazz


LANGSTON HUGHES also contributed to another series of nonfiction reference books The Famous series published by Dodd, Mead & Company. Hughes's titles are Famous American Negroes (1954), Famous Negro Music Makers (1955), and Famous Negro Heroes of America (1958). The books are illustrated with photographs, usually a single photograph of the subject at the beginning of each chapter, and the rest is straight text.

The Famous American Negroes were: Phillis Wheatley, Richard Allen, Ira Aldridge, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Booker T. Washington, Daniel Hale Williams, Henry Ossawa Tanner, George Washington Carver, Robert S. Abbott, Paul Laurence Dunbar, W. C. Handy, Charles C. Spaulding, A. Philip Randolph, Ralph Bunche, Marian Anderson, and Jackie Robinson.

I have posted the complete introduction to Famous American Negroes along with the back dust jacket that shows some of the other titles in the series as a Flickr set here.

THE LAST BOOK that Langston Hughes prepared for publication in his lifetime was Black Misery (1969). The title was conceived by publisher Paul Eriksson as an outgrowth of Suzanne Heller's popular series of books Misery (1964), More Misery (1965), and Misery Loves Company (1967).

The book is comprised of twenty-seven out of a proposed forty-five captions. Eriksson said that Hughes even worked on the book in the hospital before he died. Suzanne Heller, a white suburbanite, turned down the opportunity to illustrate the book as she didn't feel she could do justice to the material. The book was illustrated by Lynette Logan under the name Arouni.

Oxford University Press reissued the title in 1994 with an introduction by Jesse Jackson and an afterward by Robert G. O'Meally (from which the background material on this book is taken).

In addition to reissuing several of Hughes's children's titles, Oxford University Press has published several of his previously unpublished children's works, another collaboration with Arna Bontemps The Pasteboard Bandit (1997) and the still in print The Sweet and Sour Animal Book (1997).

The Pasteboard Bandit attempts to do for Mexico what Popo and Fifina does for Haiti, but without the strength of Popo and Fifina's journey from the village to the city and from childhood to more adult responsibilities. The Sweet and Sour Animal Book, are short poems which most interestingly are illustrated by children from the Harlem School of the Arts.

There remain several other Hughes manuscripts for children, but as of now there are no plans for future publications.

All images are copyrighted © and owned by their respective holders.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


THREE YEARS BEFORE SLAPPY HOOPER and two years before their landmark They Seek a City, Arna Bontemps and Jack Conroy had their biggest commercial success: The Fast Sooner Hound (1942). A footnote to Bontemps's role in the Harlem Renaissance, or a footnote to worker-writer Jack Conroy's WPA work as a collector of folktales, The Fast Sooner Hound is perhaps most interesting as a footnote to children's book illustration. It boasts art by Virginia Lee Burton, the author and artist of Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel (1939) and the Caldecott medalist The Little House (1942).

Burton had illustrated Bontemps's 1937 children's novel Sad-Faced Boy, her first work as a book illustrator, released in the same year as her first picture book Choo-Choo: The Story of a Little Engine Who Ran Away. The work on Sad-Face Boy had been a rush job, but it had satisfied Bontemps so well that he requested Burton to be the illustrator of his picture book with Conroy. Burton found working on other people's texts too constricting. She conceived each page layout as one cohesive design and in her own work, she would tailor the length of the text to meet the visual requirements. She agreed to illustrate The Fast Sooner Hound but was then appalled by the amount of text on each page. Burton's struggle to compose each page is evident in the final work with more spot illustrations than in any of her own books and blocks of text limiting the flow of her more ambitious pages. In the end The Fast Sooner Hound proved to be the last book Burton illustrated that she did not write or adapt (making Bontemps the author of both Burton's first and last book as an illustrator).

LIKE SLAPPY HOOPER, The Fast Sooner Hound is an American tall tale either gathered or composed by Jack Conroy as part of the WPA project. The hero this time is a railroad man referred to as "the Boomer," a term applied to railroad workers who worked for many different railroad lines. The Boomer and his dog Sooner ("'He'd sooner run than eat'") stroll into a Roadmaster's office to see if they can find work. The Roadmaster says that there is work for a fireman such as the Boomer, but he'd have to leave Sooner behind.
"'He ain't ever spent a night or a day or even an hour away from me. He'd cry fit to break his heart...so loud you couldn't hear yourself think...'

The Roadmaster said, 'It's against the rules of the rules of the railroad to allow a passenger in the cab...That's Rule Number One on this road, and it's never been broken yet. What's more, it never will be broken as long as I'm Roadmaster....'

'He don't have to ride in the cab. He just runs alongside the train...'

'Oh, come now,' said the Roadmaster. 'The dog isn't born that can outrun one of our freight trains.'"
And so begins a series of bets.

First the Boomer's put on a freight train. Sooner runs alongside. And Sooner wins.

Then a passenger train. Sooner runs alongside.
And Sooner wins.

Then a "Limited." Sooner runs alongside. And Sooner wins.

"By that time people who lived along the railroad tracks were getting interested in the races." And seeing Sooner win again and again, people began to think "he made the trains seem slow." "If you shipped a yearling calf to market on one of them, he'd be a grown-up beef by the time he got there."

The Roadmaster can't let the bad publicity damage his railway, so he makes a final bet. The Boomer will be on the Cannon Ball and the Roadmaster will go along for the ride. If Sooner can beat the Cannon Ball, he can sit in the cab and the Roadmaster will walk back.

"The train pulled out of the station like a streak of lighting. It took three men to see the Canon Ball pass on that run: one to say, 'There she comes,' one to say, 'Here she is,' and another to say, 'There she goes.'"

"The Boomer...didn't mind giving the dog a good run. He worked so hard he wore the hinges off the fire door. He wore the shovel down to a nub. He sweated so hard his socks got soaking wet in his shoes."

As the train nears the end of its run, Sooner is nowhere to be seen and the Roadmaster thinks he's won his bet. But then a crowd at the station belies his victory. Sooner is already there chasing a rabbit. The Roadmaster is livid, but he keeps to his word. "'P-p-put him in the cab,' he sputtered," and he walks home.

TO READ THE FAST SOONER HOUND in its entirety, see my Flickr set here. Background information on Virginia Lee Burton came from Virginia Lee Burton: A Life In Art by Barbara Elleman. Elleman wrote an excellent short treatment of Burton's life for School Library Journal on the sixtieth anniversary of The Little House, which can be read here.

All images are copyrighted © and owned by their respective holders.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


[CORRECTION: An unfinished version of this post was released earlier today. This post is meant to replace that erroneous post. My apologies for any confusion or in box clutter.]

YOU MAY NEVER HAVE HEARD OF CLIFF ROBERTS, but it's likely you have seen his work. He did animations for Sesame Street (Jasper and Julius and Christopher Clumsy are his characters), The Electric Company, and 3-2-1 Contact. He worked on The Smurfs, Shirt Tales, The Pink Panther, and the animated Punky Brewster. He published comics in The New Yorker (see above and below) and in Playboy. He had two syndicated newspaper comic strips, one of which was the short-lived Sesame Street comic. In the legendary animator Gene Deitch's words, Cliff Roberts was "a genius."

Roberts (1929-1999) began his professional career at a Detroit advertising firm while still in his teens. He soon became a frequent contributor to Ford Times, the magazine for Ford drivers, and then in 1949 he was hired by Gene Deitch to do design work for an industrial cartoon. Gene Deitch remembers him in his online memoir:
"I would say that my biggest success in the two years I spent working in Motown was my discovery there of two young geniuses, Cliff Roberts and Fred Crippen. Cliff was a rolypoly, gag-spouting jazz fan who showed up at our weekly record sessions...He loved to bang on things to the rhythm of our jazz records, as did I, and we loved to spend the nights hand-drumming together."
Roberts moved to New York City in 1950 to advance his career where he became one of the preeminent cartoon designers of the 1950s. It was in the midst of that success that Roberts illustrated Langston Hughes's The First Book of Jazz. For a jazz fan such as Deitch describes, Roberts was perfectly suited for Hughes's book, and the collaboration was named one of the ten best illustrated children's books of 1955 by The New York Times. Roberts went on to illustrate three more children's books: Thomas (1956) by Mary Harris, The Dot (1960), and The Hole (1962), the latter two written by Roberts.

Thomas by Mary Harris is about a cat. Well, really it's about a little girl named Frances who "was to have a white silk dress, quite plain, and reaching to her ankles." The dressmaker is the nasty Miss Stitch who invariably shuttles Frances out to the "best parlor," where she has for her companions a pet linnet named Lynette and the cat Thomas.

These two animals both talk...at least to Frances they talk. She learns that Lynette wants to escape and that Thomas is determined to keep the bird in its place. Both animals hate Miss Stitch.

Over several weeks of fittings and abuse, Frances finds herself alone with Lynette (when one of Miss Stitch's clients faints and Thomas uses the dstraction to escape into Miss Stitch's fitting room in order to create as much havoc as possible). Lynette convinces Frances she is dying of thirst and that the girl must take her water dish and refill it. "'Don't bother about my door...Leave it open. It will give the air a chance to circulate.'"

Of course Lynette escapes. Miss Stitch is surprisingly understanding about it, recognizing that the trouble Thomas has caused in the fitting room is her own fault for letting him in there. At the end of the book, when Frances's mother asks what present she'd like for her first communion (which is what the white dress was for), she asks for Thomas and receives her wish (Miss Stitch thoroughly through with the feline).

THE DOT BY CLIFF ROBERTS is a message of peace and worldwide brotherhood disguised as a how-to-draw book.
"This is a dot
Little and fine

Stretch it out
Now it's a line
Bend it a bit
What will it be?
The roundest circle
You ever did see!"

 "Add two more lines
 And you have a face"

"And now you have a family"
The book continues in the same vein adding houses and trees and towns. These same towns are all over the world with families that may look different, but we are all the same, and viewed from a far enough distance what is the whole world but a dot.

The book isn't as graphically flashy as most of Roberts's other work, but the sentiment is certainly in line with someone who would go on to help create Sesame Street.

I MADE AN EFFORT here to focus on the We Too Were Children, Mr. Barrie-appropriate and less discussed aspect of Cliff Roberts's career: his work as a children's book illustrator. I have now made available all of the illustrations from three of Roberts's four children's books (as near as I can tell that's all of them). I have uploaded the two books discussed in this post in their entirety. To read the complete books follow the links below to my Flickr sets.

The First Book of Jazz
The Dot

If you do want to dive into some of that animation, you can watch many of Roberts's Gene Deitch cartoons online at Cartoon Brew. Several of his Sesame Street cartoons are hosted on the Sesame Street website. Today's Inspiration did a typically fabulous job of spotlighting Roberts, and he's discussed at some length in Cartoon Modern by Amid Amidi. And as mentioned at top, there's Gene Deitch's own autobiography.

AND NOW, because I had them available to me, here are Roberts's New Yorker cartoons as a bonus.

March 30, 1968

June 28, 1969

June 20, 1970

(The New Yorker cartoon at the start of this post is from the August 10, 1968 issue.)

All images are copyrighted © and owned by their respective holders.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010


ON THE FINAL PAGE OF THE FIRST BOOK OF JAZZ by Langston Hughes, just below the photograph credits, the following announcement appears:
"The Story of Jazz, conceived and narrated by Langston Hughes. Folkways FP712. As Langston Hughes tells his story of jazz, authentic recordings illustrate the rhythmic drums, the field hollers, the French songs and bands and early jazz of New Orleans, the blues, ragtime--everything that has gone into the making of jazz. A vivid presentation, based on The First Book of Jazz."
Hughes recorded several albums for Moses Asch's Folkways label. Most of them are recordings of Hughes reciting his poetry such as The Dreamkeeper and Other Poems by Langston Hughes (1955), a collection that had appeared in book form in 1932 aimed at a children's market. One of his first records though, was a 10" children's record meant as a companion to The First Book of Jazz entitled The Story of Jazz (1954). As the above advertisement promises, Hughes in a relaxed, self-confident narration weaves the story of jazz with the music itself.

Below are links to the three tracks that comprise The Story of Jazz. The links should take you to a download page on the file sharing site 4shared. This is the first time I am using 4shared, so please let me know if you have any problems downloading the tracks. To create the WAV files, I simply played the vinyl record straight through and captured the sound using Audacity. I made no further alterations outside of breaking the recording into the three tracks as listed on the album's label.

Track 1: Beginnings
Track 2: The Blues
Track 3: Characteristics

The liner notes contain the complete text of Hughes's narration along with photographs and music credits. In order to read along, click on the images below to see them original size.

The Story of Jazz was successful enough that Hughes went back and made a companion record to his earlier book The First Book of Rhythm called Rhythms of the World (1955). I have yet to get my hands on a copy of Rhythms of the World, but if the response for The Story of Jazz is good, I'll try to post Rhythms of the World as well. For now, an excerpt from Rhythms of the World appears on the Smithsonian Folkways CD The Voice of Langston Hughes. Please let me know what you think.

Coming soon: Cliff Roberts

UPDATE (10/18/2011): Several of you have written to let me know that the audio files above are no longer available through my links. 4shared only stores files for a limited amount of time after long inactivity. I've been meaning to get these files back up somehow, but haven't had a chance. For those really interested, Smithsonian Folkways will make a custom on-demand CD of any album in their catalog. You can buy "The Story of Jazz" on their website here for $16.98.

Hughes's other children's record to accompany The First Book of Rhythms called Rhythms of the World can also be ordered as a custom on-demand CD on their website here, also for $16.98.

All images and recordings are copyrighted © and owned by their respective holders.

Monday, November 1, 2010


FOR LANGSTON HUGHES'S THIRD ENTRY in the First Books series, he turned his attention to a subject that was of great importance to him: jazz. It was the first children's book to examine the "American music," and Hughes felt the responsibility. As he wrote in a letter to Arna Bontemps,  "what I really know about Jazz would fill a thimble!," and so he made sure that the text was reviewed by Dave Martin, Marshall Stearns, John Hammond, and other jazz experts. To his editor Helen Hoke, he confessed that The First Book of Jazz was "just about the toughest little job I've ever done."

THE BOOK OPENS WITH LOUIS  ARMSTRONG who becomes the lens through which the history of jazz is revealed. Little Louis grew up in New Orleans, a town where everyone played music, often spontaneously and with abandon. "To the players, it is play--just for fun. That is how the music called jazz began--with people playing for fun."

Throughout the book, Hughes truthfully highlights African-Americans' role in the development of jazz music.
"A part of American music is jazz, born in the South. Woven into it in the Deep South were the rhythms of African drums that today make jazz music different from any other music in the world. Nobody else ever made jazz before we did. Jazz is American music."
Despite the patriotic tone, the particular Americans in question are undeniably black. In a photo spread of "Great Jazz Pianists" African-American musicians outnumber white seven to three. (The men to women ratio is seven to three as well, interestingly.) Even when Hughes covers the vast array of American styles that went into jazz, they tend to be (as they should be) black interpretations of each musical form.

Work Songs


The Blues



Louis Armstrong's life story then kicks back in, because as Hughes states, "The story of Louis Armstrong is almost the whole story of orchestral jazz in America." Through Amrstrong, Hughes can move the story from New Orleans to Chicago to New York City to the world.

With the history done, Hughes then discusses the mechanics of jazz: improvisation, syncopation, percussion, rhythm, blue notes, tone color, harmony, break, riff, and continuing his theme ("It was not just playing music. It was playing--like a game--with music, for fun.") the joy of playing.

At the end of the book, Hughes provides three appendices that are of interest to any jazz fan: "Famous Jazz Musicians," "Suggested Records for Study (Part 1, Part 2)," and "100 of My Favorite Recordings (Part 1, Part 2)."

Hughes was so excited by his subject that he went to Folkways records and convinced them to put out a companion LP for The First Book of Jazz called The Story of Jazz, which I will post later this week.

I HAVE INCLUDED MANY of Cliff Robert's fantastic illustrations here, but to see all of Cliff Roberts's art for The First Book of Jazz, (including a phenomenal double spread and a realistic portrait of Louis Armstrong, see my Flickr set here. I will discuss Cliff Roberts in greater detail in a future post with lots more great art from other children's books.

Background material for this post came primarily from Volume Two of Arnold Rampersad's definitive biography The Life Of Langston Hughes: 1941-1967 I Dream A World.

For other books in the First Book series by Langston Hughes, see:

The First Book of Negroes
The First Book of Rhythms

Coming soon: Langston Hughes's The Story of Jazz

All images are copyrighted © and owned by their respective holders.