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The Negro Speaks of Rivers (2009)

Written by Langston Hughes

Illustrated by E.B. Lewis

Text set in Esta


Disney Jump at the Sun Books

Picture book writing sometimes seems like an exercise in brevity. Perfectly suited, in that case, for this illumination of Langston Hughes' powerful poem.

I sometimes think I have trouble appreciating poetry, maybe because I read through it too quickly, looking for an emergent narrative instead of slowing down to mull over every word choice and phrasing.

I had no such trouble with this book. I'm sure I've read The Negro Speaks of Rivers a hundred times, but I can honestly say that it never struck me as much as it did with this volume.

E.B. Lewis is a true artists. His watercolors evoke other times and places, but at the same time support a continuity, one generation flowing into another.

I looked upon the Nile and raised pyramids above it
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down from New Orleans

Those two lines, juxtaposed may seem jarring, but here they appear seamless, a reminder that everything is connected.

I noted that the river water was never the same in any two images. In some it is muddy, then green, then deep blue, then the golden hue which graces the cover.

In his Illustrator's Note, Lewis writes:

Water has played a powerful role in the lives of black people. It has been the boon and bane of our existence. We have been born out of water, baptized by water, carried by, and even killed by water. After nearly drowning as a child, I have grown to acknowledge and respect this awesome element. I still feel drawn to it - in fact, it's what I most enjoy painting. In many ways, my life is like this poem: water almost ended my life; but now, through my watercolors, it has cultivated the spring of it. 

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