James Langston Hughes was born February 1, 1902. Hughes was a writer whose life and work were enormously important in shaping the artistic contributions of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. He died of cancer in 1967.
In addition to leaving a large body of poetic work, Hughes wrote eleven plays and countless works of prose, including the well-known “Simple” books: Simple Speaks His Mind, Simple Stakes a Claim, Simple Takes a Wife, and Simple’s Uncle Sam. He edited the anthologies The Poetry of the Negro and The Book of Negro Folklore, wrote an acclaimed autobiography (The Big Sea) and co-wrote the play Mule Bone with Zora Neale Hurston.
A number of people are familiar with his poem “I, Too,” but many consider his greatest work to be his poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” which Hughes wrote at the age of eighteen.
This entire book is simply the poem by Hughes, with gorgeous and powerful watercolor illustrations by E. B. Lewis. Lewis says in his note following the book that he has always been fascinated by this poem, and by the fact that Hughes was so young when he wrote it. Lewis also notes:
“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.”
You can actually hear Hughes talk about his inspiration for this poem and then read it himself in this recording:
Evaluation: The pictures are mesmerizing, and the poem is masterful, conveying in only twelve lines an entire people’s history.
Note: This book was a 2010 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Book.
Published by Jump at the Sun Books, an imprint of Disney Book Group, 2009