Zora Neale Hurston, born in 1891, was an African American anthropologist, author, and filmmaker. She portrayed racial struggles in the early-1900s American South. The most popular of her four novels was Their Eyes Were Watching God, published in 1937. She also wrote more than 50 short stories, plays, and essays.
She grew up in Eatonville, Florida, one of the first all-Black towns incorporated in the United States, a place she used in settings for many of her stories.
She was the fifth of eight children; her father was a Baptist preacher and her mother was a schoolteacher. Her mother always told her to reach high, the author reports, to “jump at de sun. You might not land on de sun, but at least you’d get off de ground.”
Williams juxtaposes the narrative with examples of the colloquial prose used in Zora’s stories, set apart by speech balloons that also illustrate Zora’s love of folk stories.
Zora’s mother died when Zora was 13, but Zora never forgot her support and encouragement, especially when, a year later, her father remarried. Her new stepmother evicted her when Zora was 14.
Zora stayed with friends and worked odd jobs for twelve years, traveling from Florida to Baltimore, in and out of school. Finally at age 28 she was able to attend Howard University, where she met successful writers and decided she could be one too.
In 1925 she moved to New York City and joined others in the Harlem Renaissance.
She started winning literary contests in magazines, and Barnard College offered her a scholarship. For a college project, she went back to Eatonville to collect Negro folklore, but didn’t stop there. She traveled all through the South and the Caribbean to gather folktales, finally settling in Florida to write books. Zora, the author writes, “like her mama always dreamed – reached the sun.”
An Author’s Note tells how the author discovered Zora’s work while in college and fell in love with it. She writes that “Zora garnered numerous awards for her plays, articles, musical revues, and novels, yet she never received the financial gains that she deserved.” Later in life Zora even had to work as a maid to survive, and ended her life in a welfare home in 1960. But over sixty years later, her work is still being published. The author concludes with some suggestions for additional reading, and a list of sources.
Illustrator Jacqueline Alcántara uses a colorful palette that includes not only historical details, like Zora’s many hats, but also whimsical folktale figures that surround Zora as she works.
Evaluation: This introduction to Zora Neale Hurston for readers 4 and over is not only inspiring, but will no doubt have readers clamoring to read some of Zora’s folktales for themselves.
Published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, 2021