Meet Authors & Illustrators

Julius Lester

    I write because the lives of all of us are stories. If enough of those stories are told, then perhaps we will begin to see that our lives are the same story. The differences are merely in the details.

   "Some of my work is concerned with telling the stories of those who were once slaves¾To Be a Slave, Long Journey Home, This Strange New Feeling. I feel the spirits of hundreds of slaves waiting for me to put their stories on paper. They want others to know them as men, women, and children who were forced to live under the condition of slavery, an extraordinary condition under which to try to be human. Yet they tried, and more often than not, were more successful than those who held them as slaves."

   "I feel I have been chosen as the voice of the dead, a mediator of spirits so that the black past can be made present and the spirits of those now dead will be welcome among us all. There are ways in which writing is a form of ancestor worship for me, a way of paying homage."

   "I also retell stories: the Uncle Remus tales of Joel Chandler Harris, the story of John Henry, and most recently a new telling of Helen Bannerman's Little Black Sambo. The primary objective in all instances was the same¾to make wonderful stories available in language and imagery acceptable today. In this endeavor my writing has been wonderfully complemented by the art of Jerry Pinkney. Both of us share a reverence for the past and a respect for story."

   "As for the future, well, I have rewritten The Man Who Was a Horse from my Long Journey Home as a picture book to draw out the mythic qualities I always felt inherent in the story. I have also recently completed the text for another picture book, a clack fantasy story about the day when all the children in the world decided to go on strike and an African god decided to make all the animals act like children. To my delight, Jerry Pinkney will be illustrating both."

   Julius Lester was born in 1939 and spent his youth in the Midwest and the South. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Fisk University in 1960. Since 1968 he has published twenty-five books¾seven nonfiction, fifteen children's books, one book of poetry, and two novels.

   Among the honors accorded his children's books are the Newbery Honor Medal (To Be A Slave), National Book Award Finalist (Long Journey Home), and Caldecott Honor and The Boston Globe-Horn Book Award (John Henry). He lives in western Massachusetts with his wife, Milan; sixteen-year-old stepdaughter, Lian; four computers; 15,000 books (give or take); his Cuisinart; and Labrys, the cat.

Reproduced from African-American Voices and Visions: Biographies of Some of Our Most Prestigious Authors and Illustrators. Penguin USA Children's Books

To view a Q&A interview with Julius Lester, click here.

 

Reviews

Ackamarackus: Julius Lester's Sumptuously Silly Fantastically Funny Fables
Julius Lester
Illustrated by Emilie Chollat
   These six original tall tales about animals, birds and insects give a decidedly different slant to the way things are or might be. Each fable ends with not one but two funny morals. Underlying the silliness are some serious questions about how people see the world. For example, Adalbert the Alligator moves from Florida to Vermont and pairs up with Bertice Bear, who finds him very attractive, proving that "You are what you think you are, and not what others think you aren't." The other fables are about a bee who falls in love with a bluebird and loses his buzz, flies who learn to fly on airplanes, a lion who's lionized for his laziness, an ant who eats an anaconda and an eagle who finds a job that doesn't require flying. It's the jaunty telling of the tales, using alliteration and play on words, that makes them entertaining for all ages. The illustrations are also quite unusual in their Picasso-like perspective and collage and patchwork-quilt effect. Colored bold fonts sprinkled through the text, the insertion of lettering in the pictures, and bold pinks, oranges, greens, and blues in the overall design make this an attractive book. 2001, Scholastic Press/Scholastic, Ages 7 up, $17.95. Reviewer: Carol Raker Collins
ISBN: 0-590-48913-5
Best Books:
   The Best Children's Books of the Year, 2002 ; Bank Street College of Education; United States
   Publishers Weekly Book Review Stars, March 2001 ; Cahners; United States

Albidaro and the Mischievous Dream
Julius Lester
Pictures by Jerry Pinkney
   Two prize-winning powerhouses team up once again to produce a stunning book billed as a "marvelous modern fable" about Albidaro, Guardian of Children, and his sister Olara, Guardian of Animals. Albidaro notices that children are tired of doing what they're told to do and decides to help them out at the same time he plays a trick on Olara. Although the world's teddy bear warns that no good will come of this caper, he sends a mischievous dream to tell all the children and animals that they no longer have to mind anyone. Predictable havoc ensues, with children uttering their respective linguistic negatives--Nyet (Russia), Lo (Israel), Non (France), Nein (Germany), Uh-uh (United States). Lester also inserts a bit of whimsy not found elsewhere in the book, turning rhinocerous into "rhinossyhorse" and hippopotami into "hippopotamussesessssss." One wishes he had either used the device earlier or resisted the impulse entirely. It is also disconcerting that, while Alara is lyrically described as "a woman as beautifully black as a panther on a night when there was no moon," Pinkney paints the African characters as medium brown rather than the truly striking black of some native Africans. Everything considered, the book is highly recommended as original, fun and beautifully drawn. 2000, Phyllis Fogelman/Penguin Putnam, $16.99. Ages 4 to 8. Reviewer: Judy Chernak
ISBN: 0-8037-1987-6

Black Cowboy, Wild Horses Black Cowboy, Wild Horses
Julius Lester
Illustrated by Jerry Pinkney
   Bob Lemmons, a former slave, spent his days on the vast plains as a cowboy. His knowledge and ability with horses was legendary. Lester's poetic text recounts Bob's single-handed capture of a wild mustang herd. Bob succeeded because he understood the animals, and with his own horse Warrior was able to become the herd leader. The vastness of the sky and land and the beauty of magnificent horses are gloriously depicted in Pinkney's watercolor and pencil illustrations. The mystical quality also comes through as phantom horses race across the sky. 1998, Dial, Ages 4 up, $16.99. Reviewer: Marilyn Courtot
ISBN: 0-8037-1787-3
ISBN: 0-8037-1788-1
Best Books:
   The Best Children's Books of the Year, 1999 ; Bank Street College of Education; United States
   Children's Catalog, Eighteenth Edition, 2001 ; H.W. Wilson; United States
   The Children's Literature Choice List, 1999 ; Children's Literature; United States
   Kaleidoscope, A Multicultural Booklist for Grades K-8, Third Edition, 2001 ; National Council of Teachers of English; United States
   Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People, 1999 ; National Council for the Social Studies; United States
   Publishers Weekly Book Review Stars, April 1998 ; Cahners; United States
   Teachers' Choices, 1999 ; International Reading Association; United States
State and Provincial Reading Lists:
   Black-Eyed Susan Book Award Nominees, 2000 ; Maryland

The Blues Singers: Ten Who Rocked the World
Julius Lester
Illustrated by Lisa Cohen
   In this creative nonfiction book, award-winning author Julius Lester takes us down a long, hard road known as "the blues." Lester looks briefly at the lives of ten of the great ones, men and women who shaped this unique brand of American music throughout the twentieth century. Lester tells it 'like it was' in the voice of a grandfather passing on a legacy to the younger generation. In brief biographical sketches, he introduces ten African-American blues legends: Bessie Smith, Robert Johnson, Mahalia Jackson, Muddy Waters, Billie Holiday, B.B. King, Ray Charles, Little Richard, James Brown and Aretha Franklin. Included are bibliographies of books and web sites for young readers interested in more information about these and other blues singers, as well as a "recommended listening" list of blues recordings. Lisa Cohen's portraits of the ten featured blues singers are simple, strong and expressive...like the music itself. Here's a book to give kids something to shout about. 2001, Jump at the Sun/Hyperion Books for Children, Ages 9 to 12, $16.49 and $15.99. Reviewer: Dianne Ochiltree
ISBN: 0-7868-2405-0
ISBN: 0-7868-0463-7
Best Books:
   The Best Children's Books of the Year, 2002 ; Bank Street College of Education; United States
   Capitol Choices, 2001 ; The Capitol Choices Committee; United States
   Children's Catalog, Eighteenth Edition, Supplement, 2002 ; H.W. Wilson; United States
   Parent's Guide to Children's Media, 2001 ; Parent's Guide to Children's Media, Inc.; United States
   Middle and Junior High School Library Catalog, Supplement to the Eighth Edition, 2002 ; H.W. Wilson; United States
   Publishers Weekly Book Review Stars, May 2001 ; Cahners; United States
   School Library Journal Book Review Stars, June 2001 ; Cahners; United States
   School Library Journal: Best Books, 2001 ; Cahners; United States
State and Provincial Reading Lists:
    North Carolina Children's Book Award, 2003 ; North Carolina

From Slave Ship to Freedom Road From Slave Ship to Freedom Road
Julius Lester
Paintings by Rod Brown
   When the writer Julius Lester viewed Rod Brown's "visceral response" to slavery in thirty-six paintings created over a period of seven years, he began to reexamine his feelings. Their book >From Slave Ship to Freedom Road opens a dialogue with readers, starting with Lester's prologue which is "begging, pleading, imploring you not to be passive, but to invest soul and imagine yourself into the images." He doesn't really need this invocation. His words and Brown's paintings speak for themselves; they offer a view into the soul of the slavery. The raw power of the emotions in the paintings are increased by the honest and direct questioning in Lester's exercises of the imagination which examine shame, anger and understanding. 1998, Dial, Ages 9 up, $17.99. Reviewer: Susie Wilde

John Henry John Henry
Julius Lester
Illustrated by Jerry Pinkney
   "This tale attempts to be faithful to the indomitable human spirit John Henry embodies" is the opening line on a soft yellow page that introduces this African-American folk hero. John Henry challenges a steam drill in a tunnel-digging contest. He wins, but the exertion proves to be his undoing. Award winning artist Jerry Pinkney's absolutely beautiful watercolors reflect the strength, emotions and awe of John Henry and his exploits. A book for reading aloud and to be treasured for a lifetime. 1994, Dial, Ages 4 to 8, $16.99 and $16.89. Reviewer: Marilyn Courtot
ISBN: 0-8037-1606-0
ISBN: 0-8037-1607-9
Best Books:
   Adventuring with Books: A Booklist for Pre-K--Grade 6, 1997 ; National Council of Teachers of English; United States
   Bulletin Blue Ribbons, 1994 ; Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books; United States
   Children's Catalog, Eighteenth Edition, 2001 ; H.W. Wilson; United States
   Kaleidoscope, A Multicultural Booklist for Grades K-8, Second Edition, 1997 ; National Council of Teachers of English; United States
   Notable Children's Books in the Language Arts, 1995 ; National Council of Teachers of English; United States
   Recommended Literature: Kindergarten through Grade Twelve, 2002 ; California Department of Education; California
   Teachers' Choices, 1995 ; International Reading Association; United States
Awards, Honors, Prizes:
   ABC Children's Booksellers Choices Award Winner 1995 Folktales United States
   Aesop Prize Winner 1994 United States
   Boston Globe--Horn Book Awards Winner 1995 Illustration United States
   Golden Sower Award Winner 1997 K-3 Nebraska
   Randolph Caldecott Medal Honor Book 1995 United States
State and Provincial Reading Lists:
   Kentucky Bluegrass Award, 1996 ; Kentucky
   South Carolina Book Awards, 1997 ; South Carolina

Long Journey Home-Stories from Black History
Julius Lester
   The masterfully written stories in this rich compendium of African-American history are based on historical fact. Spanning the period of slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction, this book introduces readers to several people and events. We meet the adolescent slave named Louis who flees a plantation in Kentucky and crosses the Ohio River to ostensible freedom in Cincinnati, only to discover that he cannot escape from his master's reach. Ben lives on the McGuire plantation in Kentucky. Raised with his master's white son, he is as highly regarded as a slave can be. Ben is an integral part of running the plantation until his master dies and his role changes, when he is whipped and brutalized by the new overseer who is determined to put Ben in his place. There is much to appreciate here-finely sketched characters, poignant experiences and insight into the lives of African-Americans in 19th century America. An excellent choice for all readers, adults and children alike, this title, a National Book Award finalist and a School Library Journal Book of the Year, is also ideal for schools and libraries. 1998, (orig. 1972), Puffin/Penguin Books, Ages 12 up, $4.99. Reviewer: Bruce Adelson
ISBN: 0-14-038981-4
Best Books:
   Middle And Junior High School Library Catalog, Eighth Edition, 2000 ; H.W. Wilson; United States
   Recommended Literature: Kindergarten through Grade Twelve, 2002 ; California Department of Education; California

Pharaoh's Daughter: A Novel of Ancient Egypt   
Julius Lester
   Be prepared for an adventure, for sinking into this book is a far different experience than reading the Biblical story of the princess who pulled from the bulrushes a basket containing the baby she named Mosheh, Moses. Nor is it much like the famous movie starring Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner; nor like the current video, The Prince of Egypt. Rather, this novel introduces a complex tale of identity, personal knowledge, privilege and risk told through the voices of Mosis (the author's decision as a more authentic spelling of the name) and his sister. And the sister turns out to be not the Miriam with whom we are all familiar, the one who took her timbrel and sang and danced with the women of Israel after the Exodus at the "Red" Sea, or Sea of Reeds. This older sister, Almah, (Hebrew--a young woman of marriageable age) is the one sent by the princess (later named Batya, daughter of God, by our sages) to find the baby's mother and bring her to the palace to nurse the infant. In the twists of the novel, Almah and Batya are two distinct personalities who later change places--the young Hebrew maiden assumes her true identity as an Egyptian priestess, while Pharoah's daughter joins the Habiru slaves. Swirling throughout all is the identity crisis of the baby, the prince, who knows his origins but loathes the thought of rejoining a people of lowly status when he so loves the luxury of palace life and doesn't know how this dilemma will be resolved. Newbery Honor Recipient Julius Lester, himself a Jew by choice, writes believably about souls who seem to be born to places from which they must move on in order to be who they are. His own personal affinity for ancient Egypt, which is shared in the end Author's Note, drove him to study and transmit intriguing details into his book. It's a super read and a real mind-bender and includes some sensual nudity and ritual which, while common in ancient Egypt, should be a caution for readers younger than twelve. 2000, Silver Whistle/Harcourt, $17.00. Ages 12 up. Reviewer: Judy Chernak
ISBN: 0-15-201826-3
Best Books:
   The Best Children's Books of the Year, 2001 ; Bank Street College of Education; United States
   Books for You: An Annotated Booklist for Senior High, Fourteenth Edition, 2001 ; National Council of Teachers of English; United States
   Children's Choices, 2001 ; International Reading Association; United States
   Middle And Junior High School Library Catalog, Supplement to the Eighth Edition, 2001 ; H.W. Wilson; United States
   Publishers Weekly Book Review Stars, January 2000 ; Cahners; United States
   Top Shelf Fiction for Middle School Readers, 2000 ; Voice of Youth Advocates; United States
State and Provincial Reading Lists:
   Dorothy Canfield Fisher Children's Book Award, 2001-2002 ; Vermont

Sam and the Tigers Sam and the Tigers
Julius Lester
Pictures by Jerry Pinkney
   Using a lilting, Southern voice, Lester retells Little Black Sambo, accompanied by fabulous watercolors from Pinkney. In this version, our hero is named Sam, just like everyone else in the magical town of Sam-sam-sa-mara, where animals act like people and most everyone lives in harmony. Sam decides that he is old enough to select his own new school wardrobe, so he gets a bright red coat, rich purple pants, blazing yellow jacket, brilliant green umbrella, and shiny silver shoes. Stopped by tigers on his way to school, Sam is forced to give up his beautiful new clothes, piece by piece. But all is not lost, as this smart little boy finally outwits the greedy tigers. The detailed illustrations are beautiful double-page scenes filled with warmth and humor. 1996, Dial, Ages 4 to 8, $15.99. Reviewer: Marilyn Courtot
ISBN: 0-8037-2028-9
Best Books:
   Bulletin Blue Ribbons, 1996 ; Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books; United States
   Capitol Choices, 1996 ; The Capitol Choices Committee; United States
   Children's Catalog, Eighteenth Edition, 2001 ; H.W. Wilson; United States
   Editors' Choice: Books for Youth, 1996 ; American Library Association-Booklist; United States
   Kaleidoscope, A Multicultural Booklist for Grades K-8, Third Edition, 2001 ; National Council of Teachers of English; United States
   Lasting Connections, 1996 ; American Library Association; United States
   Notable Books for Children, 1997 ; American Library Association-ALSC; United States
   Notable Books for Children, 1996 ; American Library Association-ALSC; United States
   Notable Children's Trade Books in the Field of the Social Studies, 1996 ; National Council for the Social Studies; United States
   Publishers Weekly Book Review Stars, August 1996 ; Cahners; United States
   Recommended Literature: Kindergarten through Grade Twelve, 2002 ; California Department of Education; California
   School Library Journal Book Review Stars, August 1996 ; Cahners; United States
   School Library Journal: Best Books, 1996 ; Cahners; United States
Awards, Honors, Prizes:
   ABC Children's Booksellers Choices Award Winner 1997 Folktales and Poetry United States
State and Provincial Reading Lists:
   Georgia Children's Literature Awards, 1999 ; Georgia
   Pennsylvania Young Readers' Choice Award, 1999-2000 ; Pennsylvania

When Dad Killed Mom
Julius Lester
   Although I admire Julius Lester's work, I didn't want to read this book. A good friend was murdered by her husband, leaving three children orphans. It was too close to home. I opened the book anyway-and couldn't put it down. Twelve-year-old Jeremy and fourteen-year-old Jenna tell the story in alternating chapters. Their voices are compelling, drawing the reader into the drama, never letting up as they pass through stages of disbelief, grief, and the slow process of putting their lives in some sort of order. Jeremy is deep and lovable from the start; Jenna's flaky façade slowly crumbles to reveal an adolescent who might grow into someone special. Fueling this passage is the mystery of why their father acted as he did. The conclusion is believable. It is believable because Lester is such a fine and caring writer. 2001, Silver Whistle/Harcourt, Ages 12 up, $17.00. Reviewer: Kathleen Karr
ISBN: 0-15-216305-0
Best Books:
   Middle and Junior High School Library Catalog, Supplement to the Eighth Edition, 2002 ; H.W. Wilson; United States
   Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers, 2002 ; American Library Association-Booklist-YALSA; United States
   Teens' Top Ten List, 2001 ; American Library Association-YALSA; United States
State and Provincial Reading Lists:
   Tayshas High School Reading List, 2002 ; Texas

Why Heaven is Far Away
Julius Lester
Illustrated by Joe Cepeda
   Basing the bones of the story on two old African folktales he told in Black Folktales, "Why the Sky Is Far Away" and "How the Snake Got Its Rattles," Julius Lester has fashioned an irreverent, hip, and funny new story of God, Mrs. God, Bruce the Secretary, and Shaniqua, the angel in charge of everybody's business. It seems that back when the world was new, the snakes were eaten by everyone so when Shaiqua points out this iniquity to God, God has Bruce look up "snake poison" on the computer, gives it to snakes to use when they are threatened, and things are fine. That is, until the snakes start biting all that moves, humans start climbing the ladders to heaven to complain, and everything is in chaos both up there and down here. So Shaniqua and Mrs. God decide to sing up a commotion and as everyone dances, some snakes lose their poison, the creatures dance back down to earth and God declares that from now on, to save having poison protection, snakes will mostly just scare people, and then he pulls the ladders up so that earth can work out its own problems instead of running to heaven whenever something goes wrong. Lester has a fine time with language, alliteration, similes, and the ludicrous mix of contemporary high-fives and God-cheers from the heavenly choir with the traditional-leaning story. Cepeda's oil painting illustrations abound with funny juxtapositions and are as hip and humorous as the text. Like "What a Truly Cool World," this is an exhilarating tale, one that's fun to read aloud with illustrations that bear up well over multiple readings, and a theme perhaps that the world has to handle some affairs on its own. It is also a great choice for older readers to notice how one creates characters, setting, plot, and theme with economy, using the structures of traditional literature. 2002, Scholastic, Ages 5 to 11, $16.95. Reviewer: Susan Hepler
ISBN: 0-439-17871-1

 

Updated 04/26/06

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