Going Down Home with Daddy

Going Down Home with Daddy's back cover boldly announces, “Nothing is more important than family.” It's a palpable sentiment throughout the story.

A Black family of four wakes before dawn to pack the car for a trip “down home” to Daddy’s family reunion, an event they surely attend regularly. During the drive, the protagonist, Lil Alan, a boy with brown skin, full lips, a flat-top haircut, glasses, and deep brown eyes, looks sleepily out at the reader while Sis sleeps with her head leaned back against the seat. Momma encourages Lil Alan to sleep, but he can’t, worrying that he’s the only one who won’t have a suitable gift for the extended family’s anniversary celebration of “75 years of owning the land, purchased by a farmer and a teacher.” After they greet Granny and hug the relatives, Lil Alan sees his cousins preparing a song (“His Eye Is on the Sparrow”), a poem (Langston Hughes’s “Mother to Son”), or something handmade, for the celebration. Lil Alan frets over what he lacks, but in the end he composes, from his heart and from tangible artifacts of the land, a short but powerful speech that receives affirmations all around. 

This story resembles, at least descriptively, books like Cynthia Rylant and Stephen Gammell’s The Relatives Came and Katie Yamasaki’s When the Cousins Came — stories of meaningful family gatherings. But what makes this picture book stand out from all of these other family-positive books is (like Donald Crews's Bigmama's) its unrelenting, unapologetic embrace of African Americanness. Kelly Starling Lyons’s text — lyrical, poetic, and perfectly paced — employs language that echoes the lives of generations past while it celebrates the here-ness and now-ness of the land’s contemporary inhabitants. Daddy tells the kids, “Cotton has been on this land a long time, just like us ... Pa would drive your Uncle Jay and me on a tractor just like this one. Look to your left, Pa would say. Look to your right. The land just seemed to go on forever. Everything you see, Pa told us, is ours.” A tractor ride becomes a lesson of history, of culture, of family ,of — in Virginia Hamilton's words — rememory. And the children take it all in.

Lyons’s text stands on its own so well that it begs t obe read aloud — particularly by someone with the cadence of African American speech on her tongue. But when paired with Minter’s exquisite watercolor illustrations, new dimensions of the story unfold, offering visual affirmations of who this Black family is to one another and to their land. Like Minter's illustrations in So Tall Within: Sojourner Truth’s Long Walk Toward Freedom, these images have something in the background haunting them on every page — but not in a negative way. It's the haunting of memory that won’t allow any of the family members (or readers), from the youngest to the oldest, to forget the history of this place. Even before Lil Alan's family leaves their urban home, the white sketches of ants on his shirt connect him to the land. When the cousins walk near the fields, the ghostly outlines of watermelons — still on the vine — trail around their feet. Also appearing in the book in ghostly white are: a towering okra plant, abundant cotton bolls, and pecans off the tree, suspended in midair beside Lil Alan to remind him of what the subject of his tribute must be. Granny's chickens (my favorite of the book's visual treasures) must be the most beautiful domesticated birds in contemporary picture books. Displaying patterns not unlike those on Ukrainian Easter eggs, their colorful bodies don’t even need facial features for readers to guess that each probably has a personality as distinct as Granny’s. They, too, serve as reminders of this family’s ties to the land.

Underlying all of these agrarian ghosts from past and present are watercolor washes that almost look tie-dyed or like acid-washed jeans, primarily composed of blue and white stylized heart shapes in various configurations (on some pages they appear in earth tones of orange and yellow). Readers familiar with West African adinkra symbols will recognize these heart-shaped patterns as sankofa, an adinkra that means “learn from the past” or "go back and get it." Also associated with the sankofa bird, this symbol represents connecting the past with the present for a deeper understanding of how to shape the future. These symbols reach back to the family’s African roots in subtle but ever-present ways. Other visual reminders of Africa include broad lips and noses, the okra plant, Granny’s cowry-shell earrings, and the cornrows she wears in her hair in the style of the suku or basket, with a braid-wrapped bun on top. And once Lil Alan mentions the foods that Granny has spread on the table for the family feast — smoked turkey, collards, mac and cheese, okra and tomatoes, biscuits oozing with mayhaw jelly (made from the round red fruit of the hawthorn tree) — the distance between Granny’s kitchen and Big Ma’s kitchen in Mildred Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry series closes right up; Lil Alan and his family could walk right into Big Ma’s kitchen, and Cassie Logan and her family could stroll right into Granny’s and take a seat at the table. The high value that both families place on the land (especially since the Logan children also own all the land they can see from their house); their faith; their commitment to lifting up other Black people, starting with their immediate family; and their dedication to education and working hard on the land they own make this picture book an excellent companion to Taylor’s Logan family novels. 

From the spot-gloss cover that highlights the individuality of each of the cousins to the final page where Granny and her feathered friends bid farewell to her son and his family, readers can have no doubt of what’s important. In case they miss it, though, Granny wears a dress the color of fire on which Minter has drawn bare brown tree branches reaching upward toward her shoulders while the visible roots stretch earthward beyond her dress and down past the bottom of the page. Silhouetted and black-skinned here, Granny extends her hand, ostensibly to catch some water pouring from one of the watercolor hearts on the page. Granny is clearly rooted to her land, even as she watches her children and grandchildren return to the city. While the front endpapers feature the watercolor heart-shaped adinkras, the rear endpapers are covered with images of trees. Despite the fact that this is Lil Alan’s story, Minter intends for readers to linger on the land with Granny. Just as the ghost watermelons and cotton bolls and okra plants leave indelible impressions, this story will haunt readers long after the last page. This is a keeper.

Dr. Michelle H. Martin
Dr. Michelle H. Martin
Dr. Michelle H. Martin is the Beverly Cleary Professor for Children & Youth Services in the Information School at the University of Washington in Seattle.
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Emmie Stuart

Dr. Martin, reading your post with Daddy’s Way Home in my hand was such a rich experience. I made several notes to share with my students when I share the book with them. Thank-you for highlighting and explaining details like the traditional adrinka symbols in the watercolor washes and the designs on Granny’s dress. Minter’s illustrations are not only artistically layered, but (like the text) metaphorically layered.

Posted : Oct 12, 2019 02:58


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