There Was a Party for Langston

Readers are beholden to the many writers and illustrators who continue to play catch-up with United States history, filling in huge gaps with books such as That Flag by Tameka Fryer Brown, illustrated by Nikkolas Smith, or Olaudah Equiano's story of his life as a slave, as told in Nearer My Freedom by Monica Edinger and Lesley Younge, and far too many others to name. With so many serious stories to tell, it's a joy when Jason Reynolds, no stranger to the tough stuff, finds reason to celebrate, centering a story on reimagined events surrounding the 1991 opening of the Langston Hughes Auditorium at the lauded Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem.

First, wouldn’t you love it if onlookers at your party lined up like book spines, names styled like publishers’ colophons and clothes as personable as hand-lettered fonts? James Baldwin, Gwendolyn Brooks, Ashley Bryan, Octavia Butler, Countee Cullen, W. E. B. DuBois, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Nikki Giovanni, Alex Haley, Zora! Claude McKay, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Richard Wright — is this not the A-List of every reader’s dreams? They are all side-eyeing the stamped illustrations on the pages to come, as the Pumphreys apply stylized typography throughout; e.g., drums made of hand-lettered THUMPS. With “wake-up stories and rise-and-shine rhyme” it is hard to know where Langston, Jason, Jerome, and Jarrett stop and start, so intertwined are the efforts here. To talk about the art is to talk about the words is to talk about the beat and the rhythm and is this the pulse of the city or Langston’s heart?

When the people on the spines of the books start leaning in like attendees at the opera waiting for the opening arias, the pages become ever more dynamic as the pumped-up party achieves heights no one will want to miss. By the time Reynolds reveals the inspiration scene that launched his vision, Maya and Amiri “boogie boogie wiggling wild,” will child onlookers be cheering along with adults? Can anyone resist this celebration? The word-shaping process that creates characters is an exercise in artistry that’s more like a come-hither-and-try-this than a throwdown, and few will resist the challenge.

Why pin hopes on There Was a Party for Langston and its Caldecott prospects? Maybe it’s that Jason Reynolds (and Dr. Kendi, all the Pinkneys, the Weatherfords) and so many other brilliant creators have toiled so hard to bring searing truths to American children about the racist history they’ve been wading in. Having landed on a moment of Black joy, Reynolds ran it up and down Harlem and electrified the guest list till readers couldn’t help but plug in, too. Pomp and ceremony characterize most adult gatherings, and children watch from the upper stairs; here they are invited in, to boogaloo and shimmy and shake with names as familiar as their own aunts and brothers. There Was a Party for Langston celebrates not just a particular poet but an era, a culture, and a turning point in history, and if history has failed to complete the turn, it is not for lack of hope, talent, and sights set on true justice and a real cause for celebration, still within our grasp.

[Read The Horn Book Magazine review of There Was a Party for Langston]

Kimberly Fakih

Kimberly Fakih is a Senior Editor, Picture Books, at School Library Journal.

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