We Are Here

When I purchase books for my children and the other young people in my family, I’m always looking for texts that will affirm them and their place in this world. Even in 2023, I know as Black children they may not see books that reflect them in their classrooms or as part of the curriculum they study in school.

This year a lot of the kids closest to me will be receiving We Are Here by Tami Charles and illustrated by Bryan Collier as holiday gifts. The companion book to the author-illustrator duo’s All Because You Matter is designed to encourage readers and spark pride among them. Charles’s powerful, lyrical message is enhanced by Collier’s watercolor and collage illustrations that draw readers into the text. The simple but strong, declarative title, We Are Here, and Collier’s futuristic cover show readers right away that this picture book is about celebrating Black resilience.

The cover features a young Black girl with a strong jaw, staring confidently off to the right side. She appears to be contemplating her place in the universe. She’s on a black background with several purple- and blue-tinted orbs around her. It’s unclear if these spheres represent planets, water droplets, or cells at the very center of creation, but all of it somehow fits. To her left are a stack of triangles in the same shade of purple as some of the orbs. Triangles will show up in Collier’s work throughout.

The endpapers feature a collage of shotgun houses. Their roofs create shadows and together form triangle after triangle. These geometric shapes formed by such simple wooden structures are very grounding.

The book opens with a smiling Black family standing in front of a shotgun house. In an illustrator’s note, Collier cites John Biggers’s shotgun house paintings as an inspiration. Beginning the book this way calls to mind a hardscrabble way of life for Black people in the American South during the mid-twentieth century. The girl from the cover is standing in front of her parents with her hair in large Afro puffs, a distinctly African American hairstyle that defies gravity. Her hair has what appears to be brightly colored glitter in it, but it could just as easily be stardust to align with the otherworldly vibe of the cover.

Charles addresses her free-verse text to this young girl. “The journey of who we are stretches beyond rivers, roads, mountains high-giving blue skies. We were cool-like-that from the beginning of time, can’t you see?”

One particularly vibrant spread speaks to early Africans’ accomplishments in astronomy and mathematics. We see a close-up of the girl’s face against a background similar to the book’s cover. She’s surrounded by orbs, some with numbers in them, and there’s what appears to be a stylized tool for navigation around one of her eyes. This is a perfect accompaniment to text about the role of Black people in studying astronomy and math. “We turned numbers to seasons and patterns, tracked moons in outer space…”

The book also addresses the recent past. Panels touch on the protests that erupted after the murder of George Floyd in 2020 and the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Black people’s contributions to music are celebrated in a collage that shows a bassist, a pianist, and a drummer. Another spread features musicians like Muddy Waters, Ella Fitzgerald, and Howlin’ Wolf standing in front of rows of shotgun houses. They’re joined by several (unknown) African drummers. Collier seems to be saying that modest beginnings produced many of the country’s most legendary artists, while pointing to their historical predecessors.

Several groups of people appear in front of shotgun houses over the course of the book: women wearing African headdresses, hip-hop DJs spinning records, protestors holding signs, and on the last spread, Black children, including the girl from the cover who towers over the homes with her right arm raised in a Black-power fist.

This powerful visual aligns well with the last two stanzas that encourage this girl, and by extension readers of this text, to expect their power to be questioned but to not be discouraged by this, but rather “let them know...you are brilliant, extraordinary, far-beyond-ordinary, the very best of who we are.”

[Read The Horn Book Magazine review of We Are Here]

Marva Anne Hinton

Marva Anne Hinton is articles development editor of The Horn Book, Inc.

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Julie Kring

I recently saw Brian Collier’s original illustration of the young girl with the shotgun houses at the gallery on the upper east side of New York City which houses and exhibits book illustrations. I believe it’s called the Society of illustrators or something like that. Anyway, I am a big fan of John Biggers, and wanted to learn more about Brian Collier‘s reference to his paintings of the shotgun, houses Thank you for sharing this, and confirming my thoughts about his inspiration. What a powerful book. What magnificent illustrations! As a former art teacher in Philadelphia and Camden, New Jersey, I so value these important and beautiful offerings to share with my students. Thank you thank you thank you!

Posted : Dec 28, 2023 01:04



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