Inspiring Young Readers

posted on 30 Jun 2020

Little Man Little Man by James Baldwin

This was James Baldwin’s first and only attempt at a children’s book. Published in 1976 it was met by a wave of complete indifference and almost immediately went out of print. Critics hated the book and, by all accounts, Baldwin himself found the task of writing it exhausting and difficult and this added to the collective wisdom that the book was a howler.

Well, just how wrong can you be. Far from being a turkey, this really is a wonderful book. But I can see why people had trouble with it – it inhabits that really odd territory somewhere between a children’s and an adult readership that might now be labelled ‘young adult’. It’s a book that breaks the rules and now forty years later it looks like it was well ahead of its time and demonstrates what we would consider a very modern sensibility. So much so in fact that a couple of years ago it was ‘rediscovered’, reprinted and given glowing reviews.

Baldwin wrote the book while he was living in self-imposed exile in France, on the run effectively from what he saw as corrosive American racism. So it’s not really surprising that the everyday drama and fights for survival of Black communities are the canvas against which Baldwin’s youngsters live out their lives in these pages. Baldwin makes free use of his family, inspired as he was by the pleas of his nephew, Tejan Karefa-Smart to write a book that included him in it. So, we are introduced to 4-year-old TJ who becomes our eyes and ears as he hangs out on the street with 7-year-old WT and 8-year-old Blinky. Their day is filled with all sorts of remarkable characters, joyful music, neighbours doing each other favours, Mr Man the building caretaker and plenty of lurking potential jeopardy. On these streets you’re just as likely to see a police chase as a game of ball, drug dealing or children playing marbles.

When the book was reissued and reviewed by Kirkus, they quite astutely noted:

“The people, places, and circumstances that TJ and readers encounter are emblematic of many issues children’s literature still struggles to represent today: Alcoholism, drug addiction, economic disparity, street violence, and racism all make appearances in critical yet loving ways.”

What adds to the vitality and authenticity of the book is Baldwin’s superb use of the vernacular and his refusal to write down to an assumed audience. Some aficionados of children’s picture books will almost certainly think that Baldwin’s book is over-wordy and dense but when the prose zings along in the way it does, I really don’t see it as a problem.

One of the added attractions of Little Man Little Man is that it is lavishly illustrated by French artist Yoran Cazac. Cazac had never visited Harlem and relied on Baldwin to give him detailed descriptions of what he had in mind as he wrote his story. The result is a set of almost soft-focus watercolour illustrations that are generously scattered throughout. There are also some really impressive double-page spread paintings that make family life almost tangible and, despite the often grim circumstances, filled with a sort of bright sunlight.

Our copy is an original first edition that we were lucky to stumble on several years back when the book was still largely unknown. I gather that the reprint has an editors’ introduction and an afterword by Baldwin’s niece Aisha Karefa-Smart to give a bit more background – so that’s a bonus.


Terry Potter

June 2020