Book Review: The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales
by Virginia Hamilton, Illustrated by Leo & Diane Dillon
- A Top 10 Book in the “Black Fairy Tale Books” Category
- A Top 150 Children’s Book
- 4 Time AALBC.com Bestselling Book!
- Coretta Scott King Award Winning Book 2005
Publication Date: Nov 11, 2004
List Price: $16.95
Format: Hardcover, 32 pages
Target Age Group: Middle Grade
Imprint: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Parent Company: Bertelsmann
Book Reviewed by Kam Williams
"The People Could Fly is one of the most extraordinary, moving tales in black folklore… [It] is a detailed fantasy of suffering, of magic power exerted against the so-called Master and his underlings. Finally, it is a powerful testament to the millions of slaves who never had the opportunity to ’fly’ away. They remained slaves, as did their children. The People Could Fly was first told and retold by those who had only their imaginations to set them free."
’Excerpted from the Author’s Note, (pg. 32)
During the nightmare that was slavery, one of the coping mechanisms
African-Americans relied upon to endure the never-ending ordeal was the sharing
of magical folklore which offered a glimmer of hope. These fanciful fables,
invariably celebrating the indomitability of the human spirit, were secretly
recounted by elders and thereby and passed down from generation to generation
via oral tradition.
In 1985, Virginia Hamilton (1936-2002) published two dozen still-surviving slave stories as a means of preserving a soon to be forgotten aspect of African-American history. Now, The People Could Fly, the titular tale from that award-winning opus, has been deemed worthy of a re-release, standing alone in its own right.
Regrettably, Ms. Hamilton, the first children’s book author ever to receive a genius grant from the MacArthur Foundation, passed away a few years ago. However, her animated voice can still be heard here accompanied by James Earl Jones on the CD accompanying this edition. The book also features new airbrushed illustrations by Leo and Diane Dillon, the acclaimed artists who had collaborated on the original.
While ultimately uplifting, The People Could Fly does contain descriptions of some of the indignities and brutalities doled out during slavery. Although this might frighten some youngsters in the target audience, remember that much more graphic accounts of violence have been standard fairy tale fare for ages.
Since nobody was scarred for life by regularly reciting Jack & Jill, Humpty
Dumpty or Rock-a-Bye-Baby, then I suspect it’s probably okay for kids to hear
about the anguish of the Middle Passage and the crack of the master’s whip on