The Old African

The Old African

By Julius Lester; Jerry Pinkney (Illustrator)

Dial Books, Hardcover, 9780803725645, 79pp.

Publication Date: September 8, 2005

No one on the plantation had ever heard the Old African's voice, yet he had spoken to all of them in their minds. For the Old African had the power to see the color of a person's soul and read his thoughts as if they were words on a page. Now it was time to act time to lead his fellow slaves to the Water-That-Stretched-Forever, and from there back to Africa. Back to their home.

Based on legend and infused with magical realism, this haunting tale is beautiful in both its language and its images. Julius Lester and Jerry Pinkney have found a new, extraordinary way to express the horrors of slavery and the hope and strength that managed to overcome its grip.

About the Author
Julius Lester is the author of the Newbery Honor Book To Be a Slave, the Caldecott Honor Book John Henry, the National Book Award finalist The Long Journey Home: Stories from Black History, and the Coretta Scott King Award winner Day of Tears. He is also a National Book Critics Circle nominee and a recipient of the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award. His most recent picture book, Let's Talk About Race, was named to the New York Public Library's "One Hundred Titles for Reading and Sharing." In addition to his critically acclaimed writing career, Mr. Lester has distinguished himself as a civil rights activist, musician, photographer, radio talk-show host, and professor. For thirty-two years he taught at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He lives in western Massachusetts.

Jerry Pinkney is the illustrator of more than a hundred books for children. A five-time winner of both the Caldecott Honor and the Coretta Scott King Award, he has been recognized with numerous other honors, taught illustration and conducted workshops at universities across the country, and created art for the United States Postal Service's Black Heritage stamps. Books Mr. Pinkney has illustrated include The Ugly Duckling, John Henry, The Nightingale, and Noah's Ark. The father of four grown children, he lives and works in Croton-on-Hudson, New York, in a nineteenth-century carriage house with his wife, author Gloria Jean. In His Own Words...

"I grew up in a small house in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I was a middle child of six. I started drawing as far back as I can remember, at the age of four or five. My brothers drew, and I guess in a way I was mimicking them. I found I enjoyed the act of putting marks on paper. It gave me a way of creating my own space and quiet time, as well as a way of expressing myself. You can imagine six children competing for attention and to be heard. I would sit, watching and drawing.

"In first grade I had the opportunity to draw a large picture of a fire engine on the blackboard. I was complimented and encouraged to draw more. The attention felt good, and I wanted more. I was not a terrific reader or adept speller in my growing-up years, and I felt insecure in those areas. Drawing helped me build my self-esteem and feel good about myself, and, with hard work, I graduated from elementary school with honors.

"I attended an all-black elementary school, and I gained a strong sense of self and an appreciation of my own culture there. But Roosevelt Junior High was integrated. There I had many friends, both white and black, at a time when there was little mixing socially in school. There the spark for my curiosity about people was lit. You can see this interest and fascination with people of different cultures throughout my work.

"My formal art training started at Dobbins Vocational High School, and upon graduation I received a scholarship to the Philadelphia Museum College of Art. My major was advertising and design. The most exciting classes for me were drawing, painting, and printmaking. It is no wonder I turned to illustrating and designing books. For me the book represents the ultimate in graphics: first, as a designer, considering space, page size, number of pages, and type size; then, as an illustrator, dealing with the aesthetics of line, color, and form.

"There were three books that somehow magically came into my possession in the early sixties: The Wind in the Wows, illustrated by Arthur Rackham; The Wonder Clock, illustrated by Howard Pyle; and Rain Makes Applesauce, illustrated by Marvin Bileck. You can see those influences in my art today. Later, my work was greatly influenced by such African American artists as Charles White, Romare Bearden, and Jacob Lawrence.

"From the very beginning of my career in illustrating books, research has been important. I do as much as possible on a given subject, so that I live the experience and have a vision of the people and places. To capture a sense of realism for characters in my work, I use models that resemble the people I want to portray. My wife, Gloria Jean (also an author), and I keep a closetful of old clothes to dress up the models, and I have the models act out the story. Photos are taken to aid me in better understanding body language and facial expressions. Once I have that photo in front of me I have freedom, because the more you know, the more you can be inventive.

"For illustrating stories about animals, I keep a large reference file of over a hundred books on nature and animals. The first step in envisioning a creature is for me to pretend to be that particular animal. I think about its size and the sounds it makes, how it moves (slowly or quickly), and where it lives. I try to capture the feeling of the creature, as well as its true-to-life characteristics. There are times when the stories call for the animals to be anthropomorphic, and I've used photographs of myself posing as the animal characters.

"It still amazes me how much the projects I have illustrated have given back to me in terms of personal and artistic satisfaction. They have given me the opportunity to use my imagination, to draw, to paint, to travel through the voices of the characters in the stories, and, above all else, to touch children."

Praise For The Old African

"Whips sink into bare flesh and red blood glistens in Lester’s painfully vivid, four-part story of the horrors of slavery that evolves into a fantastical escape myth. When a runaway boy named Paul is brutally beaten by Master Riley, his anguish triggers a flashback of the magical, shape-shifting Old African to the terror and stench of the slave ships he experienced ten years previous. Paul’s vision inspired cry “Water! Water!” stirs the Old African to lead the slaves off the plantation to the ocean, the Water-That-Stretched- Forever. Fully clothed, the slaves walk into the waves to their freedom, down onto the ocean floor, over the bones of fellow captured slaves, all the way back to Africa where their homecoming is joyful and triumphant. Both author and artist draw on a story originating with the Ybo slaves of coastal Georgia for this moving collaboration. Lester’s prose is powerful and poetic, and Pinkney outdoes himself in hauntingly expressive, often wordless double-page paintings that masterfully capture the strength and suffering of the African people."
-Kirkus Reviews, starred review

"Lester’s story is based on a legend about Ybo Landing, GA, where a group of slaves walked into the water, saying they were walking to Africa. His resulting novella-length allegory about spirit, memory, and freedom shows how hope can live in a people even when the spirit dies... Lester and Pinkney combine their talents here to create an unusual, complex, and thought-provoking offering in which the Old African is the keeper of a power that brings comfort and, ultimately, salvation to his people."
-School Library Journal, starred review