Take a Picture of Me, James VanDerZee!

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Andrea J. Loney and Keith Mallett’s New Voices Award Winner Take a Picture of Me, James VanDerZee! is one that, according to author Loney herself, “celebrate[s] the humanity of all children.” In this case, the child celebrated is James VanDerZee, an African-American boy born in 1886 to the former butler and maid of President Ulysses S. Grant. James himself, however, has a different future in mind: He wants to be an artist. James craves a way to “share the beauty he [sees] in his heart,” but his drawings of people never turn out quite right…so he ends up entering and winning a contest for his very own camera. Here, James does something quite mature: he neither gives up on a dream nor remains desperately grasping at an impossibility, instead adapting his plan as he sees and learns new things. Such a nuanced message is not often found in children’s books, and I wonder whether its poignancy stems from the fact that the story of James VanDerZee is a true one.

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James craves a way to “share the beauty he [sees] in his heart.”

This authenticity is evident in Mallett’s artistry as well. Illustrations in a book that centers on the life of an artist have high expectations to meet – but these delightful images deliver. The pictures of James with his camera are almost reverent, a beautiful glow from the device lighting James’ body and face so that he melts like butter against the soft, dark backdrop of the page.

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But the book is not all beauty and light. Loney does not shy away from reality, acknowledging in no uncertain terms the racism that James faces. I admire her willingness to speak of “segregation,” of the way that 19th century “customers would not want their portraits taken by a black man” – and also the way that Loney is able to illustrate resilience of black people in the face of these obstacles. James’ foray into the Harlem Renaissance comes alongside vivid depictions that are as jubilant as the “cultural celebration” itself.

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The book ends with a historical exploration: real photographs, as well as information about James that was not found in the book. It is always my hope that this type of story, told compellingly, will engage children not only in literacy and reading but in history and activism as well; the notes at the end of Take A Picture of Me, James VanDerZee! are ideal to pique a child’s interest in research after being drawn into James’ life through the narrative. 

-Addison Armstrong

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