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Review of the Day: Let’s Clap, Jump, Sing & Shout; Dance, Spin & Turn It Out! by Patricia C. McKissack, ill. Brian Pinkney

LetsClapJumpLet’s Clap, Jump, Sing & Shout; Dance, Spin & Turn It Out! Games, Songs & Stories from an African American Childhood
By Patricia McKissack
Illustrated by Brian Pinkney
Schwartz & Wade (an imprint of Penguin Random House)
$24.99
ISBN: 978-0-375-87088-0
All ages
On shelves now.

Would you like to know the last film Orson Welles ever appeared in? It was Transformers: The Movie from 1986. The great Raul Julia? His last film was the video game adaptation Street Fighter in 1994. Random facts. What’s my point exactly? Well, none of us know when we’re going to die, so it wouldn’t be the worst idea to treat every project you work on as your last. On April 7, 2017 the great author Patricia McKissack passed away. Prior to that, on January 10th, her collection of African American poems and songs, parables and rhymes Let’s Clap, Jump, Sing & Shout was published. A luscious offering of fables, children’s rhymes, historical details, and chants, it is, in many ways, McKissack’s magnum opus. If you are an artist and you’re going to exit this world, bow out like Patricia McKissack. Leave behind something as meaningful as it is beautiful. Leave behind a masterpiece.

“Our earliest toys are our hands, feet, and voices,” writes Patricia McKissack. Now take those toys. Put them to good use. In Let’s Clap, Jump, Sing & Shout Ms. McKissack draws upon material with origins in Africa, the Caribbean, and America. She organizes the book in terms of age, starting with the earliest of hand rhymes and claps, then morphing into jump rope rhymes and games. Circle games and ring shouts are followed by more serious material, like spirituals and hymns, proverbs and psalms. Covering every possible form of storytelling, we are treated to fables, superstitions, and “mama sayings” before the book closes with “performance pieces inspired by African American writers” and finally, folktales and storytelling. All this, additional Notes, a Bibliography, and an Index round out the piece. McKissack isn’t merely recording schoolyard rhymes with her book. She’s tying history into those rhymes kids might chant on the bus, giving them weight and context and, ultimately, respect.

LetsClap2Lots of children’s book authors and illustrators have turned to nursery rhymes over the years for inspiration. Shel Silverstein often visited the children’s bookstore Books of Wonder in Manhattan to add old editions to his collection. Maurice Sendak put out his own collection I Saw Esau: The Schoolchild’s Pocket Book with the aid of the Opies. When I settled on reviewing this book I figured it would be easy to conjure up a list of other collections of African-American rhymes and songs. I’d seen them mentioned in books like Over the Hills and Far Away, edited by Elizabeth Hammill, so how hard could it be? But as I sat in my chair, staring into space, wracking my brain, I eventually came to the horrifying (to me) realization that until now there really hasn’t been a definitive book like this one. Fortunately, Ms. McKissack includes an extensive Bibliography in the back of her book. Look there and you’ll see mentions of books like Kyra D. Gaunt’s The Games Black Girls Play: Learning the Ropes from Double-Dutch to Hip-Hop. In terms of rhymes, though, that is it. I think it’s fair to say this book was a long time coming and could be described, quite accurately, as overdue.

Reading this book I came to it expecting to find a delightful collection of old favorites. I was delighted to find some new rhymes unknown to me (“Eenie Meenie Sassafreeny”, “Jump Back, Honey, Jump Back”) and I was flummoxed when I discovered not only the rhymes with African-American roots (“Patty-Cake”, “Solomon Grundy”) but also how many of these rhymes made it into rock n’ roll hits of the 1960s, and were in turn made from popular songs (“Shake Your Body” ala Harry Belafonte). For example, the ring shout “Little Sally (Waters) Walker” contains the line “Rise, Sally, Rise”. You learn something new every day.

Ms. McKissack talks a little in her Introduction about why she chose to write this book. As she puts it, “In writing this book, I have relied heavily upon my own play experiences as a child . . . This really is a collection of my favorite childhood games, songs, poetry, and stories that are directly linked to my African American heritage.” And had she chosen to do so, she could have just limited this book to those games, songs, and rhymes. What makes the collection far more interesting is her ability to add in some context. So you’ll have your jump rope rhymes in the “Turn About” chapter, as well as songs inspired by the Underground Railroad in the “Follow the Drinking Gourd” section after that. The psalms were a surprise to me, no doubt about it. The casual inclusion of Christian selections in any book for kids that doesn’t come from a specifically religious publisher is a rarity. But it was in the last chapter where I felt Ms. McKissack was really taking her final bow. Over the years she’s produced such memorable books as Porch Lies: Tales of Slicksters, Tricksters, and Other Wily Characters, tall tales like A Million Fish . . . More Or Less, and the unforgettable The Dark-Thirty: Southern Tales of the Supernatural (also done alongside Brian Pinkney). Chapter 9 of Let’s Clap, Jump, Sing & Shout feels like a victory lap, reminding us of just how much we lost when Ms. McKissack passed away, and how much she left behind for us to enjoy.

LetsClap1Accompanying McKissack is her longtime collaborator Brian Pinkney. Mr. Pinkney is such an interesting illustrator to watch. If you weren’t paying attention you might assume that his art looks the same in every book he does. It would be more accurate to note how the man is always trying new things. Whether it’s scratchboards or watercolors, he isn’t afraid to adapt to whatever book he’s accompanying. In this title the forms and figures are consistently circular. His watercolors’ brush strokes swoop over and around and around and over. Even if a character is in a static position, standing or praying, lines of paint swoop about, connecting. I was curious whether or not Mr. Pinkney would include any information at the end of the book about why he chose to return to the circle movement. It’s not like he hasn’t done it in books before. His Hush, Little Baby for example, is a little more precise with its brushstrokes than what we’re seeing here, but no less circular. No official word on his reasons exists, though he does have a Note at the beginning of the book that says that “When I touched paintbrush to paper, the images danced from my hand onto the page.” I think it’s fair to say that when you’re trying to convey movement, a circle is an effective tool to have in your back pocket.

Sometimes my six-year-old will come home from school and proudly announce the rhymes she learned on the bus that day. She hasn’t yet quite learned that these rhymes are supposed to be forbidden to adult ears. So while I still can, I listen. Some of the rhymes she recites are found in this book (“Shame” is a staple) while others are all new to me. When we consider whether or not Let’s Clap, Jump, Sing & Shout is just a fancy reference book or a collection that you could actually use with children, recall too that nothing in this book is dead and gone. As Ms. McKissack writes herself, “Like all folk expressions, they have continually morphed over the years, and continue to do so today.” Share this book with a classroom of kids. Share this book with your own kid when they start chanting something that they think is out of earshot. Share this book with any kid you can imagine, but share this book. Share the works of Patricia McKissack, a woman whose contributions to children’s literature will be remembered long after you and I are gone. Share her great works.

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

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Misc: While tooling around Kirkus, looking for McKissack reviews I stumbled on this book from 1994. Called The Royal Kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and Songhay: Life in Medieval Africa. Written for kids between the ages of 11-15 I just can’t think of ANY books out there that cover this material today. Someone over at Henry Holt should give this book a thorough redesign.  Make it attractive, eye-popping, and maybe edit some of the material and I would bet you could have a book that could be paired alongside another recent republished title (to overwhelmingly positive reception) The People Shall Continue by Simon J. Ortiz, which provides what may well be the best Native American history lesson kids could ever get.

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About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.

Comments

  1. Thank you, Betsy, for this fabulous review. I’ll be looking for this one!