West Virginia Book Festival

The incredible staying power of Arna Bontemps

I’ve read Harlem Renaissance writer Arna Bontemps to fifth graders before. But this year it was different.

My standard is “Bubber Goes to Heaven,” written in the early 1930s but not published until 1998. That year Oxford University Press brought it out with gorgeous carved and painted illustrations by Daniel Minter. It’s about a poor, African-American kid in Alabama who falls out of a tall pine tree and goes to heaven, where everyone has plenty to eat and all the washer women have plenty of work.

It always pleases the class where I am a Read Aloud volunteer. We get to discuss this child’s idea of heaven and what it reveals about his daily life in the rural South during the Great Depression.

It also always connects, despite being so removed in time, place and even dialect. The first year, when it became clear that the boy in the story was awarded a purple ribbon bookmark from Shiloh Baptist Church for learning the books of the Bible, a girl in the class piped up, “I have one of those.” Hers was also an award for scripture knowledge. Another year, a student commented that her church had the same name.

But this year, it sparked its own little Arna Bontemps revival, right there in Charleston, W.Va.’s Piedmont Elementary School. As soon as we finished the last page, the questions came fast.

“Are there any more of those?”

“Is that a series?”

“Is there another story in that book? What are those extra pages?”

It is not a series, I answered. There is another story with a character named Bubber. I had recently learned as much from one of the essays in the “extra pages” in the book. It is not clear whether it is the same character.

“If I can find another book by this author, would you like me to bring it?”

There was a chorus of “Yes.”

So, we all parted for a three-week school break, and I hurried to the computer to track down copies of “Lonesome Boy” and “Sad Faced Boy,” two of Bontemps’ other children’s books. I did not find them in recent reprints, but in older, less pristine forms. When school resumed, I dutifully carried in “Lonesome Boy,” what I considered the better of the two, and more likely to please. It tells the story of an older Bubber who so enjoys playing his trumpet, he plays it anytime, anywhere. His grandfather warns him not to play his instrument absent-mindedly, but always to pay attention to his surroundings. The young man heads off to New Orleans, forgets his grandfather’s advice, and catches himself in some bad and dangerous company.

The students liked it. They immediately spotted the contrast between the heavenly imagery of the first story and the devil imagery of the second. They begged for yet a third Arna Bontemps. So, with some inner reluctance, we read what I thought was the weakest, certainly the simplest, of the three, “Sad Faced Boy”. Three children hop a freight train and head to Harlem, where they stay with their uncle and have child-size adventures that contrast their 1930s rural life with the bustling life of New York City.

The physical volume itself had a story to tell. I’m so glad that someone somewhere along the way taught me not to judge a book by its cover, and so I told the class. Because this old, plain, worn burgundy cover had fraying corners, and it smelled. But we opened it anyway. The pages appeared to be from a first edition in 1937. They were delicate, but whole. The book had clearly been rebound. I pointed out to the students the biggest surprise. On the title page, among the many marks this book had acquired in its long journey, was a stamp from the Rowther Relocation Center in Arkansas. Relocation center? As in Japanese internment camp.

So before we read, we took a moment to understand where this book started out, and who might have read it, and what was going on in their world at the time. We examined some kid’s notes on the endpages — “5×8=40; 5×9=45.” That brought a sympathetic laugh.

And then we read of three boys who get into a parade, who form a band, who find the park, who eat ices. I would have thought the adventures were too quaint, too old-fashioned to impress these young sophisticates, but there was something both strange and familiar about these children leaving home to see the world.

We spent almost the whole term on this author in weekly installments, not by my plan, but by theirs. In the end, most of the 47 students said “Sad-Faced Boy” was their favorite of the three. That might have been because it was most recent in their memory. Or it might have been the intriguing journey taken by the book itself. In any case, after all these years, Bontemps still brings it.

Before the end of class, one student asked me how much the book is worth. Another one made me an offer to buy it. I call that a successful read aloud.