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Children's Literature Reviews
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The people could fly : American Black folktales
told by Virginia Hamilton ; illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon.
Contributor biographical information
Contributor biographical information
Publisher description
Publisher description
New York : Knopf : Distributed by Random House, c1985.
xii, 178 p. : ill. ; 26 cm.


Bibliography: p. 175-178.
Retold Afro-American folktales of animals, fantasy, the supernatural, and desire for freedom, born of the sorrow of the slaves, but passed on in hope.

Best Books:

50 Multicultural Books Every Child Should Read, 2006 ; Cooperative Children's Book Center; United States
Best Children's Books of the Year, 2004 ; Bank Street College of Education; United States
Booklist Book Review Stars , Sep. 15, 2004 ; American Library Association; United States
Booklist Editors' Choice: Books for Youth, 2004 ; American Library Association; United States
Booklist Top 10 Black History Books for Youth, 2005 ; American Library Association; United States
Books to Read Aloud to Children of All Ages, 2003 ; Bank Street College of Education; United States
Children's Catalog, Eighteenth Edition, 2001 ; H.W. Wilson; United States
Children's Catalog, Eighteenth Edition, Supplement, 2005 ; H.W. Wilson; United States
Children's Catalog, Nineteenth Edition, 2006 ; H.W. Wilson; United States
Choices, 2005 ; Cooperative Children’s Book Center; United States
Kirkus Book Review Stars, November 1, 2004 ; United States
Middle And Junior High School Library Catalog, Eighth Edition, 2000 ; H.W. Wilson; United States
Middle and Junior High School Library Catalog, Ninth Edition, 2005 ; H.W. Wilson; United States
New York Times Notable Books, 2004 ; New York Times; United States
Notable Children's Books, 2005 ; American Library Association ALSC; United States
Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People, 2005 ; National Council for the Social Studies; United States
Publishers Weekly Best Children's Books , 2004 ; Cahners; United States
Publishers Weekly Book Review Stars, November 22, 2004 ; Cahners; United States
School Library Journal Book Review Stars, December 2004 ; Cahners; United States

Awards, Honors, Prizes:

Coretta Scott King Book Award, 1986 Honor Book Illustrator Award United States
Coretta Scott King Book Award, 1986 Winner Author United States
Coretta Scott King Book Award, 1986 Winner Author Award United States
Coretta Scott King Book Award, 2005 Honor Illustrator United States
New York Times Best Illustrated Children's Books of the Year, 2004 Winner United States
Parents' Choice Award, 1985 Gold Story Books United States
Parents' Choice Award, 2003 Gold Best 25 Books in 25 Years United States

State and Provincial Reading Lists:

Kentucky Bluegrass Award, 1988 ; Nominee; Kentucky

Curriculum Tools:

Link to Coretta Scott King curricular resources at
Link to Coretta Scott King curricular resources at

Reading Measurement Programs:

Accelerated Reader
Interest Level Middle Grade
Book Level 2.9
Accelerated Reader Points 0.5
Accelerated Vocabulary

Accelerated Reader
Interest Level Middle Grade
Book Level 4.3
Accelerated Reader Points 4
Accelerated Vocabulary

Lexile, MetaMetrics, Inc.
Adult Directed
Lexile Measure 480

Lexile, MetaMetrics, Inc.
Adult Directed
Lexile Measure AD480L

Reading Counts-Scholastic
Interest Level 3-5
Reading Level 4
Title Point Value 2
Lexile Measure AD 480

Reading Counts-Scholastic
Interest Level 3-5
Reading Level 4
Title Point Value 6
Lexile Measure 660


Hazel Rochman (Booklist, Sep. 15, 2004 (Vol. 101, No. 2))
The stirring title story in the late Virginia Hamilton's 1985 collection of American black folktales is an unforgettable slave escape fantasy, retold here in terse, lyrical prose that stays true to the oral tradition Hamilton knew from her family and her scholarly research. Leo and Diane Dillons' illustrations for the collection were in black and white, but the art here is beautiful full color, in the style of the cover of the collection. The large paintings are magic realism at its finest, with clear portraits showing individuals and the enduring connections between them. The images depict mass cruelty close up, but the faces of the characters Hamilton names are always distinct, even in the packed hold of the slave ships, when those "who could fly" lost their wings. Laboring in the cotton field, Sarah and her baby are whipped by the overseer. When elderly Toby helps them escape, the rhythmic paintings dramatize people flying to freedom, joining hands together in the sky. Each one is an individual, exquisitely (and differently) dressed in traditional African garb, an inspiration to those left behind, who "had only their imaginations to set them free." A final portrait shows Hamilton in kente cloth smiling above a loving family at home. This special picture-book story will be told and retold everywhere. Category: Books for Middle Readers--Nonfiction. 2004, Knopf, $16.95, $18.99. Gr. 3-9. Starred Review

Ken Marantz and Sylvia Marantz (Children's Literature)
Hamilton’s compelling retelling of this black folktale appeared originally in her 1985 collection with the same title. As a stand-alone in picture book format, it has been newly and profusely illustrated as a tribute to the author who died in 2002. The tale is told in the language and cadences of an African griot. When Africans were captured and brought to America as slaves, those who had known magic and could fly had to leave their wings behind, the story goes, but they kept their magic. When they are subjected to the cruelty of Master, Overseer, and Driver, old Toby helps first his daughter Sarah and her child to rise and fly away; then he and others who are stricken rise and go as well. Those who can’t fly tell the tale until they too are free. The Dillons introduce us to the soaring flyers on the jacket/cover in their multi-patterned African dress and hair styles. The end-papers display shiny black feathers on a subtle black surface, giving added credence to the tale. Full-page and half-page paintings with gold borders create believable portraits of the slaves and masters as the fields are worked and as the people fly to freedom. Mixed emotions are generated by the portrayals: the evil Overseer in black against the reddish sky, the joyous folks who can fly. Notes from both author and editor fill in further information. The final rising triumphant figure appears to be Hamilton herself. 2004 (orig. 1985), Alfred A Knopf/Random House Children’s Books, $16.95. Ages 7 up.

Debra Briatico (Children's Literature)
This classic collection contains twenty-four tales, stories, and riddles about animals, fantasy and the supernatural handed down by African slaves before and during the Civil War period. These stories, born out of the sorrow of slaves, focus on freedom and triumph and bring hope to all who read them. Bruh Rabbit and the Two Johns are just some of the fascinating characters featured in this enchanting anthology. Dillon's mystical and inspiring black-and-white illustrations perfectly complement Hamilton's well-written prose. 1985, Alfred A. Knopf, $18.00, $18.99 and $13.00. Ages 8 up.

CCBC (Cooperative Children's Book Center Choices, 2005)
Long ago in Africa, it's said, the people knew how to fly, a skill that was forgotten when they were brought to the new world as slaves. Only one man remembered the magic incantation. When things got unbearable for the captives, he whispered the word into their ears so that they could rise up and escape. The title story from Virginia Hamilton's seminal collection of African American folktales, first published 20 years ago, appears here with the words unchanged for this picture book edition. Leo and Diane Dillon's luminous gold-toned illustrations beautifully express their dreams of liberation and freedom. The final picture shows a contemporary family sharing stories as the spirit of Virginia Hamilton looks down from above. An editor's note at beginning of the book shares a letter Hamilton wrote her about the story in 1984. CCBC categories: Folklore, Mythology, and Traditional Literature. 2004, Alfred A. Knopf, 32 pages, $16.95 and $18.99. Ages 5-12.

Kirkus (Kirkus Reviews, November 1, 2004 (Vol. 72, No. 21))
They say the people could fly. Say that long ago in Africa, some of the people knew magic. And they would walk up on the air like climbin up on a gate." Hamilton's The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales (1985) won a Coretta Scott King Award, and the Dillons here reissue its heartbreaking title story with gorgeous, all-new, full-color paintings. Legend has it that some people in Africa could fly, but when they were shipped to America as slaves, they shed their black, shiny wings (reflected as feathers on the glossy black endpapers). When a mother and her baby are brutally whipped in the cotton fields, an old slave resurrects his magic and helps her and others fly away, free as birds, leaving the non-magical slaves behind to tell the tale. Like the story, the paintings are both hopeful and somber, and the slaves are as graceful and softly luminous as the slave owners are stiff, pinched, and cruel. A dreamy, powerful picture-book tribute to both Hamilton and the generations-old story. (editor's note, author's note) 2004, Knopf, 32p, $16.95. Category: Picture book. Ages 9 to 12. Starred Review. © 2004 Kirkus Reviews/VNU eMedia, Inc. All rights reserved.

Publishers Weekly (Publishers Weekly)
Resplendent, powerful paintings by these two-time Caldecott-winning artists bring new life to the title story from the late Hamilton's 1985 collection, The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales . Making dramatic use of shadow and light, Leo and Diane Dillon (whose half-tone illustrations also graced the original volume) ably convey the tale's simultaneous messages of oppression and freedom, of sadness and hope. "They say the people could fly. Say that long ago in Africa, some of the people knew magic," opens the narrative, as the full-color artwork reveals elegant, beautifully clothed individuals with feathered wings serenely ascending into the sky. On the following spread, images of the Middle Passage set a fittingly somber tone, depicting Africans who "were captured for Slavery. The ones that could fly shed their wings. They couldn't take their wings across the water on the slave ships. Too crowded, don't you know." The picture-book format allows room for the relationship to develop between Sarah, who labors in the cotton fields with an infant strapped to her back, and Toby, the "old man," who utters the magic African words that give her flight. Toby helps others take flight as well (a stunning image shows seemingly hundreds linking hands and taking to the skies)--and eventually does so himself, sadly leaving some of the captives "who could not fly" behind to "wait for a chance to run." Art and language that are each, in turn, lyrical and hard-hitting make an ideal pairing in this elegant volume that gracefully showcases the talent of its creators. All ages. (Nov.)

Publishers Weekly (Publishers Weekly)
Three winners of multiple honors have created this incomparable book. The Dillons illustrate Hamilton's 24 stories with marvelous pictures alive with the spirit of each: sly humor, mystery, pathos and, most powerfully, the human need for freedom. In the author's introduction and notes, we find information on black history, on the original slave storytellers"voices from the past''that include her own ancestors. The stories are given full effect by Hamilton's use of colloquial language, evoking the artless entertainer relating the exploits of ``Bruh Rabbit'' and other animal tricksters. The reader's emotional response, however, is to the artists' depictions and the author's narrative in ``The People Could Fly.'' They are the slaves from Gulla who, according to legend, escape the master's abuse one day. ``They rose on the air. Say they flew away to Free-dom.'' (All ages).


African Americans Folklore.
Tales--United States.
African Americans Folklore.
Folklore--United States.
LanguageCall NumberLCCNDewey DecimalISBN/ISSN
English (eng) PZ8.1.H154 Pe 1985
84025020 398.2/08996073
0394969251 (lib. bdg.)
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