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Children's Literature Reviews
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Beautiful blackbird
Ashley Bryan.
Contributor biographical information
Publisher description
New York : Atheneum Books for Young Readers, c2003.
1 v. (unpaged) : col. ill. ; 28 cm.


"Adapted from a tale from 'The Ila-speaking people from Northern Rhodesia' (now known as Zambia) by Edwin W. Smith and Andrew M. Dale. University Books: New Hyde Park, New York, 1968. vol. 2, pp. 350-51"--Colophon.
In a story of the Ila people, the colorful birds of Africa ask Blackbird, whom they think is the most beautiful of birds, to decorate them with some of his "blackening brew."

Best Books:

Best Children's Books of the Year, 2004 ; Bank Street College of Education; United States
Capitol Choices, 2004 ; The Capitol Choices Committee; United States
Children's Catalog, Eighteenth Edition, Supplement, 2004 ; H.W. Wilson; United States
Children's Catalog, Nineteenth Edition, 2006 ; H.W. Wilson; United States
Choices, 2004 ; Cooperative Children's Book Center; United States
Notable Children's Books in the Language Arts, 2004 ; NCTE Children's Literature Assembly; United States
Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People, 2004 ; National Council for the Social Studies; United States

Awards, Honors, Prizes:

Coretta Scott King Book Award, 2004 Winner Illustrator United States

State and Provincial Reading Lists:

2X2 Reading List, 2004 ; PreK-Grade 2; Texas
Armadillo Readers' Choice Award, 2004-2005 ; Nominee; PreK-2; Texas
Kentucky Bluegrass Award, 2005 ; Nominee; Grades K-2; Kentucky

Curriculum Tools:

Link to Coretta Scott King curricular resources at
Link to Lesson Plans and Activities at Round Rock ISD

Reading Measurement Programs:

Accelerated Reader
Interest Level Lower Grade
Book Level 3.7
Accelerated Reader Points 0.5
Accelerated Vocabulary

Lexile, MetaMetrics, Inc.
Lexile Measure 540

Reading Counts-Scholastic
Interest Level K-2
Reading Level 3
Title Point Value 1
Lexile Measure 540

Standards of Learning Information

Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People, 2004 ; Individuals, Groups, and Institutions-V; Culture-I; Folktales; National Council for the Social Studies


Julie Cummins (Booklist, Jan. 1, 2003 (Vol. 99, No. 9))
In this simple adaptation of a tale from the Ila-speaking people of Zambia, the message is clear: "Black is beautiful." Once upon a time, Blackbird was the only bird of Africa who wasn't brightly colored. When Ringdove asks who is the most beautiful bird, the other birds name Blackbird. At Ringdove's request, Blackbird brings blackening from his medicine gourd to decorate Ringdove's colored neck; the other birds also want trimming, so Blackbird paints dots and brushes lines and arcs until his gourd is empty. Using a more vivid palette than usual, Bryan employs boldly colored, cut-paper artwork to dramatize the action. The overlapping collage images fill the pages with energy as the songlike responses of the birds tap out a rhythm punctuated with "uh-huhs." In an author's note, Bryan explains that the scissors pictured on the endpapers, which Bryan used to create the collages, were once also used by his mother. Ready-made for participative storytelling. Category: Books for the Young--Nonfiction. 2003, Simon & Schuster/Atheneum, $16.95. K-Gr. 2.

Leslie Rounds (Children's Literature)
Utilizing simple, colorful, cut-paper collages, this book is an adaptation of an African folk tale from the Ila-speaking people of Zambia. Blackbird is admired by the other birds of the forest because his feathers gleam with all the colors of the sun, and all the other birds are just one color each. Blackbird offers to mix up a special blackening brew and share it with the other birds, even though he also tells them that "Color on the outside is not what's on the inside." He gives the other birds black highlights, and the book concludes with the words, "Black is beautiful, UH-HUH!" Very simple, rhythmic text accompanies equally simple illustrations. The book does not include any source material for the folk tale. Because of its uncomplicated presentation, this book would be useful in making an African folk tale accessible to a very young audience, and the colorful illustrations and cheerful theme would please most young children. 2003, Atheneum Books for Young Readers/Simon & Schuster, $16.95. Ages 3 to 8.

CCBC (Cooperative Children's Book Center Choices, 2004)
Of all of the birds in the forest, Blackbird was considered the most beautiful. All of the other birds envied his beautiful black feathers, despite their own bright colors. Even though Blackbird assures them it's what they have on the inside that makes them beautiful, they eventually convince him to stir a "blackening brew." He uses this to paint specks and stripes and spots of black on their feathers. Ashley Bryan's rhythmic prose and stunning, vibrant cut-paper collages retell this Zambian folk tale that celebrates the beauty of all creatures both outside and in. CCBC categories: Folklore, Mythology, and Traditional Literature; Picture Books for School-Aged Children; Picture Books for Toddlers and Preschoolers. 2003, Atheneum, 36 pages, $16.95. Ages 4-8.

Kirkus (Kirkus Reviews, December 1, 2002 (Vol. 70, No. 23))
Blackbird shares his gifts with the birds of Africa in this colorful read-aloud. This adaptation of an Ila story tells of long ago, when all the birds have solid colored, unpatterned feathers, and only Blackbird has any black at all. The other birds agree that Blackbird is the most beautiful, as his black feathers "gleam all colors in the sun." Blackbird mixes up a little something in his medicine gourd, and presents each bird with some black patterns of its own. The birds are happy with their new designs, and chorus, "Black is beautiful, UH-HUH." This telling, by the master storyteller, just aches to be read aloud; the lively rhythms keep the simple folktale rollicking along. The cut-paper collage illustrations are full of color, but it's of blandly similar intensity until Blackbird arrives with his blackening brew. Then the newly patterned birds, gleaming in high-contrast images with their new designs, make for visual excitement as they praise Blackbird for their new look. A good start at challenging learned ways of reading color that reserve black for scary or dull images, the text implies a racial metaphor (unless the refrain "black is beautiful" is focused only on rethinking artistic codes), yet whatever message of tolerance or self-love the text might hold is obscure. Blackbird talks of the difference a little black can make, but he also emphasizes that external appearances do not reflect the inner self. Which of the two is more important is never clarified. Still, the rolling language and appealing illustrations make this a must. 2003, Atheneum, $16.95. Category: Picture book/folktale. Ages 4 to 7. © 2002 Kirkus Reviews/VNU eMedia, Inc. All rights reserved.

Publishers Weekly (Publishers Weekly)
Storyteller Bryan's (What a Wonderful World) singular voice provides rhythm and sound effects throughout this musical adaptation of a Zambian tale. When gray Ringdove calls the other monotone birds together and asks, "Who of all is the most beautiful?" they all reply, "Blackbird." They then encircle Blackbird, dancing and singing, "Beak to beak, peck, peck, peck,/ Spread your wings, stretch your neck./ Black is beautiful, uh-huh!/ Black is beautiful, uh-huh!" At the birds' request, Blackbird agrees to paint black markings on them (with the blackening brew in his medicine gourd), but he warns Ringdove that it's not the color black that will make them beautiful. "Color on the outside is not what's on the inside..... Whatever I do/ I'll be me and you'll be you." The message about inner beauty and identity becomes somewhat diluted by the closing song, in which the birds triumphantly sing, "Our colors sport a brand-new look,/ A touch of black was all it took./ Oh beautiful black, uh-huh, uh-huh/ Black is beautiful, UH-HUH!" But if the ending creates a bit of confusion, Bryan's collages make up for it with their exhibition of colorful splendor and composition. Scenes of the rainbow of wings are outdone only by a lakeside view of their colors intricately "mirrored in the waters." And Bryan's lilting and magical language is infectious. Ages 3-7. (Jan.)"

Janice M. Del Negro (The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, February 2003 (Vol. 56, No. 6))
Bryan tells the story of Blackbird, who, “a long, long time ago,” was voted the most beautiful of all the birds in Africa. The pallid Ringdove takes Blackbird aside and asks, “Oh, Blackbird, Blackbird, coo-coo-roo, coo-ca-roo, would you color me black so that I’ll be black like you?” Blackbird explains that “color on the outside is not what’s on the inside,” but he promises to brew some blackening in his medicine gourd to “swing a ring” around Ringdove’s neck to go along with his name. Not surprisingly, when Ringdove is thus decorated the other birds want decorations, too, and Blackbird uses his blackening potion to make them all happy. The plot is somewhat slight and the momentum sometimes falters, but Bryan’s adaptation of this African tale (from the Ila people of Zambia, according to a source note) makes good use of syncopated language that suffuses the proceedings with joie de vivre. Cut-paper collage birds of many colors flutter through the pages against white and colored backgrounds; on some pages the hues seem washed out, and even when the defining black is added the compositions are scattered, lacking the driving rhythm of the text. The contrast between the black decorations and the colored paper lends emphasis to the visuals and to the message, however, and the new-construction-paper freshness of the medium will invite appreciation from skillful young scissors-wielders. A clear message, replicable art techniques, and storytelling possibilities make this a title rife with potential curricular connections. Review Code: Ad -- Additional book of acceptable quality for collections needing more material in the area. (c) Copyright 2003, The Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. 2003, Atheneum, 32p, $16.95. Ages 5-9 yrs.

Ginny Hoskins (The Lorgnette - Heart of Texas Reviews (Vol. 16, No. 4))
Long ago, all the birds were of different colors--red, blue, yellow--but they all had only one color. All the birds agreed that Blackbird was the most beautiful, and they begged him to share some of his black color with them. Blackbird agreed to brew up some blackening in his medicine gourd and give some to all the birds, but he reminded them that real beauty comes from inside. Adapted from a folktale told in Zambia, the message of the story is good, and the author’s cut paper illustrations are wonderful. The vocabulary level makes this a good book for reading aloud to the younger students, and the older ones can enjoy it on their own. Nonfiction (398.2). Grades K-3. 2003, Atheneum Books, Unpaged., $16.95. Ages 5 to 9.


Ila (African people) Folklore.
LanguageCall NumberLCCNDewey DecimalISBN/ISSN
English (eng) PZ8.1.B838 Bg 2003
2002005290 398.2 /096894/04528 E
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