An ABC Menagerie

By Megan Drennan — January 01, 1995 7 min read
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The Beinecke Library at Yale University resembles a gleaming white mausoleum on stilts.

Its marble-paneled walls straddle four granite pyramids, an architectural non sequitur on this campus of ivy, brick, and stone. In a sense, this horizontal box is a final resting place, but for rare books and manuscripts, not past presidents or famous alumni.

Inside the library, muted sunlight passes through the translucent walls, coloring the large reading room a soft orange. In the center of the library, a glass tower filled with precious books rises six stories to touch the ceiling. Audubon watercolors and a Gutenberg Bible reside permanently in this rare-books room. Beneath this cathedral-like space, tucked away in acid-free folders and carefully numbered boxes, lie thousands of other literary treasures, including the personal archive of the famed Harlem Renaissance poet James Mercer Langston Hughes.

Over the years, scholars have visited the Hughes collection, paying their respects as they glean insights into the poet’s life and work. But one segment of Hughes’ oeuvre—children’s poems and stories—has long been neglected. Many of these manuscripts were never published, seemingly forgotten. A casual conversation almost three years ago, however, changed their destiny. Last month, Oxford University Press published Langston Hughes’ The Sweet and Sour Animal Book for the first time, reclaiming it from a place of dreams deferred.

To hear Nancy Toff, Oxford’s executive editor for children’s and young-adult books, tell it, the acquisition of the Hughes book was more like a scavenger hunt than a typical publishing deal. When Toff arrived at the publishing house in 1991, she decided to create a library of children’s classics that would emphasize unusual authors and illustrators, new or forgotten voices, quality African-American writing, and, if possible, never-published manuscripts. She dubbed the collection the Iona and Peter Opie Library, in honor of the renowned British collectors of children’s literature.

She began her search in-house by consulting Arnold Rampersad, a Hughes scholar who wrote a biography of the poet for Oxford. Rampersad confirmed that many of Hughes’ manuscripts for children had never been published and that they could be found at the Beinecke Library. In 1950, Hughes began donating his archive to the library’s James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection, named for a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

So Toff hopped on a train to New Haven, Conn., to locate the forgotten stories. Once inside the reading room, her search was relatively simple. Within the careful cataloging of the Hughes collection, she found numerous cards for children’s books and anthologies. Toff requested several, including his alphabet book of 27 animal poems, The Sweet and Sour Animal Book.

“This one jumped off the pages,” Toff recalls. “I was sitting in this beautiful reading room, laughing, and there were all of these serious scholars around me. I knew I wasn’t supposed to laugh, but I couldn’t help it.”

After photocopying the typescript pages, Toff headed back to New York, pausing long enough at the train station to call her marketing manager with the news. At the Beinecke Library, however, Toff’s “discovery” elicited little reaction. “There are probably millions of forgotten treasures here,” says Patricia Willis, the Elizabeth Wakeman Dwight curator of American literature. “Fashion changes in scholarship, and things that appear to be neglected for a long time suddenly become hot.”

Famed for his poetic chronicles of the African-American experience, Hughes got his first big break in 1921 when black educator and author W.E.B. Du Bois published his children’s poem, “Fairies,” in The Brownies’ Book, a national magazine. Hughes completed the alphabet book in 1936, revising it in 1952 and again in 1959, but publishers rejected it repeatedly. Toff speculates that after the final marketing attempt, the book was “stuck back in a drawer” and forgotten. “If you think about who was running publishing then and who the audience was—not a black audience—it’s not surprising,” she says.

Working with the Harold Ober literary agency, which represents the Hughes estate, Toff bought the rights to this and five other Hughes books. Oxford has already reissued the middle grades books Popo and Fifina and Black Misery as part of the Opie Library. For a publishing house known for children’s reference materials and anthologies, The Sweet and Sour Animal Book brings a welcome change. “This is a new experience for us, having a competitive children’s book, especially an art book,” says Annie Stafford, marketing manager for children’s and young-adult books. Oxford’s first printings of 25,000 copies sold out to bookstores before the book’s release in mid-October.

As with his adult verse, Hughes infused the poems in the book with the jazzy rhythms of the blues and the mingled emotions of his black experience. Alternately “sweet and sour,” the “denizens of Hughes’ fanciful menagerie all seem to find their way into a blues paradox,” George Cunnigham, a professor of Africana studies at Brooklyn College, writes in the afterword. “Each poem is a little existential vignette about the rewards of living.”

When Langston Hughes lived on St. Nicholas Avenue in the Sugar Hill section of Harlem, N.Y., the lot opposite his apartment building was occupied by several garages. In his wildest dreams, the young poet could not have imagined that one day the lot would give rise to the Harlem School of the Arts. And he certainly could not have guessed that this school would nurture the young artists who would transform his philosophical animal poems into three-dimensional creatures.

Located in the heart of Harlem at 141st Street, the school offers members of the community—from toddlers to senior citizens—private instruction in the arts. Founded in 1964, three years before Hughes died, the school sponsors an Opportunities for Learning in the Arts program to introduce students in the New York City public schools to the world of dance, drama, music, and art. It also offers after-school and weekend classes.

Toff stumbled on this bevy of young artists while doing community outreach for the New York Flute Club. She and Stafford had already decided children should illustrate Hughes’ whimsical poems, but they weren’t sure how or where to find them. “While I was at the school, the music director gave me a school catalog, and on the cover were beautiful papier-mache masks created by the students,” Toff recalls. “I took one look at them and said, ‘Take me to your art director.’ “

Thus began a yearlong project to illustrate The Sweet and Sour Animal Book. Art teachers hung photocopies of Hughes’ typescript poems, complete with his handwritten notes, on the classroom walls and windows. Using clay, papier-mache, and paint, about 125 1st, 2nd, and 3rd graders recreated their favorite animals in 3-D form.

“We encouraged them to express what the animal suggested in color, form, and medium,” says David Brean, the school’s art director, “but they didn’t need a lot of suggestions from us.”

Although written by an African-American poet and illustrated by children of color, The Sweet and Sour Animal Book transcends the descriptor “multicultural.”

“It is a cross-cultural book, not a racially based book,” says Brenda Mitchell-Powell, editor in chief of the journal MultiCultural Review. “It is also a book that will cross generational lines.”

Other industry figures agree. “Langston Hughes doesn’t belong in a niche,” says Elizabeth Devereaux, a contributing editor to Publishers Weekly. “He is a major American poet and literary figure. The discovery of these lost poems and that they make a viable children’s book is news. Even if the author were a dead white male, it would still be exciting.”

Nevertheless, some teachers and booksellers are already identifying the book as a much-needed addition to the multicultural genre. Although children’s publishers have made a concerted effort in the past decade to produce more culturally sensitive books, the quality of these publications is mixed and their numbers limited. “Often, publishers and teachers rush out to obtain materials because they find some thinly veiled connection to the black community,” says Mitchell-Powell, a former language arts teacher. “But much of it is garbage.”

Camille Neely, president of Papyrus Book Distributors in Los Angeles, sorts through hundreds of books before choosing a few for her direct-mail catalog, which is sent to African-American parents. The Sweet and Sour Animal Book, she believes, will be a best seller with parents and teachers.

Recently, Neely passed a copy to Geraldine Reese, a 2nd grade teacher at the Manhattan Place School in the Watts section of Los Angeles. A teacher of 25 years who often uses Hughes’ poetry to motivate her students, Reese was overwhelmed to learn that Hughes had written a book for the primary level. Given her students’ happy reaction to Sweet and Sour, she plans to integrate it into her language-development program.

“We give a lot of lip service to multiculturalism, but there is a big gap between lip service and the actual delivery of tools to teachers and students,” Neely stresses. “I want to get this book into the hands of teachers; it is unparalleled.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 1995 edition of Teacher Magazine as An ABC Menagerie


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