The great Julius Lester died yesterday, peacefully and surrounded by family.
I first met Julius in the mid-1990s in rec.arts.books.children — an Internet space similar to Reddit where all manner of groups formed. Not long thereafter we both joined the child_lit discussion group and became online friends. Julius was the sage amongst us, willing to ponder, engage, and smooth ruffled feathers in an intelligent, elegant, and remarkable way. Those wise posts were lost with the end of child_lit, but fortunately, they continue to live in our hearts.
Once the discussion was about classic books we hadn’t read and I, shamefaced, said the Bible causing Julius, a devoted converted Jew, to send me his favorite edition which I treasure. Another time, a debate on the racism of Helen Bannerman’s Little Black Sambo inspired Julius to retell the story as Sam and the Tigers illustrated by his frequent collaborator, Jerry Pinkney. Wrote Julius in his author’s note:
The biggest challenge for both of us was history. Many whites had loved Little Black Sambo as children and were afraid their love for it made them racists now. That is not so. Many blacks, angered and shamed, resolved it be thrown into the garbage. For many years so had I.
Yet what other story had I read at age seven and remembered for fifty years? There was obviously an abiding truth in the story, despite itself. I think it is the truth of the imagination, that incredible realm where animals and people live together like they don’t know any better, and children eat pancakes cooked in the butter of melted tigers, and parents never say, “Don’t eat so many.”
Today to honor this remarkable man I read Sam and the Tigers to my 4th graders and they, of course, loved it.
We met once in person — at an ALA convention where he was receiving a CSK award. His publisher, knowing of our on-line friendship, seated us together at the Newbery-Caldecott banquet where I also met his wife. It must have been there that he signed my copy of Sam and the Tigers.
Thank you, Julius Lester, for all you did for humanity and me too.