In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Guest blog: The poetic language of Lorenz Graham

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Our guest blogger tonight is none other than my mom, your sister, Judy.  This is a true family affair!  Here she is, on a book I remember with great fondness from my childhood.

Dear Debbie,

One of my very favorite children’s books is Every Man Heart Lay Down by Lorenz Graham, with lovely illustrations by Colleen Browning.  It’s a retelling of the birth of Jesus in, as Graham says, “the idiom of the West African native.”

Lorenz Graham was born in New Orleans, the son of a Methodist minister.  As a young man, he worked as a teacher in a mission school in Liberia for five years and was amazed at the power and beauty of the English dialects he found there, and at the way the Bible stories had been made new again by being retold and reimagined.   He absorbed the music and rhythm of the speech that enveloped him, and these story poems are the result.

Our dear friend Sally, who had a knack for spotting marvelous language, gave us “Every Man Heart Lay Down” when Annie was little.  It is the kind of book that cries out to be read aloud, and challenges you to do it without choking up: 

Long time past
Before you papa live
Before him papa live
Before him pa’s papa live—

Long time past
Before them big tree live
Before them big tree’s papa live —
That time God live.

And God look on the world
What He done make
And Him heart no lay down.

The plot is the prequel to the story of the birth of Jesus you may be familiar with.  In this book (spoiler alert), God is about to destroy the world, he is so angry about the way things are going, when a small boy begs him,

“Don’t break the world
What You done make.
Don’t lose the people
What You done care for.
I beg you
Make it I go
I talk to people
I walk with people
Bye-m-bye they savvy the way.”

And the pican go down softly softly
And hold God’s foot.
So God look on Him small boy
And Him heart be soft again

Once you start quoting this book, it is practically impossible to stop, the writing is so lovely. 

Graham is also the author of other Bible stories told in the same vein. 
How God Fix Jonah
is the name of his collection, originally published in 1946, which came out in a new edition in 2000, illustrated by Ashley Bryan.  It includes “Every Man Heart Lay Down,” as well as “David He No Fear,” which also was published alone in an edition with pictures by Ann Grifalconi.

Just one more quote.  I can’t resist.  Here is the passage where David walks up to Goliath:

The giant say
“Ho! Small boy done come to say how-do.”
David say
“I come for fight!”
Giant say
“Do you mommy know you out?”
David say
“Now I kill you!”
Giant say
“Go from my face less I eat you!”

Graham is also the author of “Tales of Momolu,” stories about the life of an African boy, as well as the Town book series of contemporary African American life.   I am not familiar with these books yet.   Do you know them, Deb?


And love from me too,

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