James Baldwin’s One & Only, Delightfully-Illustrated Children’s Book, Little Man Little Man: A Story of Childhood (1976)

Baldwin - Little Man Little Man005

As a writer, a thinker, and a human being, James Bald­win knew few bound­aries. The black, gay, expa­tri­ate author of such still-read books as Go Tell it on the Moun­tain and The Fire Next Time set an exam­ple for all who have since sought to break free of the stric­tures imposed upon them by their soci­ety, their his­to­ry, or even their craft. Bald­win wrote not just nov­els but essays, plays, poet­ry, and even a chil­dren’s book, which you see a bit of here today.

Lit­tle Man Lit­tle Man: A Sto­ry of Child­hood came out in 1976, a pro­duc­tive year for Bald­win which also saw the pub­li­ca­tion of The Dev­il Finds Work, a book of writ­ing on film (yet anoth­er form on which he exert­ed his own kind of social­ly crit­i­cal mas­tery). In Lit­tle Man, he writes not about a high­ly visu­al medi­um, but in a high­ly visu­al medi­um: young chil­dren delight in live­ly illus­tra­tions, and they must have espe­cial­ly delight­ed in the ones here (more of which you can see in this gallery), drawn by French artist Yoran Cazac with a kind of mature child­ish­ness.

Those same adjec­tives might apply to Bald­win’s writ­ing here as well, since he aims his sto­ry toward chil­dren, talk­ing not down at them but straight at them, in their very own lan­guage: “TJ bounce his ball as hard as he can, send­ing it as high in the sky as he can, and ris­ing to catch it.” So goes the intro­duc­tion to the main char­ac­ter, a four-year-old boy liv­ing in Harlem whom Bald­win based on his nephew. “Some­times he miss­es and has to roll into the street. A cou­ple of times a car almost run him over. That ain’t noth­ing.”

TJ and WT, his old­er pal from the neigh­bor­hood, take their scrapes through­out the course of this short book, but they also have a rich expe­ri­ence — and thus pro­vide, for their read­ers young and old, a rich expe­ri­ence — of the unique time and place in which they find them­selves grow­ing up. Their work­ing-class Harlem child­hood obvi­ous­ly has its pains, but it has its joys too. “TJ’s Dad­dy try to act mean, but he ain’t mean,” Bald­win writes. “Some­time take TJ to the movies and he take him to the beach and he took him to the Apol­lo The­atre, so he could see blind Ste­vie Won­der. ‘I want you to be proud of your peo­ple,’ TJ’s Dad­dy always say.”

At We Too Were Chil­dren, Ariel S. Win­ter high­lights the book’s ded­i­ca­tion “to the emi­nent African-Amer­i­can artist Beau­ford Delaney. Bald­win met Delaney when he was four­teen, the first self-sup­port­ing artist he had ever met, and like Bald­win, Delaney was black and homo­sex­u­al. Delaney became a men­tor to Bald­win, who often spoke of him as a ‘spir­i­tu­al father,’ ” and “it was Delaney who intro­duced Bald­win to Yoran Cazac in Paris.” Bald­win became god­fa­ther to Caza­c’s third child, and Cazac, of course, became the man who gave artis­tic life to Bald­win’s vision of child­hood itself.

You can pick up your own copy of Lit­tle Man Lit­tle Man: A Sto­ry of Child­hood on Ama­zon.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Langston Hugh­es Presents the His­to­ry of Jazz in an Illus­trat­ed Children’s Book (1955)

Langston Hugh­es Reveals the Rhythms in Art & Life in a Won­der­ful Illus­trat­ed Book for Kids (1954)

A Child’s Intro­duc­tion to Jazz by Can­non­ball Adder­ley (with Louis Arm­strong & Thelo­nious Monk)

Watch Langston Hugh­es Read Poet­ry from His First Col­lec­tion, The Weary Blues (1958)

James Bald­win Debates Mal­colm X (1963) and William F. Buck­ley (1965): Vin­tage Video & Audio

James Bald­win: Wit­ty, Fiery in Berke­ley, 1979

Col­in Mar­shall writes else­where on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­maand the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future? Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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