Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Talkin' About Bessie

Talkin' About Bessie: The Story of Aviator Elizabeth Coleman
by Nikki Grimes; illustrated by E.B. Lewis

Talkin' About Bessie: The Story of Aviator Elizabeth Coleman (Amazon / Library) is an absolutely beautiful telling of the life and adventures of the amazing Elizabeth "Bessie" Coleman. Nikki Grimes, award-winning author (she just won the 2017 Wilder Award!), brings us into Bessie's world through the voices of the people who knew her best. Each page features a portion of her life story as though a member of her family or a close friend was talking to us about what inspired them most about her.

Each tale is exquisitely illuminated with a painting by E.B. Lewis, who magically creates images the reader can practically step into and experience for herself.

Her sister, Elois Coleman tells about the time Bessie decided to move from rural Texas to Chicago to find the thing she knew was waiting for her, even if she didn't quite know what it was yet.
By twenty-three, she'd discovered a newspaper from Chicago
which boasted of a better life up North
and featured stories of powerful women of the Race:
writers, business tycoons, and civil rights workers
like Ida B. Wells, Madame C.J. Walker, Mary Church Terrell—
full-of-hope and headstrong women. Like Bessie.
Her brother John Coleman talks about her time in Chicago and the day her mind caught hold of the dream of flying, and she then and there set her mind to learn how though there weren't any black pilots anywhere, and no flight schools in the US would accept a black woman.
That's when I knew: by whatever miracle
was required, Bessie would learn to fly.
Robert Abbott, editor of The Chicago Defender, the leading newspaper for the African American community, saw the remarkable potential in Bessie, and funded her trip to France to take flying lessons and return to Chicago as the first black woman anywhere to earn a pilot's license.
Bessie's copper color gave the truth of her away.
For, at the core, she—though slight in appearance—
was tough as any metal, and always ready and willing
to test her strength.

And finally we hear from Bessie herself, as she talks about the pure happiness she found in the air.
But flying at Checkerboard Field in Chicago was the best.
My family and friends were there in the stands,
cheering me on as I sliced through the air.
Oh Mama! I wish you could've been in that plane
to feel that magnificent machine shudder
with the sheer joy of leaving the ground.
Talkin' About Bessie: The Story of Aviator Elizabeth Coleman (Amazon / Library) wins the Self-Rescuing Princess Society seal of approval for sharing both the struggles and determination that led Bessie Coleman to France, as well as her thrill of success and her drive to share her love of flying with the rest of her race -- lifting them up in more ways than one.

It is a perfect book for early readers though middle-grade children, and its illustrations make it appealing to younger kids as well. Heck, it's so gorgeous, it would make a lovely coffee table book for adults. The story doesn't shy away from the painful truths of Jim Crow and being a black child growing up in the land of cotton in the early 1900s. Instead Nikki Grimes explains these hardships in a way that even young children can understand and process. There's a reason this book has received the Coretta Scott King Award twice -- one for the author, and another for the illustrator. It is a breathtaking book about a truly inspirational woman.

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