The Alliance for the Study and Teaching of Adolescent Literature at Rhode Island College




- Julius B. Lester -


Julius Lester was born Jan. 27, 1939 in St. Louis, Missouri. Mr. Lester's father was a Methodist minister and from him he absorbed Southern Rural black traditions and his love for music and stories. In 1960 Lester graduated from Nashville Fisk University with an English degree and he became politically active in the Civil Rights struggle. He traveled to North Vietnam during the Vietnam War as a photographer to document U.S. bombing missions for the SNCC (Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee). Lester played guitar and banjo, performed with folksingers such as Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, and Judy Collins, and recorded two albums. In the late 1960's he hosted an evening radio show in New York City that featured jazz, rock, classical, and experimental music.

With his overlapping interest in black politics and African American history and folktales, he branched out into writing Children's books in 1969. He added novels for adult readers in the 1980's and 1990's. He has published more than 100 essays and reviews in many prominent publications. Lester has also been a professor of Afro-American and Near Eastern and Judiac studies at the University of Massachusetts since the early 1970's. His books have been translated into eight languages. He now resides in Massachusetts.

Selected Books Written:

(With Pete Seeger) The 12-String Guitar as Played by Leadbelly: An Instructional Manual, Oak, 1965.
The Angry Children of Malcolm X, Southern Student Organizing Committee, 1966.
(Editor with Mary Varela) Our Folk Tales: High John, The Conqueror, and Other Afro- American Tales, illustrated by Jennifer Lawson, privately printed, 1967.
(Editor with Varela) Fanny Lou Hamer, To Praise Our Bridges: an Autobiography, KIPCO, 1967.
The Mud of Vietnam: Photographs and Poems, Folklore Press, 1967.
Look Out Whitney! Black Power's Gon' Get Your Momma!, Dial, 1968.
To be a Slave, illustrated by Tom Feelings, Dial, 1969.
Black Folktales, illustrated by Feelings, Baron, 1969.
Search for the New Land: History as Subjective Experience, Dial, 1969.
Revolutionary Notes, Baron, 1969.
(Editor) The Seventh Son: The Thoughts and Writings of W.E.B. DuBois, two volumes, Random House, 1971.
(Compiler with Rae Pace Alexander) Young and Black in America, Random House, 1971.
The Long Journey Home: Stories from Black History, Dial, 1972.
The Knee-High Man and Other Tales, illustrated by Ralph Pinto, Dial, 1972.
Two Love Stories, Dial, 1972.
(Editor) Stanley Couch, Ain't No Ambulances for No Nigguhs Tonight (Poems), Baron, 1972.
(With David Gahr) Who Am I (photopoems), Dial, 1974.
All Is Well: An Autobiography, Morrow, 1976.
This Strange New Feeling (short stories), Dial, 1982, published in England as A Taste of Freedom: Three Stories from Black History, Longman, 1983.
Do Lord Remember Me (adult novel), Holt, 1984.
The Tales of Uncle Remus (four-volume series in progress), illustrated by Jerry Pickney, Dial, Volume 1: The Adventures of Brer Rabbit, 1987, Volume 2: The Further Adventures of Brer Rabbit, 1988, Volume 3: The Misadventure of Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, Brer Wolf, the Doodang, and Other Creatures, 1990.
Lovesong: Becoming a Jew (autobiographical), Holt, 1988.
How Many Spots Does a Leopard Have? and Other Tales, illustrated by David Shannon, Scholastic, 1990.
Falling Pieces of the Broken Sky, Arcade, 1990.
Long Journey Home, Stories from Black History, Dial, 1993.
The Last Tales of Uncle Remus, illustrated by Jerry Pickney, Dial, 1994.
Sam and the Tigers, illustrated by Pickney, Dial, 1996.
John Henry, Dial, 1996.
And all Our Wounds Forgiven, 1997.

Book Awards:

To Be A Slave
* Newberry Honor Award Citation - 1969
* Lewis Carroll Shelf Award - 1970

The Long Journey Home: Stories Fom Black History
* Lewis Carroll Shelf Award - 1972
* National Book Award Finalist - 1973

The Knee-High Man and Other Tales
* Lewis Carroll Shelf Award - 1973

This Strange New Feeling
* Honorable Mention- Coretta Scott King Award - 1983

The Tales of Uncle Remus: The Adventures of Brer Rabbit
* Honorable Mention- Coretta Scott King Award - 1988
* ALA Notable Book
* Booklist Children's Editor's Choice
* American Booksellers Pick of the Lists

More Tales of Uncle Remus
* ALA Notable Book
* Coretta Scott King Award - 1994
* Booklist Children's Editor's Choice
* School Library Journal Best Book of the Year

Further Tales of Uncle Remus
* ALA Notable Book

John Henry
* Boston Globe-Horn Book Award
* Parents Best Book Award
* Caldecott Honor - illustrations

Other Honors:
* Distinguished Teacher's Award - 1983-84
* Faculty Fellowship Award for distinguished Research and Scholarship - 1985
* National Professor of the Year Silver Medal Award - 1985
* Massachusetts State Professor of the Year - 1986
* Gold Medal Award for National Professor of the Year - 1986
* Distinguished Faculty Lecturer - 1986-87

Voice of the Critics:

More Tales of Uncle Remus
** "A landmark collection . . . sharp and flavorful and grounded in the here and now."


Further Tales of Uncle Remus
** "Truly a collection for all ages, the book offers a tale for any audience."

-The Horn Book

The Last Tales of Uncle Remus
** "A generous-and stunning-retelling."

-The New York Times Book Review

The Knee-High Man, and Other Tales
** "Strangely enough, one feels the stories are mild (as opposed to robust) in spirit with the first reading. This vanishes with a second reading and the strength of each narrative emerges. Incidentally, these are excellent for story telling and should be so presented for the greatest impact."

- Ethel Richard in The New York Times Book Review

Long Journey Home: Stories from Black History
** "Author Lester is an engrossing story-teller, with a fine sense for the speech and life-rhythms of his characters. But it is an angry book as well-an anger which, at the sharpest (as in "Ben"), dulls the edge of the story. At it's best, as in "Louis" and "The Man Who Was a Horse," "Long Journey Home" it is an imaginative trip worth taking.

-Jennifer Farely Smith, in The Christian Science Monitor

To Be A Slave
** "To Be A Slave" is made up of the narratives of men, women, and children who experienced slavery. These excerpts, many published here for the first time, were selected by Julius Lester, who ties them together in a factual, unemotional manner that throws them into brilliant relief . . ."

-John Howard Griffin, in The New York Times Book Review
** "To Be A Slave ( . . . 1968) provides a much needed balance to the usual glorified biographies of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Children reading descriptions of the slave quarters at Mount Vernon and Monticello will find their conceptions of these "perfect" men quite altered.
-Judith Sloane Hoberman, in School Library Journal

Who I Am
** "This Union [of poems and photographs] conveys beauty, pain, humor, tenderness; every photopoem urges the reader to share in the powerful emotional panorama of life as it is lived by people of different racial backgrounds, ages and sexes. Unfortunately, however, Asians are not represented; the world here is seen as black, white, and brown . . . .
[This] is an engrossing if flawed book. [Mr. Gahr's] photographs reflect the realities suggested by Mr. Lester's language; they are marked by a sharpness and precision that the words lack.

-Barbara Walker, in Interracial Books for Children Bulletin

Book Summaries:

Sam and the Tigers

This is one of the latest of Julius Lester's picture books for children. Once again, Mr. Lester collaborated with Jerry Pinkney to bring an old story back to life. Sam and the Tigers is a retelling of Helen Bannerman's book Little Black Sambo. Julius Lester brings new life to Sam and uses his southern storytelling humor to endear Sam to the reader. Jerry Pinkney's illustrations are bold and beautiful. The colors are vivid, and the tigers look as though they'll jump off the page at you. It's a story of victory, of strong versus weak, and of triumph over fear. Young children will be fascinated with the storyline and illustrations.

The Last Tales of Uncle Remus

Julius Lester has added a wonderfully humorous and modern element to his retelling of the Uncle Remus Tales. This is the last volume in a series of four, and any of them would be a wonderful addition to any school or private library. People young and old will delight in hearing these folktales retold with satire and political overtones. These folktales are full of lines like "they sho-nuf did" and "Don't be askin' me why animals can talk . . ." that can't help but make you smile. In "Why the Earth is Mostly Water" you'll read about Jackie Opossum and Madonna Llama. In "The Man and the Boots", a thief who's stealing VCR's, microwaves, and popcorn poppers is tricked. Brer Rabbit and all his friends are more delightful than ever as they teach us lessons about greed, friendship, pride and many others in such tales as "Why the Hawk Likes to Eat Chickens" and "Why Brer Possum Has No Hair on His Tail".

The Knee-High Man and Other Tales

Julius Lester tells his own version of delightful tales that have appeared in other books, possibly under different names. Each of the folktales describe enchanting characters and the lessons they give and learn. Beside "The Knee-High Man," the stories include "What is Trouble?", " Why Dogs Hate Cats", "Mr. Rabbit and Mr. Bear", "Why the Waves Have Whitecaps", and "The Farmer and the Snake".

To Be A Slave

This is a non-fiction novel that uses the former slaves' stories to chronicle the lives of people living under the strong arm of slavery. The stories begin with the dreaded "Middle Passage" of the slaves being brought to the Americas and then put on the auction block. The former slaves' stories have a simple and profound elegance to them that could only be achieved by living through the horror of these experiences. Chapters included also discuss the drudgery of plantation work, inhumane living conditions, religion and music, as well as resistance, escaping from slavery, and life after emancipation. Lester ends each section with commentary on the chapter's subject. His comments help keep the flow of the novel smooth and interesting. In To Be A Slave, Lester lets the stories speak for themselves so vividly that the reader will not soon forget them.

Unifying Elements Among Lester's Work:

Julius Lester's books definitely have a theme that is devoted to preserving the history of black Americans. His earlier works informed young readers about African American heritage through such writings as "To Be A Slave" and " The Long Journey Home" and his retelling of black folktales preserves old ideas in a new light. Lester focuses on the black experiences whether it be nonfiction works about slavery and Civil War Reconstruction or his unique dialogue and storytelling in Uncle Remus's Folktales. His goal is to contribute important historic information about Afro-Americans and enlighten individuals to themes such as oppression and racism to help shape their futures.

Suggested Teaching Activities:

Nonfiction-- To Be A Slave
* Students could research a particular slave or historical figure.
* Students could keep a diary as if you are a slave.
* They could make short plays or re-enactments of a southern plantation.
* They could write their own autobiography.
* They could make a family tree.

Picture Books - Such as Sam and the Tigers for Younger Students
* Students could draw Sam or any other character from the book.
* Students could write or tell another version of the book.
* Construction paper could be used and students could create their own colorful character.
* A model of a character could be made using everyday household objects.

Folktales - Such as "The Uncle Remus Series" and The Knee-High Man
* Students could write their own folktales.
* Sutdents could then illustrate their own folktales.
* They could invent a new character.
* They could act out a favorite folktale.
* The old and new version of Uncle Remus could be compared and differences and similarities could be noted.

Works Cited:

The Address Book, T. S. Denisen & Co., Minneapolis, 1994.
Children's Literature Review (Volume 2), Gale Research Co., 1976, pp. 112-115.
Lester, J., The Last Tales of Uncle Remus, Dial, 1994.
Young Adult Literature on slavery and racism, Dial, 1996.
Something About the Author (Volume 74), Gale Research Co., 1993, pp. 158-162.

Page compiled in part by: Nancy McLeod and Michelle Wolff

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This web page was last updated on: 21 June 2007

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