cover image Little Man, Little Man: A Story of Childhood

Little Man, Little Man: A Story of Childhood

James Baldwin, illus. by Yoran Cazac. Duke Univ., $22.95 (120p) ISBN 978-1-4780-0004-4

"Uncle Jimmy, Uncle Jimmy!” James Baldwin’s nephew, Tejan Karefa-Smart, pestered him, “When are you going to write a book about me?” Baldwin took up the project with utter seriousness, and the result has the weight and significance of a novel. Originally published to little fanfare in 1976, the book went out of print soon afterward; Duke University Press is now reissuing it, following its discovery in the writer’s archives by a young scholar. Baldwin’s day-in-the-life account of his nephew’s New York City neighborhood revolves around four-year-old TJ, the youngest boy on the block; seven-year-old WT, watched over by TJ’s family (“WT father gone. His Mama work till past dark”); and their neighbor, eight-year-old Blinky. The three spend hours together playing ball, jumping rope, and making each other laugh. WT and Blinky look out for TJ, and TJ chafes under WT’s constant gaze (“WT always want to sound like he so grown-up”), but he loves him, too (“He a pain but he really beautiful”). Seen through TJ’s eyes and written in the black English Baldwin celebrated, the story views the life of his family and their neighborhood in a swirl of impressions, memories, and anxieties (“He always got this feeling that maybe something awful done happened to his Mama and Daddy”). Raw moments—the drug-induced stupor of WT’s older brother, the fraught marriage of the janitor, Mr. Man, and his wife, Miss Lee—alternate with scenes of deep warmth: TJ’s Daddy saying “I want you to be proud of your people” and the description of TJ’s Mama (“She love TJ and she tell him everything he need to know, like every time he ask her a question she give him a straight answer”). French artist Cazac’s scribbly-line spreads and vignettes, tinted with watercolor, seem charged with electricity. Through luminous prose and fine observation, readers come to care deeply about TJ and his friends, and they’ll wish their story didn’t end so soon. Ages 10–up. (Aug.)