It was 1974 and Mildred Taylor – an African-American writer born in Jackson, Miss., – had just won a contest sponsored by the Council on Interracial Books, an organization that encouraged the publication of diverse books. Taylor made the rounds to interested publishers, selecting Dial Books for Young Readers to publish the novella that would become Song of the Trees, the first in a stirring saga of a land-owning African-American family living in segregated Mississippi during the Great Depression. Regina Hayes was to be Taylor’s editor – it’s a relationship that has lasted for 40 years and counting. Taylor was nowhere near to finishing telling the story of that Mississippi family, which was closely based upon her own. In fact, Taylor is currently at work on the final book of the series, to be released in 2017.

In 1976, Dial published Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, the second book about the Logan family. The novel is narrated by nine-year-old Cassie Logan, who along with her siblings grapples with the racism and violence directed at African-Americans in their rural community. The book won the 1977 Newbery Medal, further establishing Taylor as a writer of power and influence and the Logans as a family to be reckoned with.

To commemorate the 40-year anniversary of Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, Dial has released a new edition, featuring cover art by Caldecott Honor artist Kadir Nelson, a selection of Taylor family photographs, a new author’s note from Taylor, and an introduction written by National Book Award Medalist Jacqueline Woodson, which recounts how deeply the Logan family influenced her own life and writing.

It’s no surprise to Regina Hayes, currently editor-at-large at Viking, that Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is still so highly valued after all these years. “When the manuscript came in and I read it, I actually got tingles in my spine,” she recalled. “The storytelling was powerful, the characters were fully realized, and there was a passion to the writing that left a deep impression. I knew it was an important book.”

A Roll of Thunder in Brooklyn

Coinciding with the release of the anniversary edition is an exhibition devoted to Taylor and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, at the Brooklyn Public Library’s Central Library, running through April 24. Children’s book historian Leonard S. Marcus curated the exhibit, which includes historical materials, correspondences, photographs, and original book art.

Marcus pointed out what he believes to be highlights of the exhibit, including a letter from Hayes to Taylor that “reveals a late moment in the writing process” when Taylor was struggling with determining how to end the book and to find a title. “She had unleashed so much dramatic material, some of it quite disturbing, that figuring out how to bring the story to a close in a way that felt realistic and not pat was bound to have been a challenge, especially in a book for young readers,” Marcus said. Also featured in the exhibit is a fax from Coretta Scott King to Taylor, which demonstrates the far-reaching impact of Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry beyond the children’s book world. Marcus emphasized how, in 1976 when the book was published, there were still very few books for children about African-American lives and culture, and perhaps even fewer that dealt so unflinchingly with racism.

Speaking at the exhibit’s opening reception on February 12, Marcus noted that Roll of Thunder was published the same year as Alex Haley’s Roots. Like the former, it urged readers to begin to “take seriously family heritage... and to recognize that whatever group you belong to has great significance,” Marcus said.

Also on display in the exhibit is Jerry Pinkney’s cover art for the first edition of Roll of Thunder, and Wendell Minor’s art for one of the book’s sequels, Let the Circle Be Unbroken. Kadir Nelson’s newest cover for the book – a striking painting of Cassie Logan – has been placed alongside its predecessors. “It is of course always interesting to see original art for a book, and in this case to compare Kadir Nelson’s radiant, poster-like new cover image with the subtle narrative watercolor that Jerry Pinkney painted for the original cover 40 years ago,” Marcus told PW. “And Wendell Minor’s cover image for Let the Circle Be Unbroken is vintage Minor, a convincing reconstruction of a historical moment that would otherwise be lost to us.” Fittingly, also on display at the library in tandem with the Taylor exhibit is one devoted to Kadir Nelson’s book art, which spans his career.

Regina Hayes and Eileen Kreit, president and publisher at Puffin, also spoke at the Roll of Thunder reception. They announced that, in upcoming months, new editions of all of the titles in the Logan Family saga will be rejacketed with covers by Kadir Nelson, and released from April to June of this year. Kreit referred to the 40th-anniversary exhibit as marking “an amazing moment for an unprecedented book,” and Hayes delivered a message from Taylor, busy completing the final Logan story. “She is delighted with the 40th anniversary edition and deeply honored. She wishes she could be here... which isn’t true,” she joked. “She lives on her mountain in Boulder and it’s very hard to make her come down.”

Kreit and Hayes also spoke about a children’s fiction writing contest being launched through Penguin Young Readers and We Need Diverse Books, in honor of Taylor and the Logan Family saga. Open to talented, ethnically diverse authors writing for readers ages 8–14,” the contest is similar to the one that helped facilitate the publication of Taylor’s first book. The submission period begins in April and details can be found on the contest’s web site.

Though the book was published in a different era, Hayes believes that time has not lessened Roll of Thunder’s power or significance, which is in itself significant: “The themes in Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry are certainly just as relevant today as they were in 1976,” Hayes said. “In fact, it is shocking how relevant they are, how much still needs to change.”