James Baldwin (1924–1987), renowned African-American novelist, playwright, essayist, critic, and civil rights activist, has many published works to his credit, only one of which was written for children. His picture book Little Man, Little Man: A Story of Childhood, published by Dial Press in 1976, did not stay in print long, but will return to bookstore shelves next August, when Duke University Press reissues the title with the original illustrations by the Parisian artist Yoran Cazac; an introduction by the edition’s coeditors, Baldwin scholars Nicholas Boggs and Jennifer DeVere Brody; a foreword by Baldwin’s nephew, Tejan “TJ” Karefa; and an afterword by Aisha Karefa-Smart, the author’s niece and Karefa’s older sister.
It is fitting that Baldwin’s nephew and niece, children of his sister Gloria, contributed to the new edition of Little Man, Little Man, since their childhood on Manhattan’s Upper West Side inspired the book. The story came to be after Karefa begged Baldwin (who often visited and entertained his illustrious coterie of colleagues and friends in his extended family’s brownstone) to write a children’s book about him. His devoted uncle, who was at the time living in the village of Saint Paul-de-Vence in the south of France, complied, creating a picture book that the author described as “a celebration of the self-esteem of black children.”
Little Man, Little Man’s title character, four-year-old TJ, spends his days on his lively Harlem block, playing with friends and running errands for neighbors—all under the watchful eye of his older sister, Blinky. Yet TJ encounters grown-up realities and faces new challenges during his coming of age as a little man with big dreams.
“When my brother TJ told Uncle Jimmy, ‘You need to tell my story,’ he said he would, and he kept his promise,” said Karefa-Smart, noting, “I proudly claim the role of Blinky.” She remembers well Baldwin’s opening of the first box of finished copies of Little Man, Little Man at the family homestead on Thanksgiving Day 1976, when she was nine. “Oh my God, it was magical!” she recalled. “He gathered all the kids around and surprised us with the books—and we all started jumping up and down!”
Karefa-Smart explained that her uncle felt a special connection to her and her brother, and also to their cousins, yet his concern for young people extended beyond his own family. “Uncle Jimmy was a huge advocate for children’s rights, education, safety, and protection,” she explained. “He grew up in a vulnerable situation in Harlem, and I believe he wrote this book for all children. TJ is an archetype for children whose innocence is lost growing up in the city—and his experience specifically reflects that of the black urban child. I think my uncle wrote this story so that children could have hope for a brighter future, one that is full of opportunities.”
Targeting a New Generation
Duke University Press’s forthcoming edition of Little Man, Little Man was the brainchild of Nicholas Boggs, clinical assistant professor of English at New York University, who was an undergraduate at Yale in the 1990s when he discovered Baldwin’s out-of-print Little Man, Little Man at the university’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. “I had read almost everything Baldwin had written, but had never seen this, and I was immediately fascinated by it,” Boggs recalled. “The book had these beautiful sketchy illustrations and it felt like a children’s book when I held it in my hands, yet as I read the story I realized it has mature themes you wouldn’t normally expect to find in a children’s book.”
Boggs decided to make the book the topic of his Yale senior essay, which was later included in an anthology, James Baldwin Now, published by NYU Press in 1999. While researching the essay, he contacted Baldwin’s biographer, David Leeming, and asked if he knew anything about the French artist who illustrated Little Man, Little Man. Leeming replied that he had never met Cazac, and thought he was deceased.
Still curious several years later, Boggs, as a graduate student at Columbia, sent emails to art historians in Paris, asking about Cazac. “Before long my phone rang—and it was Yoran Cazac,” he said. “In a raspy voice, he invited me to come to Paris to see an exhibition of his work. And so I signed up for my third credit card and went to Paris, and met the artist, his wife, and his son, who was Baldwin’s godson.”
Boggs returned to Paris the following summer to further interview Cazac, who died in 2005. “He was really a fascinating man, and meeting him was a highlight of my life,” said Boggs. “Later, I was able to visit Baldwin’s former house in the south of France, where they collaborated on Little Man, Little Man. After my interviews with Cazac, I wrote another essay that appeared in The Cambridge Companion to James Baldwin, published by Cambridge University Press in 2015. And all of this research has led to my book-in-progress about the untold story of their collaboration.”
Though Boggs acknowledged that Little Man, Little Man did not find a wide readership in 1976, and went out of print “quickly and quietly,” he believes that the picture book “can be better understood today” when there is “an expressed need for more diverse books, and when more and more books are crossing genres between children and adults.”
“The book is written in black English, which Baldwin celebrated, both as an art form and as a form of politics,” Boggs added. “In an era of Black Lives Matter, readers are ready to think about how children inevitably confront challenging social issues, but it’s not all doom and gloom. Instead, the book gives children a playful way to recognize and navigate obstacles in their lives. In an interview, Baldwin once said he felt he was denied certain aspects of a carefree childhood, and he hoped that things would be different for future generations of children—including his niece and nephew.”
Ken Wissoker, editorial director of Duke University Press, noted that the publisher “is proud and excited” to reissue Baldwin’s book, which to his knowledge is the press’s first children’s book. “Little Man, Little Man is an open-eyed but warm picture of the black community,” he noted, “and it passes on a very valuable message about kids looking out for other kids in our complex world.”
Boggs expressed gratitude to the press for reissuing what he described as “this beautiful, unusual, and important book.” And, he added, he and coeditor Brody “are extremely thankful to the Baldwin estate, and to Aisha Karefa-Smart and Tejan Karefa, for helping to make this new edition of Little Man, Little Man happen.”
Karefa-Smart is pleased to be a part of the team effort that is bringing Little Man, Little Man back into print. “We’ve been so excited about all the renewed attention my uncle’s work has been getting recently,” she said. “So many people think they know James Baldwin’s books, but have no idea that he wrote a children’s book. So they’ll find this a very pleasant surprise!”
Little Man, Little Man: A Story of Childhood by James Baldwin, illus. by Yoran Cazac, coedited by Nicholas Boggs and Jennifer DeVere Brody. Duke University Press, $22.95 Aug. 2018 ISBN 978-1-4780-0004-4