It started with an unforgettable photo—the legendary Maya Angelou, in a sparkly top and satin shoes—dancing with Amiri Baraka, their hands entwined, their bodies exuding joy and celebration. A crowd circles them, smiling and clapping. Under their feet, a brass cosmogram—a representation of the universe—with lines that look like rivers and symbols that harken back to African traditions. Lines from Langston Hughes’s poetry are interspersed with the visuals. And beneath that, Hughes’s ashes are scattered. Taken in 1991 by New York Times photographer Chester Higgins Jr. at the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, the photo is so extraordinary that author Jason Reynolds knew he wanted to craft a narrative from it.
“It’s been a point of intrigue for me for years,” he said. The former National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature grew up idolizing the two poets, met Baraka when he was 16 and later when he was 21, and went to see Angelou speak when he was young. When he investigated the context, he found out the photo was taken at the opening of the library’s Langston Hughes Auditorium. “[The poets were dancing] on the shoulders of their heroes,” he said. Starting from that understanding, he was able to “pull the frame back and see everything happening” in the scenario, realizing that the moment was both a celebration of the legacies of Angelou, Baraka, and Hughes, and “an invitation for young people to understand that the library is where the party is” he said.
The photo became the basis for Reynolds’s first picture book, There Was a Party for Langston, which is illustrated by Jerome and Jarrett Pumphrey, and due out from Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books on October 3.
Reynolds acknowledges that partying might not be the first thing that comes to mind for kids when they think of the library. “We think of libraries as sacred spaces,” Reynolds said. “For me at least, I don’t know what’s more sacred than people paying tribute to one of the greatest word-makers of our time, but also people enjoying themselves. Kids having fun is sacred. They should be able to do that at the playground or in the library.”
That sense of joy, play, and reverence for words floods every page of the book. Patrons flock to the library in their finest party clothes. In one scene, as the party-goers dance, authors including Zora Neale Hurston and Octavia Butler look on from the frames of their books. The text and images explore the way words and those who make art from them inspire the next generation of writers. The exuberance in both the words and images make it clear that this book has read-aloud written all over it, and indeed that’s one of Reynolds’s hopes for the book.
Although he has worked with illustrators on graphic novels, picture books are “a true collaboration,” he said, and the process of creating this book was a new experience. “You write enough to lob the ball so that the illustrator has just enough space to do their dance.” For the Pumphreys, the book is the first time they’ve illustrated a text that was not their own. Jarrett Pumphrey said the project presented challenges. “One of those challenges was finding the space in Jason’s text for the visuals. The way he uses words—it’s just incredible, and it conjures all sorts of images. This is Jason Reynolds’s first picture book we’re talking about, and it’s about Langston Hughes! We so badly wanted to do right by him and Langston.”
Jerome added, “It was connecting those dots for ourselves that led to us including Langston’s words in the art. With the support of Caitlyn [Dlouhy, Reynolds’s editor] and our art director, Sonia Chaghatzbanian, we ended up making a visual celebration of word-makers. It’s one big party where we hope readers have a blast.” The words themselves are integral to the art, providing shape for the music, the landscape, and the people in the book.
“It’s always a relief when a project comes together, but especially so in this case,” Jarrett said.
Come together it did. “What I made, I think, was a beautiful thing,” Reynolds said. “But what they turned it into, is a masterpiece. I might be more proud of this book than any of them.”
Describing the book, Dlouhy said, “The reader can’t resist moving with, being carried by, that river of words, movement sometimes fluid, swaying, other times staccato, rocks in rapids. It all makes you feel that you too are there at that party—you’re invited, after all!—because you are there moving, shimmying, nodding, fiercing, beaming with Maya and Amiri and the authors peeking from their books.”
While he said he never wants to be imitative, Reynolds tried to figure out “how to cast that same spell” as books like Where the Wild Things Are. “There’s nothing like the way kids react when they hear that it’s rumpus time.” With There Was a Party for Langston he tries to generate that. “I want it to feel like rumpus time,” he said. “It feels electric.”