It was amazing to me to learn that Langston Hughes was 18 when he composed the poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” the text for this new poem picture book illustrated by E. B. Lewis.
Here is another classic Langston Hughes poem adapted into picture book form, this time with luscious watercolor illustrations by E. B. Lewis. Gorgeous landscape and portrait paintings appear in 13 double-page spreads, with one line (or half line) of the poem accompanying each of these panel illustrations. Each scene is its own strong mini-poster—classically beautiful and full of light.
The art has a very contemporary feel, except for the image of Lincoln and the final page suggesting a Black spirit ancestor. In the “Illustrator’s Note,” Lewis writes that as he worked on this book, “Hughes’s work became as personal as a prayer.”
He goes on to say, “Water has played a powerful role in the lives of black people…. In many ways, my life is like this poem: water almost ended my life; but now, through my watercolors, it has cultivated the spring of it.” He even places an image of himself praying, with the river embracing him, accompanied by the words, “My soul has grown deep like the rivers.” This image is repeated on the back of the dust jacket. Many people much smarter than I am have written about the possible meanings and interpretations of Hughes’s words, and Lewis offers a visual story that is full of emotion and heart.
The full text of the poem also appears on a single page at the end of the book. As an added bonus, look for the audio recording of Hughes himself reading this poem available online here. He even speaks briefly about the backstory behind the writing of this poem.
Sharing this wonderful work with kids will lead to many discussions—about the poem’s meaning, the symbolism of the river, the many places cited, the history of African and African American peoples, and even the use of the word, “Negro.” Teen readers may be inspired to write (or paint) their own poetic visions-- just like Hughes did when he was a teenager (and beyond)!
Hughes, Langston. 2009. The Negro Speaks of Rivers. Ill. by E. B. Lewis. New York: Disney-Hyperion.
Image credit: search.barnesandnoble.com