Flying is a classic image of our childhood longing for freedom. In Faith Ringgold’s Tar Beach, a wonderful new book, 8-year-old Cassie lifts effortlessly into the starry sky and glides over Harlem, exultantly making her dreams come true.
Few picture books are as visually dazzling or as poetically immediate as this story about the summer nights when Cassie’s family would picnic, party, and sleep on ”Tar Beach” — their apartment house roof.
”I will always remember when the stars fell down around me and lifted me up above the George Washington Bridge,” Cassie begins. The buoyant pictures of Cassie flying reminded me how it felt to be a kid and stare at the sky until you felt you were falling up into space.
Cassie is a particularly heartening heroine, passionately attached to her city (”Lying on the roof in the night, with stars and skyscraper buildings all around me, made me feel rich, like I owned all that I could see”) and filled with ideas. As she magically flies over the city, she claims the bridge as her own, along with the union headquarters her father helped to build (even though the union excluded African-Americans and Native Americans) and the ice cream factory, just to ensure dessert. In joyful fantasy, the child rights the wrongs done to her people and rejoices in her own potential. ”Anyone can fly. All you need is somewhere to go that you can’t get to any other way.”
Ringgold’s narrative of a child’s self-affirmation and love of family is fresh, direct, and poignant. Her full-page paintings vibrate with ravishing colors: the nighttime sky spangled with stars and city lights and the bright hues of the family’s home life. The pictures are bordered with strips of brilliant African-influenced designs from quilts also made by Ringgold. In fact, Ringgold, an acclaimed African-American artist with studios in New York City and La Jolla, Calif., first created the autobiographical Tar Beach as a ”story quilt,” which is now owned by New York’s Guggenheim Museum.
Tar Beach, Ringgold’s first book, is an exhilarating celebration of a child’s life in the city, a splendid tribute to Black History Month in February, and a lasting enchantment for readers both old and young. A+