Book Review: Tar Beach

Book Review of Tar Beach by Faith Ringold

Review by Jessica Fernandez

Tar Beach, by Faith Ringold is a fiction picture book geared towards early readers which incorporates elements of fantasy and realism as well as some aspects of informational text. This book tells the story of Cassie Louise Lightfoot, an eight-year-old girl living in New York sometime around or after the 1930s. This story tells of an African-American girl living in an urban setting with hardworking parents who seem to struggle to make ends meet at times. Although it expresses some hardships, it also celebrates the culture and sense of community of African American working class families. This young girl dreams of being able to do what she wants and go wherever she would like. Through the inclusion of elements of fantasy she is able to fly around New York, seeing all the sites and buildings that she wants to while dreaming of a better life for her family.

The author/illustrator’s use of aesthetics within this literary piece is really thoughtful and authentic. The illustrations were done through quilting and hand painted quilts were photographed to use as illustrations for this story. Borders are used throughout the book which mimic the use of borders in traditional quilts. Often quilting was used in African-American communities for story telling and I feel that this really lends itself to the text which celebrates the story of this African-American family.  The illustrations are very bright and colorful and the artist uses the elements of design effectively to create compositions which support the text. Being as this story is told through narration by the 8-year-old girl, the images seem to have a somewhat childlike rendering which helps to support the narration. The sense of fantasy that is included in the text is incorporated in the illustrations through the artist’s use of perspective. The perspective is not entirely realistic or perfect yet is used to show the child soaring above the city buildings and architecture. Overall, the aesthetics are really thoughtful and can communicate literally as well as symbolically and leave opportunities for the reader to build their own visual literacy.

This story also focuses on social injustice during the great depression. During this time, many groups were suffering economically, yet no group was hit as hard as the African-American community. More than half of African-Americans were unemployed during the great depression and many were unfairly forced out of jobs to be replaced by white Americans. Tar Beach discusses this injustice when Cassie Louise Lightfoot explains how her father was not allowed in the union and was often out of work which affected his ability to provide for his family. Being as African-Americans are often under-represented in literature, Tar Beach is wonderful in its ability to explain the complexity of social injustice while inviting the reader to learn about this family and potentially break away from stereotypes. This is an example of a diverse biography in which the main character is being empowered and showing positive self-esteem. This book has the potential for diverse readers to see themselves in the text and create a positive impact on readers from many backgrounds.

The literary craft and style in this piece is evident. The story has a clear narrative and incorporates elements of different genres to build a rich text. Although the illustrations play a large part in supporting the text, the text can stand alone and be engaging to the reader. The voice in this book is that of an 8-year-old girl and the author communicates this well. There is plenty of use of literary tools such as metaphors and similes as well as personification which is used to create a rich text. Overall, this children’s picture book has excellent balance between text and illustration with the potential to inspire readers to reflect upon the strong and thought-provoking storyline.

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