The expansiveness of Maya Angelou’s voice reaches from the stoops of neighborhoods in urban America to podiums in capitol buildings and presidential palaces in Africa. And while her poetry and fiction are well recognized, her contributions to the world of children’s literature are less familiar to readers — but just as important.
For three decades at UC Berkeley and Mills College, I taught “New Dawn on the Horizon: A Survey of Third World Children’s Literature.” In the class, I referenced and utilized works dating from the late 19th century up to the early 21st century. Along with Alpha Angela, Bratton, Arna Bontemps, Shirley Graham DuBois, Lucille Clifton and June Jordan, my syllabus included children’s books by Angelou.
Like many other adult poets and novelists who’ve also written wonderful children’s books — Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, for example — Angelou’s contributions to children’s literature were imaginatively crafted and centered on socially conscious topics. They were illustrated by notable artists, including Caldecott Honor Award winner Tom Feelings and young legendary painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, and these creative partnerships resulted in celebrated works like Life Doesn’t Frighten Me and Souls Look Back in Wonder.
Her collaborations with Feelings reflect a kind of tenderness, dignity and self-acceptance that parents, teachers, librarians and young readers seek. The tenderness and unwavering dignity found in Souls Look Back in Wonder, an illustrated anthology that features works by award-winning writers including Alexis DeVeaux, Askia M. Toure and Walter Dean Myers, nourishes the soul and inspires young minds to grow through the powerful lens of black life and culture. Feelings and Angelou’s work together on Now Sheba Sings the Song is filled with his sepia rich illustrations and her lyrical poetry. The book pays a timeless homage to the beauty, historical strength and resolute magic of black women.
In Angelou and Basquiat’s Life Doesn’t Frighten Me, the author and illustrator help families navigate some of the real and imagined terrors foisted upon children in today’s world. Basquiat’s illustrations are rendered with the fright that overtakes the imaginations of so many kids, while Angelou’s words drum up the courage they need to help them live beyond the fright and terror:
Shadows on the wall
Noises down the hall
Life doesn’t frighten me at all
Tough guys fight
All alone at night
Life doesn’t frighten me at all
Dragons breathing flame on my counterpane
That doesn’t frighten me at all
Makes you feel like you can take on anything, doesn’t it?
The fact that Angelou’s rich literary life included works for children is a testimony to her vision and her commitment to words. Through books she wrote for adolescents, she demonstrates the depth of her brilliance, and exemplifies the ways humanity can create a world that turns on a bounty of imagination and creativity.
Daphne Muse is a writer, social commentator and poet who lived in the culturally dynamic Fruitvale District of Oakland, Calif. for 41 years. She just completed her fifth book, The Cousins are Coming! The Cousins are Coming! She now resides in Brentwood, Calif. observing life through a different lens seasoned by her decades of activism and writing the world through her extensive travels in South Africa, Suriname, Mississippi, and Cuba. Her collection of multicultural children’s literature is now housed at UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library and in 2014 was featured in On These I Stand: An Exhibit of Rare Black Books and Collectibles.