Quote of the Month

When love and skill work together, expect a miracle. John Ruskin

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

With Courage And Music

A common cause unites people with differences. It might be a wrong most people feel needs to be made right.  It's a time when barriers fall or are broken.

As a participant in the 2014 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge hosted by Alyson Beecher at Kid Lit Frenzy, I have been reading more than I normally would about World War I.  I reviewed Stubby The War Dog:  The True Story of World War I's Bravest Dog (National Geographic, May 2014) and more recently the beautifully rendered Shooting at the Stars: The Christmas Truce of 1914 (Abrams Books for Young Readers, October 7, 2014) by John Hendrix, a fictionalized account of true events.  When I read Harlem Hellfighters (Creative Editions, an imprint of The Creative Company, August 19, 2014) by J. Patrick Lewis with illustrations by Gary Kelley, I knew another significant piece for my picture of this world event was firmly and memorably put in place.

April 1916
America's late declaration of war against the Germans filled enlistment offices everywhere.  In New York state, politicians enlisted magnetic bandleader James Europe to help assemble a new black regiment in Harlem. ...

This portion of the first passage follows an introductory page describing the length of the war, the number of casualties, the date when the United States entered this conflict, the number of African American soldiers and their role, the importance of the 369th Infantry Regiment named the Harlem Hellfighters by the Germans, and the leadership of James "Big Jim" Reese Europe and his band (music and soldiers).  On pages eight through thirty-one a portion is dedicated to poetic presentations of facts with supporting illustrations surrounding each of them.  It is a journey back in time, a journey highlighting men of distinction.

Two thousand strong, the 369th Infantry Regiment were recruited in 1916 and trained in South Carolina in the summer of 1917.  By December of this same year they left on a ship named the Pocahontas to make the three week journey to Europe.  Upon their arrival in France, they actually entertained people around the harbor with their own special brand of jazz.

Initially, their service was relegated to

They picked and shoveled dams, built hospitals in mud, laid rail lines spiked in blood, and dredged the port of Saint-Nazaire. 

The year was 1918.  Least you think that was their only purpose, in February they lightened the hearts of troops and boosted morale with their music in the Village of the Baths in the French Alps. Within a month the regiment was moved to the front lines.

In May 1918 Henry Johnson, a member of the Harlem Hellfighters, distinguished himself with bravery on the battlefield with a story documented in history by the honors bestowed upon him.  Their leader, James Europe, wrote some of his most well-known songs when the group found themselves moved back from duty in the trenches.  For six days these brave men fought alongside Frenchmen in the battle at Sechault, France at the war's end.

Freedom came at a high price when the numbers were noted.  Freedom was celebrated in towns throughout France, one to the tunes played by James Europe's band.  Freedom was honored when the Harlem Hellfighters marched down Fifth Avenue in New York City on February 17, 1919.

With each reading the words of J. Patrick Lewis become richer and richer in your mind.  His masterful use of language takes the facts gathered from research weaving them into paragraphs replete with portrayals which transport us to the precise time and place.  By telling the story of these men through separate events, noted by date and sometimes place, Lewis focuses on the most relevant and personal aspects of their contributions.  Here is a sample passage.

December 1917
The Pocahontas, a German-built troopship
seized in war, hauled away its cargo
of men and innocence.

The dust jacket features two images taken from within the pages of this title.  On the front we see the Harlem Hellfighters marching down Fifth Avenue in New York City on their arrival home at the end of the war.  On the back we see a single musician with a trombone in his hand standing in front of the Uncle Sam recruiting poster.  A light, plain, sand-colored matte paper covers the opening and closing endpapers.  Before the formal title page, Gary Kelley displays a gallery of Harlem Hellfighters' soldiers in twenty-four small portraits covering two pages.  A picture of a soldier sitting on a piano bench in front of a piano looks like a worn and torn photograph on the title page.

With his select color palette Kelley opens a door to the past.  It's emotional, personal and perfect.  A structured layout and design with alternate illustration sizes creates a pacing which involves readers sincerely and deeply.  We feel connected to these men through his detailed portrayals of specific scenes.  The accurate representations of attire, accessories, vehicles, buildings, battles and places are striking.

In a series of five illustrations, one more than a half-page on the left vertically and four of equal size on the right horizontally, he gives a haunting vision to J. Patrick Lewis's words

in the mid-Atlantic
fog of history, two
dark ships passed
in the night.

In the largest of the five, a Harlem Hellfighter stands at the rail of the ship heading toward Europe.  On the left amid the fog, clouds and on the sea the sails of a schooner can be barely seen.  With each subsequent image the ship gets closer.  As it gets larger faces of African slaves, chains and shackles about their necks, come into view.

Harlem Hellfighters written by J. Patrick Lewis with illustrations by Gary Kelley is brilliant in its factual and visual representation of these men.  It's no surprise that the Society of Illustrators honored it recently with a silver medal.  It is also one of the selected titles on The New York Times Best Illustrated Books 2014.  On the final page eight sources are included in the bibliography and Gary Kelley lists five artist's notes.

For more information about J. Patrick Lewis and Gary Kelley please follow the links embedded in their names to access their websites.  This link to the publisher's website gives you views of pages from this book.  I have included several more links with information about the Harlem Hellfighters here, here, here and here.

It is a distinct pleasure to participate in the 2014 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge each week.  Be sure to read about the other books highlighted by bloggers.


  1. J. Patrick Lewis has such a way with words, doesn't he??

    1. Yes he does Michele. His words create astonishing visual images. I could really feel the passion he had for this book.

  2. You got me at Recruited in Song. I particularly loved his And The Soldiers Sang - I think they would make great companion books. :)