Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Wednesday, August 27, 2014: Kids' Maximum Shelf: Harlem Hellfighters


The Creative Company: Harlem Hellfighters by J. Patrick Lewis and Gary Kelley

The Creative Company: Harlem Hellfighters by J. Patrick Lewis & Gary Kelley

The Creative Company: Harlem Hellfighters by J. Patrick Lewis & Gary Kelley

The Creative Company: Mocha Dick & The Forever Flowers

Harlem Hellfighters

by J. Patrick Lewis, illus. by Gary Kelley

The team behind And the Soldiers Sang delves deeply into another chapter of World War I--which began 100 years ago this month--with this beautiful and bittersweet tribute to the Harlem Hellfighters.

The exquisitely designed, oversize volume opens with two-dozen portraits of the men in uniform, rendered in charcoal pencil and pastels. The impact of this double-page windowframe of faces--some happy, some sad, some contemplative--informs the entire book. These 2,000 men--who began as the 15th New York National Guard, were federalized as the 369th Infantry Regiment, and were nicknamed the Harlem Hellfighters by the Germans "for their tenacity," J. Patrick Lewis writes--are no longer a number, but rather individuals, as lifelike as the 24 men in those portraits. They were as talented with their instruments--playing jazz, blues and ragtime, led by "Big Jim" Reese Europe--as they were skilled on the battlefield.

From the title page, Gary Kelley sets up the tension between the two charges of the men: making music and making war. We see one of the Harlem Hellfighters, viewed through a hole in a wall pocked by bullet holes, seated at a piano with a rifle slung over his right shoulder. Kelley reinforces this dichotomy on the page opposite Lewis's introduction: the message on an iconic poster of Uncle Sam ("I want you for the U.S. Army") is obscured by a young African American man, standing at attention and sporting a tie and suspenders, a hat covering his brow, holding a trombone in his right hand.

The book traces the journey from their recruitment in April 1916 through to Big Jim's tragic death in May 1919, and portrays the mood in the United States as latecomers to the Great War, the segregation in America and how it followed the soldiers overseas. Big Jim and his band used their music to recruit others and eventually were sent to train in Spartanburg, S.C. Lewis writes that they "soon asked themselves whether German bullets could be as fatal as the rifle eyes of Southern gentry, women--highborn or down-and-out--triggered to rage, ministers sold on buckshot salvation, and deputy sheriffs certain that black was not any color of the rainbow."

In one of the most powerful spreads, a soldier stands with his back to readers on the deck of the Pocahontas, ferrying them across the Atlantic to the war raging in Europe. "Somewhere in the mid-Atlantic fog of history, two dark ships passed in the night," reads the text. The soldier gazes at a four-part horizontal sequence on the right-hand page. Readers can barely make out the sail of a ship in the top panel, but the ship draws nearer with each subsequent panel, until we can discern faces, more than half a dozen men in iron collars joined by chains; it is the ghost of a ship making the Middle Passage.

This image foreshadows the men's first three months in France, assigned to menial labor--shoveling dams, building hospitals, laying rail lines and dredging the Saint-Nazaire port. But at the other extreme, Jim Europe's band would play for the well-to-do in Aix-les-Bains. "In this elite playground, the band served honey through a horn to war-weary doughboys on leave," Lewis writes. At last, in March 1918, when they're sent to fight, the men of the 369th are taught French, how to read maps, how to use weaponry. Kelley honors them with a gorgeous re-imagining of Eugene Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People (1830), with a valiant woman holding the French flag high as the Harlem Hellfighters race into battle.

Aside from Jim Europe himself, the most astonishing individual in the book is Henry Johnson, a former porter who in May 1918 killed four enemy soldiers, routed 24 more, and saved the life of a comrade. He won the Croix de Guerre, and was the first American serviceman to earn it--black or white. Kelley honors him in a dozen panels arranged as a windowpane, in a build-up to the heroic fight, leaving no doubt as to how he earned the nickname "Black Death." Yet the next page marks a stark contrast between the men's reputation as heroes on the front and the horrors at home: two black men hang from a tree, as President Woodrow Wilson stands by, just watching.

Upon their homecoming in February 1919, the Harlem Hellfighters took to Fifth Avenue in New York City, playing music to salute an Allied victory. But it does not end there: Big Jim, leading his band the night before they were to play for a 56th anniversary celebration honoring Robert Gould Shaw's 54th Massachusetts Regiment (originally a troop of freed slaves who fought for the Union), died at the hands of his drummer. Kelley juxtaposes a horizontal image of a soldier saluting a bronze relief sculpture of the regiment with a cameo of the stately James Reese Europe.

Kelley closes with a visual bookend featuring one of the young Hellfighters, in uniform and black mourning armband, holding a trombone in his right hand. "Three days later,/ the first black man ever to be given/ a public funeral in the city of New York/ rolled through the streets of Harlem/ past a delirium of mourners," Lewis writes. "In black armbands, the Hellfighters/ marched last, their hushed instruments/ at their sides."

This powerful image of the Harlem Hellfighters, so recently seen as vital contributors to the Allied victory, and then made mute in their sadness, all too accurately mirrors the men's experiences throughout the Great War. --Jennifer M. Brown

Creative Editions, $18.99, hardcover, 32p., ages 10-up, 9781568462462

The Creative Company: Harlem Hellfighters by J. Patrick Lewis & Gary Kelley


J. Patrick Lewis and Gary Kelley: Seasoned Collaborators

J. Patrick Lewis and Gary Kelley have worked together since The Christmas of the Reddle Moon (Dial, 1994). After they did a program together, they "became joined at the hip," according to Lewis. "Except for the first two books we did together, the others have been all Gary's idea." Kelley thought they should do a book on the Christmas truce, which became And the Soldiers Sang, their first picture book set during the Great War. The artist wanted to follow with Harlem Hellfighters because the anniversary of the centenary was approaching. "I think he's a genius, one of the best illustrators in the world," Lewis said. For his part, Kelley is equally as taken with Lewis, "Patrick amazes me. He's very smart and quick. I'll bounce a concept off of him, and he's back in two or three days with the whole outline of the book." Now that's inspiration.

J. Patrick Lewis

Patrick, how did you decide which moments to hone in on--you're covering a lot here, from a segregated American South to the double-duty of the Harlem Hellfighters as musicians and soldiers, to "the battle of Henry Johnson" to the 369th Infantry Regiment's homecoming.

J. Patrick Lewis: I'm a perseverator--the opposite of procrastinator. I try to tell kids in the 500+ school visits I make that in order to be a writer, you have to be a rewriter. There are many poems that didn't make it in. Sometimes I'm a bit crestfallen when a poem I love doesn't make it in the book. This is a picture book, so I have to be cognizant of what's going on with the illustrator. I try to think of scenes that lend themselves to marvelous illustrations. Usually Gary will make suggestions. In the case of Harlem Hellfighters, he said, "I'd like to do a double-page spread of soldiers' faces."

Those two dozen portraits that open the book are so striking, Gary. Did you work from photographs?

Gary Kelley: Mostly, and a lot of those are Harlem Hellfighters. There weren't enough photos from the right point of view to use all of them, but half are real Hellfighters. There's a guy in there who's a young artist who stops by to see me often, and I drew him, too.

I tried to make sure, even though facial structure doesn't evolve that quickly, that the faces were photographs from that period. There might have been a basketball team from the 1920s as a jumping-off place. I love the research part of it. Patrick's great for research, too. I'll take whatever I can use, but visually, I read a lot of background material, more than I have to--I love that part of it. If Patrick tips me off to a book I'll go after it. I have my own library of 1,000 books or so; I don't do much with Google. If I got in a bind I would, but I love the thrill of the chase, trying to find just the right face. I don't copy the photograph; I try to make it mine. I don't want anyone to look at one of my pieces and say, I know that photograph. For World War I there's a ton of photography available.

Obviously there are some pieces in the book that are intentional, like the Delacroix image. Whether it's the train or guys working, I'll deliberately avoid the high-profile photos that most of us have seen.

Gary Kelly

Let's talk about that image inspired by Delacroix. The contrast between that very still image that precedes it and the action-packed scene of the men on the battlefield, which pays homage to Delacroix, is so striking.

GK: With the Delacroix image, that was my idea, but it came directly from Pat's words, when he finished that page with "Vive la France!" That image came to mind, they're fighting under the French flag, and all the poses were ideal for them. I would never do that without having the artist's notes in the back. I did the notes because I thought I should, but a librarian friend said they love to cross that with the art department, the music department.

What about the image of the Middle Passage?

JPL: Gary wanted to depict a dreamlike illustration in which the other ship is a slave ship. It's imagined by the soldiers on the Pocahontas.

Did your work in pastels for this book--and for And the Soldiers Sang--make that dreamlike aspect possible?

GK: The fog and the softness, the color range--you can do all that with oil, but you'd have to work a lot larger, probably. With the Paganini book for Creative Editions, Dark Fiddler, a light went off in my head. I'd spent a good part of my life drawing, and working in oils without a lot of line work. Pagnini was such a gnarly character, it seemed like he'd do well in a gnarly line drawing. And the Soldiers Sang seemed like an extension of that. You're seeing a lot more outline drawing in Soldiers and in Hellfighters than you would have seen early on. Going back to my first book, Sleepy Hollow, in the early 1990s--that was a lot softer, then I did The Necklace right after that, and that's a lot softer. There's no line drawing showing through. I need to keep exploring.

Did you start out thinking Jim Reese Europe's story would serve as bookends to the larger Hellfighters story?

JPL: That was always going to be a part of it. We had to have some kind of closure, and that seemed fitting, with his band members all standing at attention. What amazes me about this story is that James Reese Europe--the heart and soul of this regiment--you never hear his name in the United States. Eubie Blake said he was "the Martin Luther King of music." He was a great musician and played Carnegie Hall long before George Gershwin or any of those people.

The book also focuses on Henry Johnson, the porter-turned-hero for his actions during the war.

JPL: I was trying to find the poetic form for that. When I came up with an anaphora, a list poem, I thought it would be perfect for that. I had a groundswell of feeling, or a  "swell of progress" as T.S. Eliot would say; I don't think we discussed the illustrations before I wrote that poem.

GK: I wanted to have a couple of spreads in the book that were pure graphic novel like that spread, pure panels. There's another toward the end of the book, but it does have words on it. About 100 years ago, there was a genre called "novels without words." They were enjoying a lot of success. They're still around. The key for me on a spread like that is variety. Out of the night, here comes a wall of German soldiers, so you see the close-up of his eye, the whole idea of sensing danger, then out and out fight scenes.

JPL: When Johnson got home, the U.S. government paid him to give speeches, hoping he'd speak about racial harmony. Instead, he spoke of the poor treatment blacks received at the hands of white soldiers, so they ordered his arrest. He died penniless. It's a sad story of heroism and finally, in his case, defeat. It goes to the point that no matter how fearless, they still faced ridicule and abuse at home.

I'm finding the exact same thing with the Navajo codetalkers in WWII. The Marine Corps admits they'd never have taken Iwo Jima without them. But when they came home, they were sworn to silence for 23 years, because they didn't want the code intercepted by any potential enemy.

Let's talk about that iconic poster of Uncle Sam with the musician standing in front of it; you segue from that image and the introduction into Jim Reese's band recruiting men in Harlem.

GK: I wanted to start the Hellfighters with the same feel as And the Soldiers Sang. I looked at a lot of pictures of musicians to find the right feel. I wanted him to stay fairly anonymous, that's why he's got the cap on, and the trombone seemed the most weaponlike. I don't think I had the final image in mind when I did that, but I wanted to cap it that way, finish it the way I started it. I'm always looking for those subtleties. --Jennifer M. Brown


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