Review: Uncle Jed’s Barbershop

Sometimes a well-done children’s story is the best way to introduce complex and difficult issues, even reminding adults what is really at the heart of the matter. The loving tale of Uncle Jed’s Barbershop, written by Margaree King Mitchell and illustrated by James Ransome, is one of these.

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The story is told by Sarah Jean – great-niece of sweet Uncle Jed – in a readable storytelling style. Growing up in the American South just before the Great Depression, her Uncle Jed was the only black barber in the county – and by extension, the only barber who would cut a black man’s hair. He traveled to his patrons on horseback, accepting what payment his neighbors could offer. Little Sarah Jean loved his visits. Uncle Jed would tell her all about the beautiful barbershop he was saving up to open one day. Nobody ever thought he would, because times were hard and a black man was at a disadvantage to say the least. But Sarah Jean dreamed right along with him.

Then little Sarah Jean fell desperately sick, and doctors would only perform the necessary operation to save her if the family paid cash up front. Only one person in the family had that kind of money, and he didn’t hesitate to give it. Jed lost his life savings a second time when the Great Depression hit, but no matter what obstacles rose between him and his goals he kept on dreaming, and he taught a wide-eyed little girl to do the same.

Uncle Jed’s kind smile comes to life in both the text and the gorgeous paintings of this winsome book. The difficulties of segregation and racial injustice are not minimized or sugarcoated, but are treated gently and respectfully. Some details should be discussed with children upon reading it, such as the separate waiting rooms at the hospital and why the doctors treated white patients first. But the story is not dominated by these very real hardships; like Uncle Jed, it rises above them. The most remarkable feature of this book is the character of Uncle Jed; a man who faced oppression and injustice with hard work, dignity, kindness, hope, and a generous love of his family and community.

I’ll leave it to you to find out whether Uncle Jed ever opens that fancy barber shop, but I will tell you the ending warms the heart. The challenging themes of inequality represented in the book will be more easily explained to children age five and up, but the overwhelming message of goodness is perfect for all ages.

If you liked this book you might also enjoy: Chicken Sunday by Patricia Polacco

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Series Review: The Cobble Street Cousins

Guiding a budding reader into chapter books can be a confusing experience, so finding an appealing series is like striking gold. If this sounds familiar, you might try The Cobble Street Cousins series by Cynthia Rylant and illustrated by Wendy Anderson Halperin.

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This series of six short chapter books follows three cousins who live with their lovable Aunt Lucy for a year while their parents tour with the ballet. Tess, Rosie, and Lily have very different talents and interests, but they get up to tremendous fun living together in the attic of Aunt Lucy’s old house. Each book features a creative activity that the girls take on together as they make friends and memories in their temporary home: a cookie-baking business, a community newspaper, and finally, preparations for a very special wedding. The individual stories stand alone but the series arc expands encouragingly on the girls’ relationships with neighbors young and old. It’s hard not to want to go along with the three when they take tea cakes and oranges to visit old Mrs. White.

If these books have a fault, it is perhaps that they are too idyllic. It’s difficult to imagine a community of adults dropping everything to attend a program put on by the new neighborhood kids, or the local nonagenarian taking them all in for sewing lessons. If the three friends struggle with missing their parents or adjusting to their situation, no mention of it is made. And apparently on Cobble Street there is always time for tea and cookies. Unrealistic? Probably. But wouldn’t it be pleasant if the world could be just a little more like that?

Children learn to read at different rates, and they only need the ready-for-chapters level for a short time. But chances are that, even as they strike out with more independence, they are still at an age that values reassurance. Some children who can read beyond their years are frightened by coming-of-age themes like playground bullying or the death of a parent. These issues are real and there is time enough (and plenty of good books) to deal with them. But if you know a child who is eager to read and still has that precious innocence, you may safely trust this series.

These books, so sweetly illustrated with Halperin’s lovely drawings, will resonate primarily with girls from ages six to nine. They are a welcome reprieve from the somewhat sassy heroines who tend to fill the genre, and will beautifully bridge that gap between easy-readers and the joy of children’s chapter books. Just don’t be surprised if your daughter asks to bake cookies for an elderly neighbor.

If you liked this series you might also enjoy: The Mandie Collection by Lois Gladys Leppard

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Review: Princess and the Peas

Long, relaxed summer evenings offer an ideal opportunity to spend quality time with children in the kitchen. If you need some inspiration for sharing your culinary skills with the kids, start with Princess and the Peas, written and illustrated by new author Rachel Himes.

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As the familiar title suggests, this a retelling of the classic story The Princess and the Pea by Hans Christian Andersen. I love fairy tales with all their frightful rawness, and I don’t always appreciate modern versions that purposefully miss the point. This, however, just might be an improvement on the original tale. Ms. Himes has created something really quite wonderful.

Set among a close-knit African-American community in 1950s South Carolina, the prince figure (named John) is surely a catch: kind, active, involved. When he decides to settle down and get married, his Ma is worried; she’s the best cook in Charleston County. How can any of these other young ladies take proper care of her John? So she gets word out about a contest. Only the girl who can make the best black-eyed peas is fit to marry her son.

Well all the local girls turn out to have a crack at those peas, but they’re just not up to the job. When the new girl shows up – “fresh out of college and sharp as a tack” – they don’t think she has a chance. But Princess soon proves that she can do much more than cook in this charming celebration of resourceful industry, family traditions, and blossoming romance.

Written in a fun storytelling style, this book is just the right length and can hold the interest of toddlers and school-age children alike. The illustrations are bright and expressive with lots of homey details. At the end is an Author’s Note describing the rich values she set out to portray, and also the recipe for Princess’s Black-Eyed Peas. (In the interests of full disclosure, I have not tried the recipe; being from Ohio, I’m no good judge of black-eyed peas. But the instructions are simple and clear, and would be a reasonable project to undertake with a child helping.)

What I love most about this fresh version of an old tale is its grasp of what truly makes someone worthy. It’s not about feeling a pea through a pile of mattresses, nor even about cooking. It has much more to do with caring about the people around you, and learning from them; about being willing to work hard, and confident enough to seize opportunities. It’s about being wise enough to take care of yourself, but knowing that you can rely on others (John, as it turns out, is no slouch!). It’s about family, community, and the simple things like food that bring us together.

Bon appétit!

If you liked this book you might also enjoy: Pizza for the Queen by Nancy F. Castaldo and illustrated by Melisande Potter

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Please note: this dramatized historical account of the invention of Pizza Margherita is unfortunately out of print, but it is well worth looking for at the library. The recipe is fun to make and absolutely delicious!