BookDragon Books for the Diverse Reader

We Troubled the Waters by Ntozake Shange, illustrated by Rod Brown

We Troubled the WatersAlthough at first glance, this might look like a children’s title – it is essentially a picture book – the sometimes difficult contents make it much more suitable for middle grade readers and older. Even adults will certainly find deeply resonating moments to appreciate throughout.

Ntozake Shange, best known for her groundbreaking, 1977 Obie Award-winning, 1977 Tony-nominated play-in-verse, for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf, presents haunting poems about the challenges and tragedies – and the hopes – of the African American experience.

In the first half, Shange captures the wrenching details that kept African Americans from living free lives, long after slavery was abolished, from going to school – “why threaten they right to learn” – to cleaning other people’s houses and clearing other people’s garbage in order to put food on the family table, to always being careful to use only the “colored” door, to being denied the basic right to vote with threats of death and the Ku Klux Klan. Her poems “Crying Trees” and “Roadkill” are especially frightening, with scenes of brutal death made all too real by artist Rod Brown: “we aint nothin / we aint people / we animals / we roadkill”  … the words and images might be too graphic for the youngest readers, but serve as important historical reminders.

Shange then shifts to moments of rebellion and reclamation, from Rosa Parks, MLK, Malcolm X, and all the everyday heroes who refused to walk away, accept the inequality, to live their lives in silence. Instead, people sat down in spite of ‘whites only’ signs, “marched cause this is our land too,” prayed in spite of “nightsticks & guns,” and with “white & black together / they were wrapped in faith …”

While people mourned the loss of Martin Luther King, gunned down by “one blarin shot outa nowhere,” his legacy lives on. Shange’s closing poem, “Heah Y’all Come,” is filled with the greatest hopes for the youngest generations: “now the children run freely / toward each other … yarmulkes atop their heads / Buddha’s smile graces their faces / now America welcomes all the babies / sí sí / todos los niños are ours / yes yes / wa alaikum salaam / & the gods watch over all children / &  the flag protects each American / all.”

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2009


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