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The People Could Fly: The Picture Book    by Virginia Hamilton, Leo Dillon & Diane Dillon order for
People Could Fly
by Virginia Hamilton
Order:  USA  Can
Knopf, 2004 (2004)
* * *   Reviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke

The People Could Fly was originally released in 1985 as the title story of a set of folktales collected by Virginia Hamilton, and illustrated in black and white by Leo and Diane Dillon. This time, the story appears in picture book format, once again illustrated by the Dillons, but this time in magnificent color.

The jacket displays beautiful-winged African men and women, in native garments, carrying musical instruments. The second delight to the eye is a two-page lustrous, all-black background with embossed floating feathers, giving the appearance of silk. Each page is embellished in exceptional muted tones and expressive faces, representative of the mood of the story. It tells of freedom in Africa, chained captivity on slave ships, and being forced to leave the wings behind. Prose and illustrations combine to express suffering and sadness, working in the cotton fields in the heat, the stern, pompous faces of 'Master', 'Overseer', and 'Driver'. There's the whipping of a woman named Sarah carrying her sleeping child on her back, and then for some the glory of realizing the magic of flying back to freedom.

Virginia Hamilton's beloved, prize-winning American black folktale is rendered in lyrical prose. It's a fantasy of slaves possessing an ancient magic of recitation that empowers them to fly. When their freedom is taken away by slavers, the words are lost. Toby, an elderly male, approaches the Slaves in the cotton fields, and whispers first to Sarah, 'Kuna ... yali, kum buba tambe'. Sarah and child lift above the trees, and fly back to freedom. When other slaves fall in the fields from the heat, Toby is there, whispering the secret to each. And so, many more fly out of bondage.

This heart-rending tale speaks of those who flew again, and those who did not, but remained to tell the story down through the generations. I recommend it to all ages as a treasured collectible. Under the Editor's Note is the author's original 1984 letter to her publishers, detailing the 'mythical generations-old tales ... and flying'. At the back of the book is a previously unpublished Author's Note, in which she says of the folktale 'It almost makes us believe that the people could fly.' On the last page, Hamilton is portrayed in kente cloth smiling above a family at home. She died in 2002.

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