Image Credit: Orchard Books (Scholastic Inc.), Nikki Grimes/E.B. Lewis
“…Bessie made me believe I could be anything.” – Young Fan
I’ve been wanting to review a book about Bessie Coleman for quite a while. I found two contenders and ultimately I chose this one over Fly High! The Story of Bessie Coleman. Though that book is also good, Talkin’ About Bessie: The Story of Aviator Elizabeth Coleman is a stronger book in execution, creativity and memorability. It has more heart and that’s exactly what Bessie was about. I recommend Fly High! The Story of Bessie Coleman for younger readers.
Talkin’ About Bessie has a unique concept; 20 family members, acquaintances and friends come together after Bessie Coleman’s funeral to speak about her. Instead of a straightforward non-fiction narrative style, we get something special; reflection based on fact, crafted by author, Nikki Grimes.
Bessie grew up poor in segregated Texas, picking cotton with her many siblings. She loved numbers and words from an early age and her mom always encouraged her to read the bible. Though her father left their family when she was young (which left her little time for childhood), she kept dreaming. When an adult, she moved to Chicago and after taking many jobs found inspiration from the blacks who ran the newspaper The Defender. She decided to go to France and get her pilots license and when she set her mind on that goal, she was determined to follow through! Bessie Coleman became the first person of African descent in the US to get an international pilot’s license and came back to the US to became an aviatrix. She wanted to encourage blacks to fly and worked towards raising funds to open a flight school for her people. Her personality was bigger than life and she was (and still is) an inspiration.
Nikki Grimes’ writing is great. The characters’ various speaking styles bring them to life. Each page has a “photo painting” in the corner with the name of the person speaking and a gorgeous full page illustration. This is a nice design. One aspect of the book that didn’t make sense to me though was the character “Laundry Customer.” She’s a white character who employed young Bessie and her family (created by Grimes). Her words are very privileged and she makes it clear that Bessie was, from an early age, challenging and out of line for a young Negro girl. So why would she be present at Bessie’s funeral?? Though I understand the author’s desire to help us understand the segregated world Bessie lived in, it seems out of place and the other characters do a fine job of creating context for readers.
E.B. Lewis’ art is absolutely beautiful. This kind of story requires a very straightforward type of illustration that serves to compliment/enhance the words. His watercolors are meticulous and he does a great job of creating place, mood and character. I hope you’ll take the time to read this excellent book that honors Bessie Coleman’s spirit!
P.S. Here’s some backstory from the author Nikki Grimes! Part 1 here and Part 2 here.
Recommended for: 2nd Grade and up
Great for: Womens History Month, History, Black History, African-American, Diversity, Black Girl Magic, Black Girls Rock, Aviation, Determination, Confidence, Inner Strength, Family, Relationships, Struggles, Segregation, Racism, Sexism, Tragedy, Role Model, Dreams, Biography, Non-Fiction
Book Info: Talkin’ About Bessie: The Story of aviator Elizabeth Coleman by Nikki Grimes/Illustrated by E.B. Lewis, 2002 Orchard Books (Scholastic Inc.), ISBN: 9780439352437