Take a Picture of Me, James VanDerZee!

Take a Picture of Me,James VanDerZee Cover

Image Credit: Lee & Low Books Inc., Andrea J. Loney/Keith Mallett

I’m so last minute this year, y’all! But bear with me…It’s still Black History Month and I got a post for you… 😀


Another year, another Black History Month, another influential black soul to celebrate. I’m currently basking in the glory of the smash hit film Black Panther. All the black excellence in that film reminded me of another Black Creative who made it his life’s work to represent black excellence through photography.

James VanDerZee made black people look

Glamorous. Regal. Distinguished

at a time when black photography was very static. VanDerZee made it his business to show Black People Shining.

Take a Picture of Me, James VanDerZee! is one of my favorite non-fiction picture books of 2017. In it, we follow young VanDerZee from boyhood to his elderly years. Born into a middle class black family in Lenox, Massachussetts, he was frustrated as a child by his inability to capture fine details and accuracy when drawing people. When he discovered photography, he became fascinated and worked diligently to get his own camera (becoming only the second person in his town to have one)! VanDerZee, always a people person, had natural talent and worked to make his subjects feel comfortable; he wanted to make people look AND feel good while in his studio. At age 18, VanDerZee moved to bustling and vibrant Black Harlem, where he soared as a young artist. He’d later start his own studio where he’d photograph middle class Black Harlem as well as dignitaries, celebrities and athletes. VanDerZee is famous for his high level of skill in retouching (essentially early Photoshop) and photomontage.

The acrylic illustrations in this picture book radiate such warmth. Mallett uses rich yellows, oranges, browns and greens laid down smooth. My favorite spread is the very first one; a winding dirt road leads our eyes straight to young James as he sits drawing, completely focused, underneath the beautiful fall foliage of his neighborhood. The illustrations compliment the text extremely well but also enhance the reading experience. VanDerZee’s story on its own is compelling (as is Loney’s clear writing), but actually seeing a glimpse of Black Harlem and cozy Black Massachusetts is invigorating. I think it’s important for children of color to see images that show black people thriving throughout history. Mallett’s beautiful illustrations paint a homey & luxurious picture of black life in the early 20th Century.

Loney doesn’t glance over race in this story and I appreciate that. She clearly addresses the fact that VanDerZee’s first boss did not respect him enough as a black man to let him take photographs in his studio. Despite the racism and discrimination of his time, VanDerZee excels and thrives, especially when he opens HIS OWN portrait studio, serving largely black clientele.

Some non fiction picture books for children let the back matter do the heavy lifting, which can leave the story lacking. This book’s back matter is very informative, interesting and complimentary to the illustrated story told for children. Parents and teachers will be able to use the facts presented in the back matter to inspire more discussion. I love that we get to see a few of VanDerZee’s actual photographs and I enjoyed reading the explanation of VanDerZee’s retouching and photomontage processes. He was such a creative genius.

After I finished reading this book, I requested one of VanDerZee’s photobooks from the library. This picture book will encourage readers to learn more about James VanDerZee’s brilliance and his contributions to Black History and to Black Harlem. There’s an important message in his story of not giving up and staying determined. You’ve got to find your unique way of expressing yourself, just as VanDerZee did with his camera.

Enjoy! I hope you’ve had a great Black History Month. 🙂

P.S. #WakandaForever ❤



Recommended for: All Ages
Great for: History, Black History, Photography, Determination, Creativity, Harlem Renaissance, Art, Family, Discussion, Ingenuity, Black Excellence
Book InfoTake a Picture of Me, James VanDerZee! by Andrea J. Loney/Illustrations by Keith Mallett, 2017 Lee & Low Books Inc., ISBN: 9781620142608


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