In Keep Climbing, Girls, LisaGay Hamilton provides a delightful introduction to her mentor and friend, Beah E. Richards. Hamilton wrote the informative one-page introduction that appears at the beginning of the book. But the book itself serves as an introduction to Richards, a significant figure who was brand new to me. Beah Richards (1920-2000) had a successful stage, film and television acting career that spanned 50 years. LisaGay Hamilton is a contemporary television, film and theater actor. And with this book, young readers get not one, but two role models.
In her introduction, Hamilton describes her reaction to Richards, whom she met when both worked on the film version of Toni Morrison’s Beloved. (Hamilton played young Sethe; Richards played Baby Suggs.) Hamilton’s words fit my own reaction to Beah Richards: “I was amazed to learn of her accomplishments as a poet, a teacher, a dancer, and a political activist, and of her lifelong commitment to the African-American community and to all oppressed people.”
Keep Climbing Girls is culled from Richards’s only published volume of poetry, A Black Woman Speaks. The plot is a simple one. Despite her caregiver Miss Nettie’s warnings, a fearless little girl persists in climbing “…right up to the toppermost bough/ of the very tallest tree.” With its playful, unpredictable rhymes, Miss Nettie’s monologue of threats and proclamations, and the little girl’s unsquelchable determination, the text translates effortlessly into a picture book.
But that’s only half the story.
I have to admit that I’m not always the ideal audience for R. Gregory Christie’s illustrations. Art that I would describe as more realistic (if less original and risk-taking) tends to appeal to me more often. (Clearly I’m no professional art critic.) But Christie’s paintings in Keep Climbing Girls really captured my heart. The paintings are saturated with the intense bright colors that draw young readers to his work. The expressions on Miss Nettie’s face are so expressive; and the little girl’s boundless enthusiasm and “childish glee” so triumphant! The horror of Miss Nettie’s friends is well conveyed by just the posture of their bodies, as the three women worry and wail like tiny dolls, far below the branches. I love the final illustration when it’s a new day and, despite the chastisement of the night before, the little girl is thoughtfully eyeing another tree.
So let’s make that not two but three role models for kids. Or perhaps we should include the tree-climbing little girl, as well as R. Gregory Christie, and bring that count up to four.
In the last year of Beah Richards’ life, she and LisaGay Hamilton collaborated on a documentary about Richards, Beah: A Black Woman Speaks. The film ends with Beah’s words, quoted in the book’s introduction, which could easily be addressed to the child reader:
“The world you want to create needs you. It needs you to create it. It needs to hear what you have to say. The last word has not been spoken.”