Lester, Julius (Bernard) 1939-
LESTER, Julius (Bernard) 1939-
Born January 27, 1939, in St. Louis, MO; son of W. D. (a minister) and Julia (Smith) Lester; married Joan Steinau (a researcher), 1962 (divorced, 1970); married Alida Carolyn Fechner, March 21, 1979 (divorced, 1993); married Milan Sabatini, August 17, 1995; children: (first marriage) Jody Simone, Malcolm Coltrane; (second marriage) Elena Milad Grohmann (stepdaughter), David Julius; (third marriage) Lian Amaris Brennan (stepdaughter). Education: Fisk University, B.A., 1960.
Educator, historian, folklorist, writer, and performer. Professional musician and singer, c. 1960s, recording with Vanguard Records; Newport Folk Festival, Newport, RI, director, 1966-68; WBAI-FM, New York, NY, producer and host of live radio show, 1968-75; WNET-TV, New York, NY, host of live television program Free Time, 1971-73; University of Massachusetts-Amherst, professor of Afro-American studies, 1971-88, professor of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies, 1982-2003, acting director and associate director of Institute for Advanced Studies in Humanities, 1982-84, adjunct professor in English and history departments, 1988-2003, professor emeritus, beginning 2004. Lecturer, New School for Social Research (now New School University), 1968-70; writer-in-residence, Vanderbilt University, 1985.
Newbery Honor Book citation, 1969, and Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, 1970, both for To Be a Slave; Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, 1972, and National Book Award finalist, 1973, both for Long Journey Home: Stories from Black History; Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, 1973, for The Knee-high Man and Other Tales; honorable mention, Coretta Scott King Award, 1983, for This Strange New Feeling, and 1988, for Tales of Uncle Remus: The Adventures of Brer Rabbit; Parents' Choice Story Book award, 1987, for The Tales of Uncle Remus, and 1990, for Further Tales of Uncle Remus; Reading Magic Award, 1988, for More Tales of Uncle Remus; Boston Globe/Horn Book award, American Library Association (ALA) Notable Book, and Caldecott Honor Book, all 1995, all for John Henry; ALA Notable Book, 1996, for Sam and the Tigers. Distinguished Teacher's Award, 1983-84; Faculty Fellowship Award for Distinguished Research and Scholarship, 1985; National Professor of the Year Silver Medal Award, Council for Advancement and Support of Education, 1985; Massachusetts State Professor of the Year and Gold Medal Award for National Professor of the Year, Council for Advancement and Support of Education, both 1986; Distinguished Faculty Lecturer, 1986-87.
(Editor, with Mary Varela) Our Folk Tales: High John, The Conqueror, and Other Afro-American Tales, illustrated by Jennifer Lawson, privately printed, 1967.
To Be a Slave, illustrated by Tom Feelings, Dial (New York, NY), 1969.
Black Folktales, illustrated by Tom Feelings, R. W. Baron (New York, NY), 1969, reprinted, Grove Press (New York, NY), 1992.
Long Journey Home: Stories from Black History, Dial (New York, NY), 1972.
The Knee-high Man and Other Tales, illustrated by Ralph Pinto, Dial (New York, NY), 1972.
This Strange New Feeling, Dial (New York, NY), 1982, published as A Taste of Freedom: Three Stories from Black History, Longman (London, England), 1983.
The Tales of Uncle Remus: The Adventures of Brer Rabbit (also see below), illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, Dial (New York, NY), 1987.
More Tales of Uncle Remus: Further Adventures of Brer Rabbit, His Friends, Enemies, and Others (also see below), illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, Dial (New York, NY), 1988.
How Many Spots Does a Leopard Have? and Other Tales, illustrated by David Shannon, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1990.
Further Tales of Uncle Remus: The Misadventures of Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, Wolf, the Doodang, and Other Creatures (also see below), illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, Dial (New York, NY), 1990.
The Last Tales of Uncle Remus (also see below), illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, Dial (New York, NY), 1994.
John Henry, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, Dial (New York, NY), 1994.
The Man Who Knew Too Much: A Moral Tale from the Baila of Zambia, illustrated by Leonard Jenkins, Clarion (New York, NY), 1994.
Othello (young-adult novel), Scholastic (New York, NY), 1995.
Sam and the Tigers: A New Retelling of Little Black Sambo, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, Dial (New York, NY), 1996.
What a Truly Cool World, illustrated by Joe Cepeda, Scholastic (New York, NY), 1998.
Black Cowboy, Wild Horses: A True Story, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, Dial (New York, NY), 1998.
From Slave Ship to Freedom Road, illustrated by Rod Brown, Dial (New York, NY), 1998.
Uncle Remus: The Complete Tales (includes The Tales of Uncle Remus, More Tales of Uncle Remus, Further Tales of Uncle Remus, and The Last Tales of Uncle Remus ), illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, Phyllis Fogelman Books (New York, NY), 1999.
Shining, illustrated by John Clapp, Harcourt Brace (San Diego, CA), 2000.
Pharaoh's Daughter (young-adult novel), Silver Whistle/Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 2000.
Albidaro and the Mischievous Dream, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, Phyllis Fogelman Books (New York, NY), 2001.
Ackamarackus: Julius Lester's Sumptuously Silly Fantastically Funny Fables, illustrated by Emilie Chollat, Scholastic (New York, NY), 2001.
The Blues Singers: Ten Who Rocked the World, illustrated by Lisa Cohen, Hyperion (New York, NY), 2001
When Dad Killed Mom (young-adult novel), Silver Whistle/Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 2001.
Why Heaven Is Far Away, illustrated by Joe Cepeda, Scholastic (New York, NY), 2002.
The Old African, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, Dial (New York, NY), 2004.
Let's Talk about Race, illustrated by Karen Barbour, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2005.
The Day of Tears, 2005.
Lester has recorded his "Uncle Remus" tales as The Tales of Uncle Remus, More Tales of Uncle Remus, Further Tales of Uncle Remus and Last Tales of Uncle Remus, both Recorded Books, 2003.
(With Pete Seeger) The 12-String Guitar as Played by Leadbelly: An Instructional Manual, Oak (New York, NY), 1965.
(Editor, with Mary Varela) Fanny Lou Hamer, To Praise Our Bridges: An Autobiography, KIPCO, 1967.
The Mud of Vietnam: Photographs and Poems, Folklore Press (New York, NY), 1967.
Look out Whitey! Black Power's Gon' Get Your Mama!, Dial (New York, NY), 1968.
Search for the New Land: History as Subjective Experience, Dial (New York, NY), 1969.
Revolutionary Notes, R. W. Baron (New York, NY), 1969.
(Editor) The Seventh Son: The Thoughts and Writings of W. E. B. DuBois, two volumes, Random House (New York, NY), 1971.
(Compiler, with Rae Pace Alexander) Young and Black in America, Random House (New York, NY), 1971.
Two Love Stories, Dial (New York, NY), 1972.
(Editor) Stanley Couch, Ain't No Ambulances for No Nigguhs Tonight (poems), R. W. Baron (New York, NY), 1972.
(With David Gahr) Who I Am (photopoems), Dial (New York, NY), 1974.
All Is Well: An Autobiography, Morrow (New York, NY), 1976.
Do Lord Remember Me (adult novel), Holt (New York, NY), 1984.
Lovesong: Becoming a Jew (autobiographical), Holt (New York, NY), 1988.
Falling Pieces of the Broken Sky, Arcade (New York, NY), 1990.
And All Our Wounds Forgiven, Arcade (New York, NY), 1994.
The Autobiography of God (novel), St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 2004.
On Writing for Children and Other People, Dial (New York, NY), 2004.
Contributor of essays and reviews to numerous magazines and newspapers, including New York Times Book Review, New York Times, New Republic, Nation, Katallagete, Democracy, and Village Voice. Associate editor, Sing Out, 1964-70; contributing editor, Broadside of New York, 1964-70.
Lester's works have been translated into eight languages.
In addition to his work as a respected educator, historian, and performer, Julius Lester has had a long career as a writer, and many of the books he has published since the late 1960s have been penned for younger readers. Through his efforts to reintroduce American children to traditional folk tales, Lester has made a lasting contribution to the field of children's literature through his many focusing on African-American history and culture. An outspoken advocate of books for black children that are penned by black authors, Lester has also advocated for a re-visioning of children's literature. As he once noted in Publishers Weekly, too much of children's literature is out date and has no relevance to young people living in modern society.
In books such as To Be a Slave, Long Journey Home: Stories from Black History, and This Strange Feeling, as well as in his many retellings of the "Uncle Remus" stories, Lester has helped to preserve the history of black Americans, often focusing on black experience in the rural Deep South, especially during slavery and the Reconstruction period following the U.S. Civil War. Throughout, he has been acclaimed for his blend of realistic detail, dialogue, and storytelling—all contributing to important historical knowledge about African Americans. Through his historical work he illustrates themes central to black history and the civil rights movement of the twentieth century, such as oppression and racism, and ultimately hopes to politicize young readers; according to Eric Foner and Naomi Lewis in the New York Review of Books, Lester's goal is to provide readers with "a sense of history which will help shape their lives and politics." Despite this serious intent, Lester also reveals his lighthearted side in books such as Ackamarackus: Julius Lester's Sumptuously Silly Fantastically Funny Fables, which features a quirky assortment of animal characters in a book characterized by what Booklist reviewer GraceAnne A. DeCandido described as "rampant silliness" and an "inventive" text. Praising the storyteller's lighthearted approach, Wendy Lukehart noted in School Library Journal that Lester manages to weaves "pithy morals brimming with wisdom and wit" within his "alliterative language" and "turns of phrase that dance off the tongue."
As he wrote in an article for School Library Journal, Lester "grew up during a time when racial segregation and discrimination in the North and South were as common as dandelion fluff." He was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1939, the son of a Methodist minister, and his family relocated to Kansas City, Kansas, when Lester was two years old. In Kansas He experienced a combustible world in which black men and boys were lynched for even looking at a white woman. "In such a world, childhood was a luxury my parents could not have afforded for me even if they had known how," he wrote. As a contrast to the violence of the times, the sermons and stories of his father brought him into contact with black traditions, and the soothing rhythms and expressions common to the black population of Nashville, where he and his family moved in 1954. Summers spent on his grandmother's farm in rural Arkansas allowed Lester to also experience rural speech patterns and learn a wealth of new stories.
Enjoying music and reading as a child, Lester found in books an escape from reality, and at a young age he became an avid reader of Western and mystery novels despite his limited access to libraries. Eventually turning to the adult books in his father's library, he was particularly struck by a biography of early twentieth-century civil rights leader W. E. B. DuBois. Another significant inspiration was a comment his father made in response to an advertisement offering to trace one's family tree. When his father told Lester to throw it away, the boy asked why his father was uninterested in the family history. As Lester later wrote in School Library Journal, his father simply laughed and told him that he knew where they came from: "'Our family tree ends in a bill of sale. Lester is the name of the family that owned us.'" Lester recalls the incident as "one of the defining moments of my life," and added: "So much of my writing has been dedicated to putting faces to the bills of sale."
Lester graduated in 1960 from Nashville's Fisk University with a degree in English and moved to New York City the following year. In the mid-1960s he joined the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), at a time when the group advocated that blacks assume a more militant stance to fight racism. As head of the SNCC's photo department, he traveled to North Vietnam during the Vietnam War to document the effects of U.S. bombing missions, and went on to write several adult books on political themes.
In New York City Lester was encouraged to embark upon a publishing career when the editor of his book Look out, Whitey! Black Power's Gon' Get Your Mama was impressed with his writing. As Lester explained to Something about the Author, "She asked if I had ever thought about writing children's books. I had not. she asked if I would like to meet the children's book editor. I said yes and told the children's book editor about my idea of using the words from former slaves to tell the story of slavery." The result was 1969's To Be a Slave, as well as Black Folktales.
Runner-up for the Newbery Medal, To Be a Slave is an historical narrative based on quotes from slave testimonies. Praised for bringing to light "tremendously moving documents" by John Howard Griffin in the New York Times Book Review, To Be a Slave was described by Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books reviewer Zena Sutherland as "moving and explicit" in its description of slavery from "capture to auction, from servitude to freedom." Evelyn Geller remarked in School Library Journal that Lester's book "quietly lays bare the shame of American history while making slavery, suffering, and resistance part of [a] black child's heritage."Black Folktales features tales featuring both human and animal characters drawn from African legends and slave narratives. "Although these tales have been told before, . . . Lester brings a fresh street-talk language . . . and thus breathes new life into them," wrote John A. Williams in a review of the book for the New York Times Book Review.
Lester has continued to produce books that reflect his interests in African-American history, folklore, and politics. The Knee-high Man and Other Tales collects six black folk tales, including those of the famous Brer Rabbit, that feature humor and political satire. In one story, "The Farmer and the Snake," Ethel Richard noted in the New York Times Book Review that "the lesson is that kindness will not change the nature of a thing—in this case, the nature of a poisonous snake to bite." Lester's four compilations of "Uncle Remus" tales—The Tales of Uncle Remus, More Tales of Uncle Remus, Further Tales of Uncle Remus, and The Last Tales of Uncle Remus —separate that stock figure from the Uncle Tom stereotype and make him accessible to modern readers.
Originally compiled by newspaperman Joel Chandler Harris between 1876 and 1918 and narrated by the fictional Uncle Remus in an approximation of nineteenth-century Southern black dialect, these stories featuring the quick-minded Brer Rabbit have African roots: folklorists have long noted similarities between the quick-witted rabbit and Anansi, the spider trickster of West Africa, and Wakaima, the hare trickster of the continent's west coast. Lester has been praised for retelling these tales in a contemporary idiom without losing the bite of the original. A Kirkus Reviews critic dubbed the four-volume collection "a landmark retelling," while Betsy Hearne concluded in a review of The Last Tales of Uncle Remus for Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books that "respect is a key word here. That's what Lester shows for the largest body of African-American folklore collected in this country. You can't get any more respectful of a cultural tradition than recharging the elements that helped it survive and that affirm its kinship with other peoples of the world."
More folktales are served up by Lester in How Many Spots Does a Leopard Have? and Other Tales, which includes ten African stories and two tales with traditional Jewish roots. Intended for children of all ages, "the stories in this collection are as rich, various, and intriguing as the titles," according to Susan Perren in Quill & Quire. In Sam and the Tigers: A New Retelling of Little Black Sambo Lester takes on the now-controversial story of the African lad whose trick caused a group of hungry tigers to turn into butter. With his politically sensitive retelling readers can, according to Rayma Turton in Magpies, "enjoy this new version for what it is—a joyous romp with a true storyteller's pattern."
Retellings of a different sort are contained in Lester's award-winning picture-book collaborations with illustrator Jerry Pinkney. John Henry, Black Cowboy, Wild Horses, and The Old African. Lester takes on the legendary steel-drivin' man in John Henry, a tall tale that "bursts to life," according to Elizabeth Bush in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books. Jack Zipes commented in the New York Times Book Review that "Lester's eloquent prose . . . incorporates light, humorous remarks and sayings," and the book as a whole suggests "that we still have a lot to learn from folk heroes, even if they may not have existed."
In Black Cowboy, Wild Horses, Lester turns his historian's eye to the story of Bob Lemmons, one of many unheralded slaves who became cowboys and helped build the American West. In doing so he creates a picture book for older readers that is "rich with simile and metaphor," according to Booklist contributor Michael Cart. Noting the "spirit of freedom" reflected in Lester's text, a reviewer for Publishers Weekly described Black Cowboy, Wild Horses as "notable for the light it sheds on a fascinating slice of Americana."
In the picture book From Slave Ship to Freedom Road Lester traces the history and effects of slavery in America. Working with illustrator Rod Brown, he sets forth the entire 250 years of black history in America, from the arrival of the first slave ships to Emancipation. "This is a powerful book, and it is an important one," commented Shirley Wilton in School Library Journal. A retelling of the Creation story from a black point of view is the subject of What a Truly Cool World, and a companion volume titled Why Heaven Is Far Away contains an adaptation of two folk tales. Lester focuses on the characteristics all humans share in Let's Talk about Race. The author uses the metaphor of a story to describe an individual, then explains a person's race "as just one of many chapters" in that story, according to School Library Journal reviewer Mary Hazelton. Encouraging interaction with young listeners by explaining that people are all pretty much the same under their skin, he uses what Hazelton described as a non-threatening and "engaging tone" that helps children "to appreciate a common spiritual identity." Praising Lester's direct approach and "lighthearted" tone, a Kirkus reviewer noted that Let's Talk about Race "speaks to a child's concrete understanding of the world." In addition to writing for young children, Lester has produced several novels for adults as well as original fiction for young-adults readers. When Dad Killed Mom is the story of two children who must deal with family violence. The book is narrated by twelve-year-old Jeremy and his fourteen-year-old sister, Jenna, each of whom tell the story in alternating chapters. After learning that their psychologist father has shot and killed their mother, the two try to understand the tragedy, in the process gradually revealing family secrets—such as a dead child from a former marriage, the death of a younger sibling, and a romantic affair—that may have triggered the awful event. While several reviewer noted the book's melodramatic quality, Horn Book critic Deborah Z. Porter praised the story as "undeniably gripping" while a Publishers Weekly critic described Lester's depiction of the emotional state of Jeremy and Jenna as "subtly and credibly done." Francisca Goldsmith, writing in School Library Journal, praised the skills Lester demonstrates in When Dad Killed Mom: "excellent research, a willingness to confront and present controversial topics, . . . and insight on how young people's concerns do not necessarily match those of their elders."
Some of Lester's novels for older, more sophisticated readers often draw on literature and history. With Othello he adapts William Shakespeare's play, making Iago, Othello, and Emilia African immigrants living in England, resettling the Moor in London and making the issue of race more central to the action. In the process he creates "a wonderful achievement," according to Margaret Cole in School Library Journal, while Nancy Menaldi-Scanlan added in the same periodical that Othello serves as a useful touchstone in discussions of "the assimilation of race and of varying approaches" to Shakespeare's dramas.
Returning to biblical themes, Lester tells the story of Moses from a fresh point of view in Pharaoh's Daughter. As all Hebrew boys are being killed under the command of Ramses the Great, Moses's older sister, Almah, saves her infant brother. Educated and independent-minded, Almah leads Meryetamun, Ramses' daughter, to rescue Moses in the bulrushes. Meeting Almah, Ramses is struck by the young woman because she resembles his dead wife, and soon the pharaoh proclaims that she is, in fact, his daughter. As Almah takes the place of Meryetamun, Meryetamun becomes drawn to Hebrew society; meanwhile, Almah grows immersed in the Egyptian court and becomes a priestess. Growing to manhood, Moses is torn between his Hebraic roots and the Egyptian lifestyle he enjoys as a grandson of the pharaoh.
Told from the alternating viewpoint of Almah and Moses, Pharaoh's Daughter is a "stunning blend of imagination and research," according to Horn Book contributor Mary M. Burns, while Barbara Scotto praised the book in School Library Journal as a "rich and fascinating retelling" of a much-told tale. Booklist reviewer Ilene Cooper noted that Lester "writes with verve and obvious pleasure" and introduces readers to a "strong cast of characters who struggle with life-and-death issues, physical and philosophical."
Lester's interest in rejuvenating and restoring traditional stories and classic themes in ways that will interest newer generations of readers is a result of his strong belief in the ability of books to change young people's lives for the better. "What children need are not role models but heroes and heroines," he told an audience of the New England Library Association in a speech reprinted in Horn Book. "A hero is one who is larger than life. Because he or she is superhuman, we are inspired to expand the boundaries of what we had thought was possible. We are inspired to attempt the impossible, and in the attempt, we become more wholly human. . . . The task of the hero and heroine belongs to us all. That task is to live with such exuberance that what it is to be human will be expanded until the asphyxiating concepts of race and gender will be rendered meaningless, and then we will be able to see the rainbow around the shoulders of each and every one of us, the rainbow that has been there all the while."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Children's Literature Review, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 2, 1976, Volume 41, 1997.
Lester, Julius, All Is Well, Morrow (New York, NY), 1976.
Lester, Julius, Lovesong: Becoming a Jew, Holt (New York, NY), 1988.
St. James Guide to Young-Adult Writers, edited by Tom Pendergast and Sara Pendergast, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.
Twentieth-Century Children's Writers, 3rd edition, edited by Tracy Chevalier, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1989, pp. 575-576.
Black Issues Book Review, September, 2001, Khafre Abif, review of The Blues Singers: Ten Who Rocked the World, p. 76.
Booklist, October 14, 1994, Hazel Rochman, review of The Man Who Knew Too Much: A Moral Tale from the Baila of Zambia, p. 4342; November 1, 1995, p. 494; June 1, 1996, p. 1727; January, 1997, p. 768; February 15, 1998, p. 1009; May 1, 1998, Michael Cart, review of Black Cowboy, Wild Horses, p. 1522; April 1, 2000, Ilene Cooper, review of Pharaoh's Daughter, p. 1474; July, 2000, Hazel Rochman, review of From Slave Ship to Freedom Road, p. 2025; February 1, 2001, GraceAnne A. DeCandido, review of Ackamarackus: Julius Lester's Sumptuously Silly Fantastically Funny Fables, p. 1056; June 1, 2001, Marta Segal, review of When Dad Killed Mom, p. 1862, Stephanie Zvirin, review of The Blues Singers, p. 1870; October 1, 2002, John Green, review of Why Heaven Is Far Away, p. 345; October 1, 2004, Hazel Rochman, review of On Writing for Children and Other People, p. 321; November 15, 2004, Hazel Rochman, review of The Autobiography of God, p. 562.
Book World, September 3, 1972, William Loren Katz, review of Long Journey Home, p. 9.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, April, 1969, Zena Sutherland, review of To Be a Slave, pp. 129-130; May, 1982; February, 1994, Betsy Hearne, review of The Last Tales of Uncle Remus, pp. 179-180; October, 1994, Elizabeth Bush, review of John Henry, p. 54; February, 1998, p. 212; May, 1998, p. 327.
Horn Book, March-April, 1984, Julius Lester, "The Beechwood Staff," pp. 161-169; September-October, 1988, Mary M. Burns, review of More Tales of Uncle Remus, pp. 639-640; January-February, 1996, Julius Lester, "John Henry," pp. 28-31; September-October, 1996, p. 536; July-August, 1998, p. 477; July-August, 2000, Mary M. Burns, review of Pharaoh's Daughter, p. 460; May-June, 2001, Deborah Z. Porter, review of When Dad Killed Mom, p. 330.
Kirkus Reviews, January 1, 1994, review of The Last Tales of Uncle Remus, p. 70; November 15, 1997, p. 1709; May 1, 1998, p. 661; September 15, 2002, review of Why Heaven Is Far Away, p. 1393; October 1, 2003, review of Shining, p. 1226; October 15, 2004, review of On Writing for Children and Other People, p. 1009; December 15, 2004, review of Let's Talk about Race, p. 1204.
Magpies, March, 1997, Rayma Turton, review of Sam and the Tigers: A New Retelling of Little Black Sambo, p. 27.
New York Review of Books, April 20, 1972, Eric Foner, and Naomi Lewis, review of Long Journey Home: Stories from Black History, pp. 41-42.
New York Times Book Review, November 3, 1968, John Howard Griffin, review of To Be a Slave, p. 7; November 9, 1969, John A. Williams, review of Black Folktales, 10, 12; May 24, 1970, Julius Lester, "Black and White: An Exchange," pp. 1, 34, 36, 38; February 4, 1973, Ethel Richard, review of The Knee-high Man and Other Tales, p. 8; May 17, 1987; November 13, 1994, Jack Zipes, "Power Rangers of Yore," p. 30; November 19, 1996, p. 34.
Publishers Weekly, February 23, 1970, Julius Lester, "The Kinds of Books We Give Our Children: Whose Nonsense?," pp. 86-88; February 12, 1988, Barry List, "Julius Lester," pp. 67-68; December 1, 1997, p. 54; April 6, 1998, review of Black Cowboy, Wild Horses, p. 77; April 1, 2000, review of Pharaoh's Daughter, p. 1474; October 2, 2000, review of Albidaro and the Mischievous Dream, p. 81; February 12, 2001, Sally Lodge, "Working at His Creative Peak" (interview), p. 180; May 14, 2001, review of The Blues Singers, p. 81, review of When Dad Killed Mom, p. 83; December 22, 2003, review of Shining, p. 60; October 25, 2004, review of The Autobiography of God, p. 28.
Quill & Quire, December, 1989, Susan Perren, review of How Many Spots Does a Leopard Have? And Other Tales, p. 24.
School Librarian, May, 1988, Irene Babsky, review of The Tales of Uncle Remus, p. 72.
School Library Journal, Mary, 1969, Evelyn Geller, "Julius Lester: Newbery Runner-Up"; April, 1995, Margaret Cole, review of Othello: A Novel, p. 154; November, 1997, p. 41; February, 1998, Shirley Wilton, review of From Slave Ship to Freedom Road, pp. 119-120; June 1998, p. 113; August, 1998, p. 43; June, 2000, Barbara Scotto, review of Pharaoh's Daughter, p. 148; November, 2000, review of Albidaro and the Mischievous Dream, p. 126; March, 2001, Wendy Lukehart, review of Ackamarackus, p. 214; May, 2001, Francisca Goldsmith, review of When Dad Killed Mom, p. 155; June, 2001, Tim Wadham, review of The Blues Singers, p. 138; January, 2002, Julius Lester, "The Way We Were," pp. 54-58; October, 2002, Miriam Lang Budin, review of Why Heaven Is Far Away, p. 118; November, 2003, Anna DeWind Walls, review of Shining, p. 105; February, 2004, Nancy Menaldi-Scanlan, review of Othello, p. 83; March, 2004, Casey Rondini, review of The Last Tales of Uncle Remus, p. 86; October, 2004, Alison Follos, review of On Writing for Children and Other People, p. 202; December, 204, Ginny Gustin, review of The Blues Singers, p. 61; January, 2005, Mary Hazelton, review of Let's Talk about Race, p. 112.
Voice of Youth Advocates, April, 1998, p. 43; June, 1999, Kathleen Beck, review of When the Beginning Began, p. 194.
Scholastic Author Studies Home Page, http://www2.scholastic.com/ (November 27, 2002), "Julius Lester's Biography," and "Julius Lester's Interview Transcript."
University of Massachusetts-Amherst Web site, http://www.umass.edu/ (November 27, 2002), "Julius Lester."*
"Lester, Julius (Bernard) 1939-." Something About the Author. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 16, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/children/scholarly-magazines/lester-julius-bernard-1939
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Lester, Julius 1939–
Julius Lester 1939–
Julius Lester has distinguished himself as a civil rights activist, musician, photographer, festival promoter, radio and talk show host, professor, poet, and novelist. But he is perhaps best known for his award-winning fiction for young adults, a body of work that directly addresses the black American experience during and after slavery. Especially in his books for children, Lester has been acclaimed for his blend of realistic detail, dialogue, and storytelling, all contributing to a compelling historical portrait of African Americans. Lester has also penned two autobiographies, All Is Well and Lovesong: Becoming a Jew, both of which demonstrate his staunch individualism and rebellion against anyone—black or white—who would wish to judge him by his race alone.
“One of my attributes is blackness, but that is not the sum total of my existence, and I refuse to allow society to make it so,” Lester wrote in All Is Well. “I am almost fatally ill with people trying to impose their idea of me on me…. And anything anyone ventures to say about me will not be true. I will not be pinned by anyone’s words, particularly my own.” Lester, who resists easy categorization both as an academic and as a writer, converted to Judaism in mid-life. He told Publishers Weekly, “I haven’t reached an end to my explorations. But I’ve found something so huge that it’s big enough for me to explore and never get bored or tired or worn out. I think Judaism is the closest thing to the infinite within the finite that I have found.”
Lester was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1939, the younger son of a Methodist minister. He grew up in Kansas City, Kansas, and Nashville, Tennessee, where his father led congregations. Lester was profoundly influenced by his father, a man who told stories in the southern rural black tradition, and by his grandmother, whose strange-sounding maiden name—Altschul— revealed that she was descended from Eastern European Jewry. This connection to a Judaic forebear would become a treasure for Lester when he underwent his own conversion during the 1980s.
As a child and teen, Lester spent summers in Arkansas with his grandmother. There he was exposed to racism and segregation in the days before the civil rights movement gained strength. He was profoundly influenced by what he described in Horn Book as the South’s atmosphere of “deathly spiritual violence.” In addition to its “many restrictions on where [blacks] could live, eat, go to school, and go after dark,” the South was a dangerous place where
Born January 27, 1939, in St. Louis, MO; son of W. D. (a minister) and Julia (Smith) Lester; married Joan Steinau (a researcher), 1962 (divorced, 1970); married Alida Carolyn Fechner, March 21, 1979; children: (first marriage) Jody Simone, Malcolm Coltrane; (second marriage) Elena Milad (stepdaughter), David Julius. Education: Fisk University, B.A., 1960.
Folksinger and photographer, 1960–68; director, Newport Folk Festival, Newport, RI, 1966–68; writer, 1966—; producer and host of live radio shows, WBAI-FM, New York City, 1968–75; host of television program Free Time, WNET-TV, New York City, 1971–73; University of Massachusetts—Amherst, professor of Afro-American Studies, 1971–88, acting director and associate director of Institute for Advanced Studies in Humanities, 1982–84, professor of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies, 1982—.
Selected awards: Newbery Honor Book citation, 1969, and Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, 1970, both for To Be a Slave; Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, 1972, and National Book Award finalist, 1973, both for The Long Journey Home: Stories from Black History; Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, 1973, for The Knee-High Man and Other Tales; honorable mention, Coretta Scott King Award, 1983, for This Strange New Feeling, and 1988, for Tales of Uncle Remus: The Adventures of Brer Rabbit; Distinguished Teacher’s Award, 1983–84; National Professor of the Year Silver Medal Award, Council for Advancement and Support of Education, 1985; Massachusetts State Professor of the Year award and Gold Medal Award for national professor of the year, both from the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, both 1986.
Addresses: Home—600 Station Rd., Amherst, MA 01002. Office —P.O. Box 333, North Amherst, MA 01059–0333; or, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA 01002.
blacks faced “the constant threat of physical death if you looked at a white man in what he considered the wrong way or if he didn’t like your attitude.”
Lester was a gifted student who sometimes knew more about subjects than his teachers. He could also sing and play guitar. Although his early artistic interests lay in folk music, he aspired to become a writer. Books, he told Horn Book, raised possibilities that he could not have imagined otherwise. Reading, he said, brought him “the knowledge that the segregated world in which I was forced to live bounded by the white heat of hatred was not the only reality. Somewhere beyond that world, somewhere my eyes could not then penetrate, were dreams, … and I knew this was true because the books I read ravenously, desperately, were voices from that world.”
After earning a bachelor’s degree in English from Fisk University in 1960, Lester became politically active in the civil rights struggle. One of his contributions was to play guitar and banjo at rallies in the South, a vocation that brought friendships with other politically committed singers such as Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, and Judy Collins. As the 1960s progressed—and the racial climate in America became more polarized—Lester joined the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a group that gradually assumed an increasingly militant stance against racism. Lester, who was also a talented photographer, became head of SNCC’s photo department and visited North Vietnam during the Vietnam War to document the effects of U.S. bombing missions. He also traveled extensively in the South, taking pictures to help document the civil rights movement.
Lester’s first books were written as a response to his experiences in the civil rights struggle. Middle to late 1960s works such as The Angry Children of Malcolm X, Look Out Whitey, Black Power’s Gon’ Get Your Mama!, and Revolutionary Notes established him as an eloquent and impassioned defender of the new black militancy. Still, Lester brought his penetrating gaze to the movement itself, not hesitating to criticize its leaders when he detected hypocrisy. In Commonweal, John Garvey wrote that Lester’s work of the period “took on not only the targets favored by radicals during the sixties, but the movement itself, when it failed in honesty or compromised itself morally. He made ideologues on the left nervous.”
Lester ended the 1960s with a measure of fame as a photographer, a journalist, an essayist, and a folksinger with two albums to his credit. In 1968 he was hired to host a radio show at WBAI-FM, a public broadcasting station in New York City. Previous to this, he had served as director of the prestigious Newport Folk Festival, at a time when that gathering of alternative musicians was becoming more and more popular. These accomplishments may have been enough for some, but Lester was about to embark on yet another career, one that would bring him still more acclaim.
An editor at Dial Press who helped to prepare one of Lester’s adult books for publication suggested that he try to write for children. Lester was initially somewhat puzzled by the idea, but he gave it a try. In 1969 he released two books that came to mark his future success as a writer for young people. To Be a Slave, a collection of six stories based on historical accounts, evolved from an oral history of slaves Lester was compiling. The book, Lester’s first for children, was the runner-up for the Newbery Medal, one of American literature’s most important prizes. Later that year Lester published Black Folktales, recasting various human and animal characters from African legends and slave narratives.
In 1971 Lester began to host a public television show called Free Time. He was also hired at the University of Massachusetts—Amherst as a professor in its new Afro-American Studies Department. Over the years, particularly in the early 1980s, Lester earned national awards for his teaching. He left radio and television in 1975 and settled in Amherst as a full-time professor and author.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Lester released a number of popular books that showed his overlapping interests in African American history, folklore, and politics. The Knee-High Man and Other Tales assembles six black folk stories, including those of the well-known Brer Rabbit, treating them with subtle emphasis on the politics of defying racism. 1972’s Long Journey Home and Two Love Stories as well as This Strange New Feeling, published ten years later, offer lessons in black heritage through fiction based on actual African American experiences. Long Journey Home, a finalist for the National Book Award, explores the everyday lives of ordinary African Americans in the Reconstruction period—a subject that Lester described as “history from the bottom up.”
Lester had also teamed up with illustrator Jerry Pinkney for a series of well-received Uncle Remus retellings, beginning with The Adventures of Brer Rabbit, published in 1987. The cycle of titles, which came to be known as The Tales of Uncle Remus, continued into a fourth volume in 1994, with The Last Tales of Uncle Remus as told by Julius Lester. He and Pinkney produced a children’s picture book that year, too; John Henry, described in a Publishers Weekly critique as a “triumph of collaboration,” touched upon various episodes in the American folktale hero’s life. The reviewer lauded the “carefully crafted updating [which] begs to be read aloud for its rich, rhythmic storytelling flow.”
Lester’s fame as a young adult writer did not diminish his desire to work on adult literature. In 1994 he published a civil rights novel entitled And All Our Wounds Forgiven, which tracks four volatile lives through the dramatic events of the 1960s. But Lester’s memoir Lovesong, in which he writes about his conversion to Judaism, remained one of his best-known books for adults. Documenting the seminal event of Lester’s midlife, Lovesong came about after a long period of spiritual searching. Ironically, Lester was once branded an anti-Semite during his days at WBAI Radio, when he allowed an anti-Semitic poem to be read over the air as part of a larger debate on black-Jewish relations.
Lester assured Publishers Weekly that he had never held anti-Semitic views and that he was in fact sensitive to Jewish issues long before he made his conversion. Asked what particularly attracted him about the faith, Lester commented, “Jewish music is so emotional. The emphasis in black music is on rhythm. The emphasis in Jewish music is more on melody, [which] I love…. What I find so incredible is that in Jewish worship, you pray in song.”
As part of his spiritual journey, Lester moved from Reform to Conservative Judaism. Not only does he lead prayers in the synagogue, he also observes many of the strictest commandments set down for the Jewish faith. His religious conversion led to career changes as well. In 1988 Lester was ousted from the renamed African American Studies Department at the University of Massachusetts. A New Republic reporter noted that Lester’s “crimes would seem such only to those with no understanding of academic freedom, who insist that their colleagues march in ideological lockstep…. He does not believe that the very existence of black studies as an academic field requires a monolithic politics.”
Undaunted, Lester moved to the university’s Near Eastern and Judaic Studies Department, where he teaches a course comparing Jewish and black oppression, and others on biblical interpretation. If he had to choose a favorite aspect of his multifaceted career, Lester would probably choose writing his young adult books. “Children’s literature is the one place where you can tell a story,” he told Publishers Weekly. “Just, straight, tell a story, and have it received as narrative without any literary garbage. I’ve done a fair amount of historically-based fiction that would be derided as adult literature because it’s not ‘sophisticated.’ I’m just telling a story about people’s lives. In children’s literature, I can do that.”
Lester told the Fourth Book of Junior Authors and Illustrators that he began writing for children because he wanted his own children to have books that he couldn’t find as a youngster in a segregated society. “I have found writing for children of all ages more rewarding than writing for adults,” he concluded, “primarily because I like the audience and the responses I get from children.”
New York Times Book Review contributor Rosalind K. Goddard recommended Lester’s young adult writing as both lesson and entertainment, noting, “These stories point the way for young blacks to find their roots, so important to the realization of their identities, as well as offer a stimulating and informative experience for all.”
(With Pete Seeger) The 12-String Guitar as Played by Leadbelly: An Instructional Manual, Oak, 1965.
The Angry Children of Malcolm X, Southern Student Organizing Committee, 1966.
(Editor, with Mary Varela) Our Folk Tales: High John, The Conqueror, and Other Afro-American Tales, illustrated by Jennifer Lawson, 1967.
(Editor, with Varela) Fanny Lou Hamer, To Praise Our Bridges: An Autobiography, KIPCO, 1967.
The Mud of Vietnam: Photographs and Poems, Folklore Press, 1967.
Look Out Whitey! Black Power’s Gon’ Get Your Mama!, Dial, 1968.
To Be a Slave, illustrated by Tom Feelings, Dial, 1969.
Black Folktales, illustrated by Feelings, Baron, 1969.
Search for the New Land: History as Subjective Experience, Dial, 1969.
Revolutionary Notes, Baron, 1969.
(Editor) The Seventh Son: The Thoughts and Writings of W. E. B. Du Bois, two volumes, Random House, 1971.
(Compiler, with Rae Pace Alexander) Young and Black in America, Random House, 1971.
The Long Journey Home: Stories from Black History, Dial, 1972.
The Knee-High Man and Other Tales, illustrated by Ralph Pinto, Dial, 1972.
Two Love Stories, Dial, 1972.
(Editor) Stanley Couch, Ain’t No Ambulances for No Nigguhs Tonight (poems), Baron, 1972.
(With David Gahr) Who I Am (photopoems), Dial, 1974.
All Is Well: An Autobiography, Morrow, 1976.
This Strange New Feeling (short stories), Dial, 1982.
Do Lord Remember Me (novel), Holt, 1984.
The Tales of Uncle Remus, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, Dial, Volume 1: The Adventures of Brer Rabbit, 1987, Volume 2: The Further Adventures of Brer Rabbit, 1988, Volume 3: The Misadventures of Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, Brer Wolf, the Doodang, and Other Creatures, 1990.
Lovesong: Becoming a Jew (autobiography), Holt, 1988.
How Many Spots Does a Leopard Have? and Other Tales, illustrated by David Shannon, Scholastic, 1990.
Falling Pieces of the Broken Sky, Arcade, 1990.
John Henry, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, Dial, 1994.
And All Our Wounds Forgiven (novel), Arcade, 1994.
Contributor of essays and reviews to numerous magazines and newspapers. Associate editor of Sing Out, 1964–70; contributing editor, Broadside of New York, 1964–70.
Black Writers: A Selection of Sketches from “Contemporary Authors,” Gale, 1989, pp. 355–56.
Children’s Literature Review, Volume 2, Gale, 1976.
Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Volume 43, Gale, 1993, pp. 273–75.
Fourth Book of Junior Authors and Illustrators, Wilson, 1978, pp. 223–24.
Lester, Julius, All Is Well, Morrow, 1976.
Lester, Julius, Lovesong: Becoming a Jew, Holt, 1988.
Something about the Author, Volume 74, Gale, 1992, pp. 158–61.
Commonweal, March 25, 1988, pp. 167–69.
Horn Book, April 1984, pp. 161–69.
New Republic, June 27, 1988, pp. 9–10.
New York Review of Books, April 20, 1972, pp. 41–2.
New York Times Book Review, November 3,1968, p. 7; November 9,1969, pp. 10,12; February 4,1973, p. 8; May 17, 1987; August 7, 1994, section 7, p. 14.
Publishers Weekly, February 12, 1988, pp. 67–8; September 5, 1994, p. 108.
Washington Post, July 12, 1994, p. E1.
—Anne Janette Johnson
"Lester, Julius 1939–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 16, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/lester-julius-1939
"Lester, Julius 1939–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved July 16, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/lester-julius-1939