Sunday, February 13, 2011

Let's Talk About Race

Written by: Julius Lester
Illustrated by: Karen Barbour

Bold colors. Unique illustrations. Simple language. Powerful message. Let’s Talk About Race is a story that strips the human race down to the bones. Literally.

We are all a story—and our stories all begin the same way. I was born on August 22, 1984 in Smithtown, New York. Author Julius Lester was born on January 27, 1939 in St. Louis, Missouri. How does your story begin?

And with that, Lester begins to point out how similar we all are. We all have stories.

Let’s Talk About Race is not an autobiography about Julius Lester; however, I finish the story having learned something about the author. By including his voice in the text and himself in the illustrations, I sense that I am sitting in a room listening to Lester give a speech regarding race. As I read, I feel as though I can trust the message he is trying to convey because I begin to think of him as a person that I know—instead of as someone trying to change the world from behind his computer screen.

He lets us in by sharing his story with us—but not the story about how his great grandparents may have been slaves and were part of the Underground Railroad. Or, how he may not have been given an opportunity because of prejudices. No—in this culturally generic story I find out information about the author’s favorite food, hobbies, favorite color, religion, nationality, and time of day.

Throughout the text, Lester uses both short powerful statements like, “I’m black,” or, “Some stories are true. Some are not.” And longer statements that read like the time your friend told you a story where you could hardly keep the people straight: “… Beneath our skin I look like you and you look like me and she looks like her and him and he looks like him and her and we look like them and they look like us.” In addition, he asks powerful questions that he sometimes answers, and always gives the reader an opportunity to ponder: “Do I look at you and think I know your story when I don’t even know your name? Or, do I look at you and wonder…”

Karen Barbour supports Lester’s message through her bold and thought-provoking illustrations. In almost all of the illustrations, Barbour includes a butterfly. On one double-paged spread, Lester explains how we all at times think we are better than others because of where we live, where we go to school, how much money we make, etc. Framing the text, are partial faces that focus our attention to the different eyes—some of which have money symbols as the pupil. One partial face stands out from all the others; however, because the pupil is a butterfly. I believe that the image of the man is Julius Lester and to confirm this, I located an image of the author to see what he looked like ( What is the significance of the butterfly? There must be a purpose for this butterfly to appear so frequently in these illustrations—especially in the eye of the author. I read into it a little bit and found that butterflies are symbolic of different things depending upon your culture ( However, I believe that the butterfly being a symbol of change and transformation is very fitting for the meaning of this book. Looking at the eye again with an understanding of the meaning of the butterfly—makes the image all the more powerful. The author is envisioning change and looking at us as readers, in hopes that we try to do it.

In many of Barbour’s illustrations, there is a lot going on. There are lots of faces, many eyes, and many bright and bold colors. Faces are not always realistic colors and can be seen in green or blue in order to blend in with the fully colored, unframed background. To me, many of the faces look very similar—especially if the color of their skin, the unique dress, and their hair were taken away. I wonder if that was her purpose? I wonder why she didn’t provide the faces in the book with distinguishable features. I wondered if Barbour was of European descent, but I was unable to locate very much information on her. I wonder if her own culture has anything to do with the style of her drawings and lack of certain cultural details in her illustrations.

As the story comes to an end, Lester explains again that, “Beneath the skin we all look alike. You and Me. I’ll take off my skin. Will you take off yours?” The message is clear. We are all the same when it comes down to our bones. We must be willing to take off our skin. In the words of Ghandi, you must, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Lester lets us know that he is the change he wishes to see.

Are you?


  1. I was so glad to read your interpretation of the butterfly. I did not include that in my post and I probably should have because I was also wondering about the significance. It began on the title page. My eyes were drawn to the butterfly right away. Then I noticed it on other pages and in odd places. For example, when he is fishing there is a butterfly on his pant leg. I enjoyed reading your interpretation.

  2. Your right, the bold colors and shapes and sizes are all very consistent with the author’s message, we are all the same under our skin. I was also excited to read about your interpretation of the butterfly. I looked it up and could find anything!