ellington was not a street

written by Ntozake Shange
illustrated by Kadir Nelson

Ntozake Shange's ellington was not a street
Illustrated by Kadir Nelson

Children's book review by Suzanne Edison.

An illustrated book of the poem Mood Indigo

Ages 4+

In the U.S. we often honor people by naming streets after them. How long before we will have Barack Obama Avenue? Are our brains tickled enough to think about who those people were or are? Do we drive or walk on by?

ellington was not a street opens with a painting of a young black girl hugging a record of Duke Ellington’s while seated on a piano bench, looking away to the side. It is an arresting pose. We know from the book’s front cover that she has been listening to Mood Indigo, a famous composition of Ellington’s and it seems we are to look “on”, join her in looking onto the next page.

This book, recites the poem Mood Indigo by Ntozake Shange, and is heard through the voice of a very young child. The author remembers her life growing up in a house filled with African-American artists and activists of the mid to late 1900’s. The paintings portray a beautiful house, serene, simple and lush all at the same time.

On the opening page:

ellington was not a street — we see the author as an adult walking down a street named Ellington.

Turning the page:

robeson no mere memory — here she’s a younger child looking up at Robeson hanging his hat on a coat rack

Shange gives us a peek at history, she names men, Paul Robeson, “Dizzy” Gillespie, W.E. DuBois and others, who passed through her family’s house when she was young and they were in their prime. They are doing things that any company might do: playing cards, drinking coffee, talking to each other.

our house was filled with all kinda folks
our windows were not cement and steel
our doors opened like our daddy’s arms
held us safe & loved

This is a world that I, from a white, upper middle class family, knew nothing about as a child. She gently exhorts us to see her world in its richness of spirit, creativity and joy. Review continues.

collaged images from 'ellington was not a street'

I think this book asks us, black, white and brown, to know our history, all of it. Don’t just walk on by. (I just wish there were some women mentioned.) She gives us an easy way in, through the eyes of a child. I find myself feeling envious, wishing I knew more, wishing I’d felt as comforted as she did when they,

hummed some tune over me
sleeping in the company of men
who changed the world

It is hard to know all about these people from the poem or even from the bits of biographical information at the end of the book, but ellington was not a street is a good place for children in grades 3-5 to start. They will hear those names in the rhythm of a poem and see their faces, like a family album, in the covers of a book. It encourages us all to learn more.

Read more of Suzanne's reviews.

More children's poetry books.

More children's books celebrating prominent African-Americans.

Webmaster's note: Duke Ellington: The Piano Prince and His Orchestra is an award-winning picture book more focused on Ellington himself.

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