Book Review: Jimmy’s Rhythm & Blues: The Extraordinary Life of James Baldwin

Book Cover Images image of Jimmy’s Rhythm & Blues: The Extraordinary Life of James Baldwin

by , Illustrated by Jamiel Law

Publication Date: Jan 30, 2024
List Price: $19.99
Format: Hardcover, 48 pages
Classification: Nonfiction
Target Age Group: Picture Book
ISBN13: 9780063273474
Imprint: HarperCollins
Publisher: HarperCollins
Parent Company: News Corp

Read a Description of Jimmy’s Rhythm & Blues: The Extraordinary Life of James Baldwin

Book Reviewed by Clarence V. Reynolds

This year, we will celebrate the centennial of the birth of prominent writer, civil rights activist, and intellectual James Baldwin. Born in Harlem, New York City, August 2, 1924, James Arthur Baldwin knew from an early age that he wanted to be a writer; and he began writing poems, plays, songs, and stories as a kid in elementary school. At twenty-nine, he published his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, in 1953. Baldwin would go on to write well-known novels and short stories, including Giovanni’s Room (1956), Sonny’s Blues (1957), Another Country (1962), If Beale Street Could Talk (1974), and Going to Meet the Man (1965). He also penned countless moving essays, and many can be found in the collections Notes of a Native Son (1955), Nobody Knows My Name (1961), and the seminal The Fire Next Time (1963). The acclaimed novelist, essayist, short story writer, poet Baldwin once stated: “You write in order to change the world, knowing perfectly well that you probably can’t, but also knowing that literature is indispensable to the world…” Yet through his writings, Baldwin did indeed change the world, at least he helped to enlighten people about the ways that artistic, social, political, and racial attitudes influence and shape our society and the ways they affect our experiences and our lives.

In the recently published Jimmy’s Rhythm & Blues: The Extraordinary Life of James Baldwin, author Michelle Meadows chronicles the many aspects of Baldwin’s life from his childhood and young adult years in New York, to his later years living in Saint-Paul de Vence in France. This first-ever picture book about the legendary writer packs quite a lot of biographical information in its forty-eight pages. Meadows, the author of the books Brave Ballerina: The Story of Janet Collins and Flying High: The Story of Gymnastics Champion Simone Biles, centers on the fact that from an early age, Baldwin found comfort and confidence in reading and writing. “He wrote everything and everywhere with his left hand, sometimes scribbling on paper bags. Words soothed him. …Writing gave him a voice,” she writes.

Since his young boyhood, Baldwin “lived in books” and dreamed of changing the world. The book opens with Baldwin discovering his passion for writing and then moves on to his visits to the Schomburg Library, his years as a young preacher, his meetings of adults who influenced and supported him, such as a theater teacher named Orilla Winfield, and the writers Countee Cullen and Richard Wright and the painter Beauford Delaney. Baldwin was an astute observer of Black culture and took to heart the effects of race issues in America. Meadows captures this and highlights the years up to Baldwin having his first book published and spotlights the indelible impact the civil rights movement had on him.

Among the rewards of Meadows’s book is the detailed information she includes to capture Baldwin’s life. To me, the book reads like a shortened, written version of a PBS documentary about Baldwin. Meadows’s concise sentences are well accompanied by Jamiel Law’s striking full-page illustrations that are rendered in warm earthy tones that convey feelings of assuredness and calmness as the reader follows the journey. Several pages in the book begin with bold declarations that could be interpreted as Baldwin’s inner thoughts: “Writing is electric blue, bright, brilliant swirls of letters and words flying, flipping flowing to the beat.” A plus to this biography is the Author’s [Meadows] Note, a listing a Baldwin’s works, and a timeline of his life, which are sections added at the end.

Jimmy’s Rhythm & Blues offers an essential introduction to young readers who want to learn about the life of the iconic writer and activist, a man who changed hearts and minds through his many works, his passion for the love of words, and his commitment to fight for equal rights and respectability. As Meadows adds: “I hope this book inspires young readers to find joy and power through written expression.”

Read HarperCollins’s description of Jimmy’s Rhythm & Blues: The Extraordinary Life of James Baldwin.

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