“the best thing about Juneteenth is the joyful tone of the narrative, which is conveyed by the artwork. The illustrations are colorful, vibrant, and clear.”
In 2021, Congress declared June 19th a national holiday. On that date in 1865, the “peculiar institution” named slavery officially ended in the U.S. Now, the poet and author Van G. Garrett has published Juneteenth, a picture book for four to eight year olds.
The story is told from the perspective of a young Black boy traveling with his family to celebrate Juneteenth in Galveston, Texas, where the holiday originated. The boy enjoys the festivities but doesn’t know anything about them. He does, however, notice people who look like him and he observes that it feels different from the Fourth of July and Labor Day holidays. His mother then explains the history of Juneteenth while the festivities take place all around them—parades, music, and dancing. The book ends with lines from the unofficial Black National Anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” as a multiracial crowd watches fireworks explode triumphantly overhead. It’s a very American story: history told by and for optimists.
The blurb on the book jacket describes Juneteenth as lyrical and poetic. This is a stretch. Although short lines and relatively simple vocabulary make the story accessible for young children, the narrative lacks the playful language and formal discipline of poetry. Some sections use rhyming couplets while others don’t, and there is little rhythmical bounce to the writing. Additionally, some of the word choices are baffling. The opening couplet reads: “We loaded the car/in search of sounds and stars.” In search of stars? At a daytime community celebration?
Another part reads “Boys and girls my size,/some bigger,/some with different colored eyes,/scrambled to get treats.” Those “different colored eyes” had me imagining children with one blue eye and one brown. A few pages later, we’re told that two people in the crowd look “like Paw-Paw” and “Mimi,” neither of whom have been mentioned before.
These quibbles aside, does Juneteenth do its didactic work of explaining the celebration? Not entirely. A child experiencing the book would have no idea of the hardships endured by African Americans over centuries. For example, there’s only a single page illustrating slavery and it shows not one iota of suffering or bondage besides the cliché of a pair of raised, anonymous hands breaking free of their manacles. This might be appropriate for a four year old; not so much for an eight-year-old. While there are portraits of Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King on the adjacent page, neither are mentioned by name. A young reader wouldn’t know from this book who they were or what they achieved.
Probably the best thing about Juneteenth is the joyful tone of the narrative, which is conveyed by the artwork. The illustrations are colorful, vibrant, and clear. Crowd scenes can be tricky because of the challenges of perspective and emphasis, but Reginald C. Adams’s and Samson Bimbo Adenugba’s lively watercolor and pen-and-ink pictures show just the right amount of detail, with nothing to confuse the eye.
The idea of this book is laudable. Showing Juneteenth through the eyes of a Black child is a wonderful way to teach its significance. While one might suspect parents and caregivers will enjoy flipping open the book to show bright colors and scenes involving music and dance, if they want a more thorough treatment of the issues and history behind this national holiday, they’ll need to look elsewhere.