The People Could Fly: The Picture Book


In this retelling of a folktale, a group of slaves, unable to bear their sadness and starvation any longer, calls upon the African magic that allows them to fly away.

Many of the stories in this collection were told among slaves as they dreamt of freedom or remembered their lives in Africa. Hamilton focuses on several themes—animal tales, magical and supernatural tales, and tales of freedom—and following each story is a note explaining its history and meaning. ...

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In this retelling of a folktale, a group of slaves, unable to bear their sadness and starvation any longer, calls upon the African magic that allows them to fly away.

Many of the stories in this collection were told among slaves as they dreamt of freedom or remembered their lives in Africa. Hamilton focuses on several themes—animal tales, magical and supernatural tales, and tales of freedom—and following each story is a note explaining its history and meaning. Black-and-white illustrations by Caldecott Medalists Leo and Diane Dillon round out this important book.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Resplendent, powerful paintings by these two-time Caldecott-winning artists bring new life to the title story from the late Hamilton's 1985 collection, The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales. Making dramatic use of shadow and light, Leo and Diane Dillon (whose half-tone illustrations also graced the original volume) ably convey the tale's simultaneous messages of oppression and freedom, of sadness and hope. "They say the people could fly. Say that long ago in Africa, some of the people knew magic," opens the narrative, as the full-color artwork reveals elegant, beautifully clothed individuals with feathered wings serenely ascending into the sky. On the following spread, images of the Middle Passage set a fittingly somber tone, depicting Africans who "were captured for Slavery. The ones that could fly shed their wings. They couldn't take their wings across the water on the slave ships. Too crowded, don't you know." The picture-book format allows room for the relationship to develop between Sarah, who labors in the cotton fields with an infant strapped to her back, and Toby, the "old man," who utters the magic African words that give her flight. Toby helps others take flight as well (a stunning image shows seemingly hundreds linking hands and taking to the skies)-and eventually does so himself, sadly leaving some of the captives "who could not fly" behind to "wait for a chance to run." Art and language that are each, in turn, lyrical and hard-hitting make an ideal pairing in this elegant volume that gracefully showcases the talent of its creators. All ages. (Nov.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
This widely lauded anthology boasts stunning black-and-white artwork and stirringly told stories with such evocative titles as ``The Beautiful Girl of the Moon Tower'' and ``Wiley, His Mama, and the Hairy Man.'' All ages. (Feb.)
Children's Literature
Hamilton's compelling retelling of this black folktale appeared originally in her 1985 collection with the same title. As a stand-alone in picture book format, it has been newly and profusely illustrated as a tribute to the author who died in 2002. The tale is told in the language and cadences of an African griot. When Africans were captured and brought to America as slaves, those who had known magic and could fly had to leave their wings behind, the story goes, but they kept their magic. When they are subjected to the cruelty of Master, Overseer, and Driver, old Toby helps first his daughter Sarah and her child to rise and fly away; then he and others who are stricken rise and go as well. Those who can't fly tell the tale until they too are free. The Dillons introduce us to the soaring flyers on the jacket/cover in their multi-patterned African dress and hair styles. The end-papers display shiny black feathers on a subtle black surface, giving added credence to the tale. Full-page and half-page paintings with gold borders create believable portraits of the slaves and masters as the fields are worked and as the people fly to freedom. Mixed emotions are generated by the portrayals: the evil Overseer in black against the reddish sky, the joyous folks who can fly. Notes from both author and editor fill in further information. The final rising triumphant figure appears to be Hamilton herself. 2004 (orig. 1985), Alfred A Knopf/Random House Children's Books, Ages 7 up.
—Ken Marantz and Sylvia Marantz
Children's Literature - Debra Briatico
This classic collection contains twenty-four tales, stories, and riddles about animals, fantasy and the supernatural handed down by African slaves before and during the Civil War period. These stories, born out of the sorrow of slaves, focus on freedom and triumph and bring hope to all who read them. Bruh Rabbit and the Two Johns are just some of the fascinating characters featured in this enchanting anthology. Dillon's mystical and inspiring black-and-white illustrations perfectly complement Hamilton's well-written prose.
Children's Literature - Ken and Sylvia Marantz
Hamilton's retelling of this African American folktale appeared originally in her Coretta Scott King Award-winning collection of the same title. It stands alone in this picture book edition newly-illustrated by the Dillons. Some slaves are cruelly treated by their overseer. They have forgotten the magic that enabled them to fly in Africa. An old man reminds them. Whispering the magic words to them, he helps them fly triumphantly to freedom. The illustrations that tell the visual tale, one per page, are treated as pocket dramas. Set off by the thick gold bands that frame each scene, they use pigments that seem to glow. Figures are sculptural, faces animated by the emotions of the story, colors chosen to enhance these emotions. The flying figures are depicted with a dance-like sense of grace. The magic is instilled in the pictures as well as the words. Notes from the editor and the author provide additional information. The accompanying CD has James Earl Jones and Virginia Hamilton reading the text. Don't overlook the book's endpapers. Reviewer: Ken Marantz and Sylvia Marantz
School Library Journal
Gr 4-7 The well-known author here retells 24 black American folk tales in sure storytelling voice. In four groupings she presents seven animal tales (including a tar-baby variant); six fanciful ones (including ``Wiley, His Mama, and the Hairy Man'' and a tale of which Harper's Gunniwulf Dutton, 1967 is a variant); five supernatural tales (including variants of the Tailypo, John and the Deviland a wild cautionary tale, ``Little Eight John''); and finally, six slave tales of freedom, closing with the moving title story. Depending on the sources, some of the tales use a modified dialect for flavor; one told with quite a few words of Gullah dialect has a glossary. All are beautifully readable. The book has a bibliography, and comments follow each tale, including one personal note of a family account involving one of her grandfathers. Two other collections of black folk tales, Courlander's Terrapin's Pot of Sense (Holt, 1957; o.p.) and Faulkner's The Days When the Animals Talked (Follett, 1977; o.p.) are both out of print. With the added attraction of 40 bordered full- and half-page illustrations by the Dillonswonderfully expressive paintings reproduced in black and whitethis collection should be snapped up. Ruth M. McConnell, San Antonio Public Library
School Library Journal
Gr 4-7-Virginia Hamilton's collection of 24 black American folk tales (Knopf, 1985) receive new vitality as an audio presentation. After an informative introduction by the author, the tales are arranged into categories with explanatory notes for each story. In the "Animal Tales" section, Hamilton retells familiar stories about Bruh (Brer) Rabbit who almost always outwits Bear and Fox. There are tales described as real, extravagant, and fanciful, but reality takes a back seat in most of these sometimes scary tales. Struggles between good and evil are included in stories such as "Jack and the Devil" in the "Supernatural" group. Hamilton concludes with "Slave Tales of Freedom" where the title story relates the mythic escape by air of people too long oppressed. Andrew Barnes tells each story with ingenuity, a mix of vocal styles and, occasionally, a pleasant singing voice. Selections are set apart with brief, appropriate music. The cover features artwork by the book's illustrators, Leo and Diane Dillon. This is an enduring, much-honored book based on oral tradition and it returns to its roots in an audio format. Equally enjoyable listened to one story at a time or in its entirety, this is a solid purchase for school and public libraries.-Barbara Wysocki, Cora J. Belden Library, Rocky Hill, CT Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
From The Critics
Leo and Diane Dillon illustrate this beautiful collection of American black folktales, which comes with a compact disc narrated by James Earl Jones and Hamilton. Parents will want to use The People Could Fly as a readaloud themselves: it provides over twenty folktales for all ages and this reprint with its new cd will appeal to new audiences.
Kirkus Reviews
"They say the people could fly. Say that long ago in Africa, some of the people knew magic. And they would walk up on the air like climbin up on a gate." Hamilton's The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales (1985) won a Coretta Scott King Award, and the Dillons here reissue its heartbreaking title story with gorgeous, all-new, full-color paintings. Legend has it that some people in Africa could fly, but when they were shipped to America as slaves, they shed their black, shiny wings (reflected as feathers on the glossy black endpapers). When a mother and her baby are brutally whipped in the cotton fields, an old slave resurrects his magic and helps her and others fly away, free as birds, leaving the non-magical slaves behind to tell the tale. Like the story, the paintings are both hopeful and somber, and the slaves are as graceful and softly luminous as the slave owners are stiff, pinched, and cruel. A dreamy, powerful picture-book tribute to both Hamilton and the generations-old story. (editor's note, author's note) (Picture book. 9-12)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375824050
  • Publisher: Random House Children's Books
  • Publication date: 11/9/2004
  • Pages: 32
  • Sales rank: 681,618
  • Age range: 4 - 8 Years
  • Lexile: AD480L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 9.25 (w) x 12.25 (h) x 0.39 (d)

Meet the Author

Virginia Hamilton

VIRGINIA HAMILTON, the first black person to win a Newbery Medal and the first children's book author to be awarded a MacArthur genius grant, won the Coretta Scott King Award for The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales. In her lifetime, Virginia wrote and published 41 books in multiple genres that spanned picture books and folktales, mysteries and science fiction, realistic novels and biography. Woven into her books is a deep concern with memory, tradition, and generational legacy, especially as they helped define the lives of African Americans. Virginia described her work as "Liberation Literature." She won every major award in youth literature.

LEO and DIANE DILLON, recepients of two Caldecott Medals, have illustrated five books by Virginia Hamilton, including the original black-and-white illustrations in The People Could Fly collection, Many Thousand Gone, and Her Stories.


A writer of prodigious gifts, Virginia Hamilton forged a new kind of juvenile fiction by twining African-American and Native American history and folklore with contemporary stories and plotlines.

With Hamilton's first novel, Zeely, the story of a young farm girl who fantasizes that a woman she knows is a Watusi queen, she set the bar high. The book won a American Library Association Notable Children's Book citation. Hamilton rose to her own challenge, and every new book she published enriched American literature to such a degree that in 1995 she was awarded the ALA's Laura Ingalls Wilder Award for lifetime achievement.

Born in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and raised in an extended family of farmers and storytellers (her own father was a musician), Hamilton's work was inspired by her childhood experiences, family mythology, and Ohio River Valley homeland. In an article about the importance of libraries in children's lives, she credits her mother and the "story lady" at her childhood public library with opening her mind to the world of books.

Although she spent time in New York City working as a bookkeeper after college, and traveled widely in Africa and Europe, Hamilton spent most of her life in Yellow Springs, anchored by the language, geography, and culture of southern Ohio. In The House of Dies Drear, she arranged her story around the secrets of the Underground Railroad. In M. C. Higgins, the Great, winner of both a John Newbery Medal and a National Book Award, she chronicled the struggles of a family whose land, and life spirit, is threatened by strip mining. Publishers Weekly called the novel "one of those rare books which draws the reader in with the first paragraph and keeps him or her turning the page until the end."

In her series of folk-tale collections, including The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales, In the Beginning: Creation Stories from Around the World, and Her Stories: African American Folktales, Fairy Tales, and True Tales, Hamilton salvaged and burnished folk tales from cultures across the world for her stories; stories that suffused her fiction with its extraordinary blend of worldly and otherworldly events, enchantment, and modern reality. Virginia Hamilton died on February 19, 2002.

Good To Know

Hamilton's first research trip to a library was to find out more about her family's exotic chickens, which her mother called "rainbow layers," because of the many tints of the eggs they laid.

In 1995, Hamilton became the first children's writer to win a John D. and Catherine C. MacArthur "genius" grant.

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    1. Date of Birth:
      March 12, 1936
    2. Place of Birth:
      Yellow Springs, Ohio
    1. Date of Death:
      February 19, 2002
    2. Place of Death:
      Yellow Springs, Ohio
    1. Education:
      Attended Antioch College, Ohio State University, and the New School for Social Research
    2. Website:

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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 4, 2007

    What an inspiration

    When you have a power and use it for good, and it works, what an inspiration that is for all others. This book tells a tale of slaves who wish to fly away, and they do because they believe in it so much. This is great for everyone, child and adult, who has ever had a dream but never quite went all the way to make it come true as these people did.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 1, 2005

    Pass it on!!

    I remember when I first found this book in the library. I was in the fifth grade and every free period I had I would read something new. This book was different, I loved it so much that I took it out over and over again, until I was no longer in that school. Now that I have kids of my own, I am buying a copy to read to them.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 8, 2005

    A Child at Heart

    I remember being read this book as a child in Kindergarten and first grade. I'll all ways hold it dear to my heart. It instilled a sense of pride and history in me; having grown up in a predominately white neighborhood. Reading something unlike anything else I had experienced back then, and helping to change my outlook on life makes this my favorite book of all time. (And I'm an avid reader, so that¿s a lot of books to top).

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