<B>A legend's rediscovered tale</B>One of the most exciting picture books to be published this year was actually written and illustrated more than two decades ago.
<B>Li'l Dan, the Drummer Boy: A Civil War Story</B> is the only children's book written by the African-American artist Romare Bearden, who died in 1988. Only recently discovered, it has been published with a foreword by Henry Louis Gates Jr., who knew Bearden in the 1970s. Gates saw the artwork for this project one Saturday afternoon in Bearden's studio, when the painter pulled out a stack of panels, laid them on the floor and began to narrate the story of a little drummer boy. "Although he wrote <B>Li'l Dan, the Drummer Boy</B> over two decades ago, Bearden's poignant and compelling tale will resonate with readers from every generation and every background," writes Gates.
Illustrated in mixed media, the story centers on an enslaved boy named Dan, who lives on the Hollis plantation and loves to listen to Mr. Ned play his drum when the day's work is over. One day Dan makes his own drum and learns to imitate the sounds that surround him, including the cawing of birds, the crash of thunder, and "the clacking of the leaves as they were fanned by a passing wind." When a regiment of black soldiers arrives, Dan is separated from Mr. Ned and his friends. He becomes the "mascot" for Company E, playing his drum at night in the soldiers' camp.
Carrying his drum, Dan mistakenly follows the soldiers into battle and is sent to the rear of the group for safety. There, from his perch high in a tree, he spies a long line of gray horsemen and realizes that the soldiers in blue are in danger. Thinking fast, Dan breaks off two branches and does his best to imitate the sound of cannon, scaring the Confederates away. At the end of the battle, General William T. Sherman pays Dan the highest honor the young boy dreams of: he asks him to join the Army's Drum Corps. The story is simply and warmly told, while the bold, colorful artwork is evocative, dramatic and accessible to children. The book is not only an excellent introduction to Romare Bearden, but a story that is sure to appeal to youngsters on its own merits. Included with the book is a CD read by Maya Angelou.
A North Carolina native, Bearden graduated with a degree in education from NYU and worked for the New York City Department of Social Services, painting on weekends and in the evenings. His art reflects a wide variety of interests and influences, including religion, jazz, Harlem street life, African art and Asian art. The publication of this book coincides with a retrospective of his work, titled <I>The Art of Romare Bearden</I>, which will run at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D. C., until January 4, 2004, with portions of the exhibit later traveling to San Francisco, Dallas, New York City and Atlanta. For more information about the Bearden exhibit, visit the National Gallery of Art web site at www.nga.gov.
As Gates writes in his introduction, <B>Li'l Dan, the Drummer Boy</B> is, in a way, an "unintentional revelation about its author, for it shows what one person can do with a few creative tools, profound ingenuity, and a deep and abiding love for one's art, our common history, and our shared humanity." <I>Deborah Hopkinson's book</I> Under the Quilt of Night <I>recently won the Washington State Book Award.</I>