Faith Ringgold’s children’s books arose out of her story quilts, one in particular: Tar Beach. A book agent saw the flyer for an exhibit featuring the Tar Beach quilt and immediately thought it would make a great children’s books. Ringgold agreed. Many subsequent books emerged from this one concept.
Faith Ringgold (b.1930) is a Harlem born, American artist best known for her story quilts. Ringgold’s career has been long and consistent in its examination of the Black experience in America, re-examination of Black history, positive portrayals of Black stories and empowerment of Black women. Ringgold’s use of multiple mediums through the years and in singular pieces, shatters the boundaries of traditional art and tells a new story. Ringgold’s work opens new doors for Black artists into the traditionally white male canon. Ringgold is also an activist, writer and teacher.
Read Nasty Women Writers’ post on Faith Ringgold—Faith Ringgold: Quilting Truth into History
Ringgold’s story quilts are paintings that tell stories stitched into and over quilted fabric. The paintings are edged with text boxes telling a story related to the central image. The quilts are large, often 6-or 7-feet squares, and create an experience for the viewer that is at once intriguing, delightful, emotional and complex.
The children’s books break down into segments and individual pages what Ringgold has painted and stitched onto one quilt.One image is allowed to spread out into many. The complexity of the quilt’s story is allowed to further reveal itself.
I like reading the children’s books to help me notice and take in more slowly the information embedded onto the quilts. The story quilts are so packed with information and layered and textured imagery, it is difficult to take it all in at once, especially in a museum setting when many hang on a wall at once.
I wish all the quilts were made into these books so I could slowly and lovingly ingest all that Ringgold has embedded and stitched onto them. But this is my point of view as an adult. The books are indeed written for children. Ringgold remarks:
“My stories and illustrations are a tribute to the endless beauty and creativity of children” (FRAP 7).
The books tackle difficult subjects including slavery, racism, plantation life and the Underground Railroad. Like all great children’s books, the images are more compelling than the text and carry the bulk of the storyline. The imagery allows the child to move themself into the story being told and feel it as if it were their own.
Ringgold infuses the books with the fantastic and magical as well as the truth, allowing imaginations to offer their own continuation of the storyline.
Of Ringgold’s children’s books and art, Julia Bryan-Wilson says:
“There’s no other contemporary artist who has so insistently and seriously cultivated children as viewers, understanding them as crucial, and political, audience for her artistic practice”(FRAP 86).
At the same time they are positive and hopeful. The characters overcome obstacles and hold onto their dreams.
To her characters, Ringgold:
“bestows the unwavering belief that anything is possible. Her young protagonists all possess the belief that they can one day be presidents, property owners, opera singers, time travelers, and, above all, take flight”(FRAP 148).
Below I cover three of Ringgold’s children’s books. I encourage you to go to your local library or bookstore and seek out more. Read them to your children. They are well worth it.
Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold, published in 1991
Faith Ringgold’s first children’s book begins with the line:
“I will always remember when the stars fell down around me and lifted me up above the George Washington Bridge.”
The main character is Cassie Louise Lightfoot, 8 years old and in the 3rd grade when she realizes she can fly. Flying gives her freedom.
Tar Beach is culled from the memory Ringgold had of sleeping on the roof, the “tar beach,” in the hot summers in Harlem. Cassie Louise loves looking up at the George Washington bridge, her “most prized possession, that opened in 1931 on the very day she was born.”
As she flies she looks down on her life, her parents and the neighbors playing cards on the roof. She flies over other parts of the city that encompass her and her family’s life, and makes changes where they are needed.
From this perspective, Cassie Louise is allowed to instill justice where it isn’t and create balance in a system of imbalance. She dreams of all the things she will do when she grows up and the changes she will make.
The Invisible Princess by Faith Ringgold, published in 1999
The Invisible Princess is a book about slavery. On a plantation in the deep south called The Village of the Visible, Mama and Papa Love are enslaved. They love each other and they love children and children love them but they don’t want to have any of their own because they fear Captain Pepper, the “mean old slave master” will sell their children away.
Hearing and understanding their fears, The Great Lady of Peace bestows a baby onto the couple, a princess, who will bring great healing to the people. Mama Love is so frightened that she asks the Great Lady of Peace to hide her child. The Great Lady of Peace asks the Prince of Night to come and hide her away. And so The Prince of Night comes on the day The Invisible Princess is born and hides her.
The book shows the realities of plantation life and the long hours the enslaved Black people were forced to work while the white people rested and enjoyed themselves.
Captain Pepper’s daughter is blind, yet she is the only one who can see The Invisible Princess. They become friends. The captain’s daughter warns The Invisible Princess of danger that is coming for her parents.
The Invisible Princess appears to her parents to warn them, she explains where she has been all this while and who has been taking care of her.
“Who is the Prince of Night?”asked Papa Love.
“He escaped from a slave ship by turning day into night. He is coal black and very handsome, Mama—and he is rich, too. His cloak is studded with diamonds that sparkle like stars. If Captain Pepper could see him, he would try to make him a slave. But no one can ever see the Prince of Night.”
Then all the forces that have been helping the Invisible Princess make a plan to save the village and all of its residents.
Aunt Harriet’s Underground Railroad in the Sky by Faith Ringgold, published in 1992
Aunt Harriet’s Underground Railroad in the Sky returns to the character of Cassie Louise and her brother Be Be whom she has taught to fly. On one of their flights, they come upon an old railroad in the sky with a woman conductor calling “All Aboard.”
Be Be jumps on and Cassie is worried. Chasing him she sees bright lights in the sky that say: “GO FREE NORTH OR DIE.”.
The conductor flies to her and says:
“Hello, Cassie. I am Harriet Tubman. People call me Aunt Harriet because I take care of them. During slavery, I carried hundreds of men, women and children to freedom on The Underground Railroad, and never lost a passenger.”
Then Aunt Harriet teaches Cassie about slavery. What the enslaved were not allowed to do, where they came from and about The Underground Railroad.
Read Nasty Women Writers’ post on Harriet Tubman- “Journey to Freedom:” Harriet Tubman Still on the Move
After this, she sends Cassie down to experience it herself. Cassie travels one of the routes of the Underground Railroad until she crosses the Niagara Falls to freedom in Canada.
At the end of the book is a tutorial about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, with a map and resources listed for further reading.
Ringgold’s Aunt Harriet’s Underground Railroad in the Sky received the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award for promoting peace and social justice in 1993.
Faith Ringgold is a Nasty Woman Artist, Writer and Activist.
© Theresa C. Dintino 2023
Gioni, Massimiliano and Gary Carrion-Murayari. Faith Ringgold: American People.New York, Phaidon Press. 2022.
Ringgold, Faith. Aunt Harriet’s Underground Railroad in the Sky. Crown Publishers.1992.
__________. The Invisible Princess. Crown Publishers. 1999.
__________. Tar Beach. Random House. 1991.