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Picture Book Tuesday: Tar Beach

I will always remember sitting on the flattened futon couch in my childhood living room, legs kicking out over the edge of the wood, and opening my tattered copy of Tar Beach.

Its colors are rich and deep, textured like the quilts that feature along its borders. The scenes are captivating: a New York City rooftop, a dinner table, a blanket spread for a sister and brother to star-gaze while their parents and family friends play cards. Then, the girl spreads her arms and flies across the city - claims the city, and all its good and bad, as her own - and eventually takes her brother Bebe by the hand and takes him with her.

Reading this story, I smell the sweaty-warm, exhaust-filled air. I hear the hums of car motors and men's voices on the street, the faint strands of radio emerging from the opening door of a bodega. I sense the rustle of river water, the sturdy metal of the glittering George Washington Bridge. And the love: if the little girl can fly over the union building, she believes she can own it, and by owning it, get her father accepted by it. This way, she says, "Mommy can laugh and sleep late like Mrs. Honey, and we can have ice cream every night for dessert." Though, she adds, she should take a minute to "fly over the ice cream factory, just to make sure we do."

This book accompanied me steadily through my altogether-different childhood. I grew up on an organic vegetable farm in central North Carolina. My mom was the farmer, my dad an Antitrust lawyer. Night on the farm smelled like honeysuckle and wood smoke, sometimes a whiff of magpies from the cow pasture. My dad played classical music and opera on the radio. We didn't have people over often. The closest I could come to picturing that rooftop scene were the nights my big brother came by, inviting my little brother and me to play hide-and-seek in bare feet as the dusk blurred to darkness. I remember our shrieks and belly laughs, the rough bark beneath my fingers as I clung to my tree branch hiding spot, dirty sweat trickling down our foreheads. Finally - and always too soon - my mom calling us inside to take baths.

I went to New York City once as a child, and all I recall about the trip are the shoes I wore: flat-soled, unfortunate shoes that made my arches split open after about a block of walking. I found no magic on those hot streets. This was not a disappointment to me until I came back home and opened up Tar Beach and realized, suddenly, that the place in that book was the place I had just been, except there had been no watermelon, no rooftop card game, no falling-asleep-beneath-the-stars, no soaring over the city to make it mine. I had not made the city mine; the city was not mine. This was my first lesson in belonging.

And so it has always struck me to be an incredible generosity that Faith Ringgold's Tar Beach offers such an invitation to every reader. Not an invitation to New York City. But an invitation to family, to sisterhood and brotherhood, to warm company, to celebration, to star-gazing, to home, to believing that you are not only capable of change but worthy of enacting it. Tar Beach offers to small children everywhere an invitation to magic, to flight, to love. To honor the cramped streets and rooftop decks or to honor the honeysuckles and magpies or to honor the flat pavement and orange streetlights of all the suburbs in between.

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