February 20, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Award-Winning Author Julius Lester Leaves Behind Storied Legacy

Author, musician, and civil rights activist Julius Lester died on January 18 at his home in Belchertown (MA). He was 78.

Lester wrote more than 40 books for children and adults, including the 1969 Newbery Honor book To Be a Slave (Dial, 1968). He later authored National Book Award finalist The Long Journey Home: Stories from Black History (Dial,1972), Caldecott Honor book John Henry (Dial, 1994), and Coretta Scott King Author Award winner Day of Tears (Hyperion, 2005).

His last book for children in 2016 was the publication of the allegorical tale The Girl Who Saved Yesterday (Creston, 2016).

His fellow authors took to social media to express their sorrow and gratitude.


Dhonielle Clayton (@brownbookworm)
So heartbroken. I’m a writer b/c he paved the way. His books taught me how to read. His books gave me my imagination. Thank you, Julius Lester, for giving me your words, and the pieces of your heart that you left behind in your work. I’m forever changed! You are immortal. ❤💔 twitter.com/PWKidsBookshel…


Dhonielle Clayton (@brownbookworm)
If you don’t know who this man is rectify that immediately. Read his entire canon. There would be no #WeNeedDiverseBooks without the work of this man. Thank you for writing about us! twitter.com/PWKidsBookshel…


Jason Reynolds (@JasonReynolds83)
RIP to another one of our legends, Julius Lester. I’ll never forget reading the folktale about how black folks named the butterfly, butterfly. Before then it was called a ”flutterby,” and that just wasn’t cool enough. Thank you.
In 2002, Lester wrote a first-person story for SLJ about being a children’s author.

“Writing for children is an odd vocation,” he wrote. “We write for an audience that, for the most part, does not buy books. So we must write books that first appeal to the adults who decide what books children will be given the opportunity to read—the editors and publishers, the buyers at bookstores, the librarians and parents. We are all engaged in the creation and distribution of literature to people who are decades younger than we are. On what basis does a writer know that a particular book he or she is writing should be offered to children?”

He went on to say he believed that primary ideas about children come from the authors’ own childhood. Many of Lester’s books dealt with African American culture and folklore.

In 1987, his Tales of Uncle Remus: The Adventures of Brer Rabbit (Dial), illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, retold the Brer Rabbit stories made famous by Joel Chandler Harris.

At the time, School Library Journal wrote, “His [Lester’s] retellings are as lively as the originals but they also have a liveliness of their own, as he incorporates modern allusions which never seem out of place.”

The book won a Coretta Scott King Award Author Honor.

Lester and Pinkney teamed up again for the retelling of the story of the legend of John Henry (Dial, 1994).

In its review, the Horn Book wrote, “The original legend of John Henry has been enhanced and enriched, in Lester’s retelling, with wonderful contemporary details and poetic similes that add humor, beauty, and strength.”

Julius Lester was born on January 27, 1939, in St. Louis. His father was a Methodist minister and storyteller who instilled in his son an interest in black culture and folklore.

In the 1960s, Lester hosted a public radio program from New York City. In the mid-60s, he recorded two albums of socially conscious folk-blues material. This led to his collaboration with Pete Seeger in writing one of his early books, A Folksinger’s Guide to the 12-String Guitar as Played by Leadbelly: An Instruction Manual (Oak, 1965).

In 1982, Lester, who had a Jewish great-grandfather, converted to Judaism. He taught in the Judaic Studies, history, and English departments at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst where he was on the faculty for 32 years.

Lester is survived by his wife and five children.

Rocco Staino About Rocco Staino

Rocco Staino @RoccoA is the retired director of the Keefe Library of the North Salem School District in New York. He is now a contributing editor for School Library Journal and also writes for the Huffington Post.

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  1. Kim Keith says:

    I had the privledge of hearing him speak at UMass. Mr. Lester was gracious enough to autograph the 12 string guitar book for my husband. He was delighted to see it.

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