A key element of any biography is the author’s ability to truly capture the essence of the subject, and then pass on that understanding to readers. This attribute is even more important for a children’s book, as younger audiences are notorious for short attention spans; they have little patience for long-winded pontifications. Author Jen Bryant expertly delivers with the insightful “Feed Your Mind: A Story of August Wilson.”
The book explores August Wilson’s life from his childhood in Pittsburgh during the 1940s and ’50s to his emergence as a successful and later celebrated playwright. Frederick August Kittel Jr. was born to a mostly absentee white father and a black mother who took in washing to make ends meet. The two-time Pulitzer Prize winner passed away in 2005 at the age of 60, and is most notably remembered for his 10-play cycle that explores the black experience in America during each decade of the 20th century.
Relatively short in length, the book spans 48 pages in hardcover, and not all of it text. Both Bryant and illustrator Cannaday Chapman have taken great care to ensure that each word and image is designed to evoke a strong emotional response. One such image involves Wilson’s mother, sister, a radio contest, and a washing machine.
The text and images culminate in an important moral lesson regarding dignity. The idea of people staying true to who they are is a running theme in “Feed Your Mind” and is also one that Wilson incorporates into his plays. The theme is illustrated when Wilson is hurt over the racial taunts he endured from his classmates, as well as his bitter frustration, and ultimate resolve, when one of his public school teachers simply refuses to believe that he had actually written the paper he submitted for a class assignment.
The Written Word
Most importantly, the book illustrates, starting with its title, the wonders that can be found through the written word. An intensely curious child, Wilson practiced reading by sounding out words he saw on various objects: street signs, newspapers, soup can labels, and boxes of breakfast cereal.
His mother, who always encouraged his reading, first took him to the library at the age of 5. His practice of reading whatever he could find opened him to a world of possibilities. A particularly pivotal moment occurred one day when he came upon a shelf in a library titled “Negro Books.” As Bryant notes in her text, “all around him the world shifts, the universe opens wide.”
“Feed Your Mind” comes back to this premise time and again, while at the same time providing a road map for any young reader who picks up this book to begin his or her own journey of discovery.
Taking It All In
Wilson was always an acute observer of those around him. This fascination is elaborated on in such passages as “Summer nights in the backyard, [Wilson’s mother] plays card games with the neighbors as someone strums a guitar, their laughter drifting over children playing dodgeball and stickball—loading the bases.”
Wilson was particularly fascinated by the older men in his neighborhood: taxi drivers and former Pullman porters. He would write poems and stories about these individuals, using their words and feelings to keep these experiences alive. These writings ended up in his plays, such as “Jitney,” a story about gypsy cab drivers.
Ironically, Wilson resisted becoming a playwright until a friend explained the importance of listening to the characters he had created and hearing what they had to say, rather than simply trying to put words into their mouths. Bryant also notes that the “plays, he discovers, are like puzzles for which he has to make the pieces.”
The Text and Images
The book is divided into two acts, as were most of Wilson’s plays. Since it was Bryant’s intention to focus on Wilson’s early years, things get a bit truncated toward the end, and the story takes on a more bullet-point feeling.
Yet the story flows nicely from one section to the next. Each page is labeled with its own particular heading (such as “The Hill District, Pittsburgh,” “Schooled,” “Now What?” and “Prove It!”)
Fortunately, the book concludes with a lengthy informative note from Bryant, explaining how she first became aware of August Wilson and what inspired her to write “Feed Your Mind.” This is followed by a detailed timeline of Wilson’s life and an extensive bibliography.
Chapman’s illustrations are quite expressive, each one creating of sort of mini-tableau to go along with the accompanying text. Especially effective is the image showing the 5-year-old Wilson pulling a book off a library shelf, which opens to reveal a collage of images offering a universe of possible experiences found within.
“Feed Your Mind” wonderfully tells the story of August Wilson, while showing just how important reading and understanding the written word can be.
‘Feed Your Mind: A Story of August Wilson’
Abrams Books for Young Readers
48 pages, hardcover
Judd Hollander is a reviewer for stagebuzz.com and member of the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle.