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  • Tar Beach
  • Written by Faith Ringgold
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  • Tar Beach
  • Written by Faith Ringgold
  • Format: Hardcover | ISBN: 9780517580301
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Tar Beach

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Illus. in full color. "Ringgold recounts the dream adventure of eight-year-old Cassie Louise Lightfoot, who flies above her apartment-building rooftop, the 'tar beach' of the title, looking down on 1939 Harlem. Part autobiographical, part fictional, this allegorical tale sparkles with symbolic and historical references central to African-American culture. The spectacular artwork resonates with color and texture. Children will delight in the universal dream of mastering one's world by flying over it. A practical and stunningly beautiful book."--(starred) Horn Book.  
Faith Ringgold

About Faith Ringgold

Faith Ringgold - Tar Beach

Photo © Grace Welty

“My ideas come from reflecting on my life and the lives of people I have known and have been in some way inspired by.”—Faith Ringgold

Faith Ringgold is best known for her painted story quilts—art that combines painting, quilted fabric and storytelling. Her first book, Tar Beach, was a Caldecott Honor Book and winner of the Coretta Scott King Award for Illustration, among numerous other honors. She has written and illustrated many children’s books.


Ever since I was a very little girl, I’ve always had a need to express and communicate my ideas through art. Being an artist, and a writer of children’s books, is a fulfillment of my lifelong ambition. Despite the struggle inherent in my choice of art as a profession, I cannot imagine spending my life any other way.

However difficult my career as an artist has been, my career as a children’s book writer and illustrator has been just the opposite. Tar Beach, my first children’s book, was published in 1991. But the story “Tar Beach” was written in 1988 on a painted story quilt of the same name, which is in the permanent collection of the Guggenheim Museum, in New York City. My quilts encompass all the art forms I love: painting, sewing, working with fabrics, and storytelling. I use painting on canvas, quilted and pieced fabrics, and stories written on the quilt.

I became an artist for the same reason I became a writer: I wanted to tell my story. It was in 1980 that I made my first painted quilt, “Echoes of Harlem,” a collaboration with my mother, Madame Willi Posey, who was a dressmaker and fashion designer. She taught me to sew and to love fabrics. She learned to sew from her mother, who had learned from her mother, and so on back to my great-great-grandmother Susie Shannon, who lived to be 110 years old.

My mother died in 1981. As a tribute to her, I committed myself to making a quilt every year in her memory. I have actually made 75 quilts since then.

I never knew until 1989 that I would—or could—write and illustrate children’s books. Andrea Cascardi, then an editor at Crown Publishers, called me to say that she had seen a poster of my painted story quilt “Tar Beach.” She had read the story on the quilt and thought it would make a good children’s book. What did I think? Frankly, I didn’t know. I hadn’t written “Tar Beach” as a children’s story. I’d written it in a child’s voice for adults. “A good writer has to have a unique voice,” my daughter, the writer Michele Wallace, once told me. The voice I found was the voice of a child, and the child was in me.

There are so many people who have generously bestowed affirmations on me. There have been negative voices, too. Being black and a woman, I have heard more than my share—but a negative voice’s registry is so low-pitched my ears can barely hear it.

My first affirmations came from home. My father was fond of saying, “We tore up the pattern for that one,” when people praised me. I cannot thank my parents enough for nurturing me, and my teachers for instructing me, and all my wonderful family—friends and relatives—who, in my youth growing up in Harlem, taught me to value who I am and to go after what I want.

I was born in Harlem in 1930. 1 was the baby of my family, the youngest of three children. My sister was a born teacher who made me learn her schoolwork. She gave me weekly exams and held me back or promoted me by my test scores. I was a good pupil and she was my favorite teacher. My childhood was the most wonderful period of my life, till now. Though I was often home sick with asthma, I had a lot of time to be alone with my parents and to be creative with art and fabrics. Mother took me to see the great performers of the time—Billie Holliday and Duke Ellington, among others—and to museums and public landmarks like the Statue of Liberty. She put me in touch with the best. A college education was promised me, seemingly from the day I was born.

I graduated from high school in 1948 and went on to the City Coflege of NewYork, where I had a very academic art education. We were taught to copy from Greek busts and from the great masters of European painting. We were evaluated not so much on originality as on how well we could copy.

Women were not allowed to go to the School of Liberal Arts at the City College of New York then, so I majored in art and graduated from the School of Education. Teaching is a tradition in my family. My grandfather and several of his brothers were licensed teachers in Florida in the 1800s. So I became a teacher of art. That pleased my family, but in my mind I was an artist who taught art.

Upon graduation, the struggle began to create an art form out of my own experience, to find my own role models—the masters of African-American and African art: William H. Johnson, Meta Warick Fuller, and Jacob Lawrence—and to discover the classical traditions of African design and mask making that would become my classical art form.

In the tradition of Matisse, Chagall, and Picasso, I would reject the academy and learn to paint like a child. That is much easier said then done. Children are very masterful in the art of creating magical imagery through manipulating paint on the surface. I would have to study even harder now to find my way home.

In 1979, I wrote my autobiography but could find no one to publish it. It was then that I began to search for alternatives to publishing my writing in book form. Writing stories on my quilts began in 1983 with the painted story “Who’s Afraid of Aunt Jemima?” My idea was to write the story on the quilt, for when the quilt was photographed and reproduced in a book, magazine, or newspaper, the story would then be “published.” I have written many story quilts since 1983. They are written in the same manner as my children’s stories. Each section written on the quilt is a page. The story moves quickly so that the viewer can read it standing up. My stories aren’t children’s stories, as such, but they are meant for the child in adults.

Everyone was a storyteller when I was a child. The women’s stories were vignettes of family history: a marriage, a birth, a death, a love affair, an unfortunate turn of events, a shameful and shrouded secret, spoken about in hushed tones so we kids could only imagine what really happened. The men talked about the often adventurous episodes surrounding their migration north from the South in the early 1900s, about hard times and inequality, and about the war. In the 1930s “the war” was World War I; in the 1940s it was World War II. Both wars took our men to Europe, where they got a taste of the equality and freedom being denied them at home.

My brother was a ruthless storyteller. His scary stories were about the boogieman, who was sure to get me when the lights went out. He told me these stories at night, whispering from a crouched position in his bedroom doorway so Mother wouldn’t hear him. In the daytime, he would retell stories from the movies we saw, but with a twist. If the movie was about cowboys and Indians, the Indians always won. I never told any stories. Being the youngest in the family, I learned to listen.

I am a professor of art at the University of California at San Diego. I have studios in La Jolla, California, and in New York City. I have taught art to people of all ages, and I can tell you for sure that the little ones can hold their own with a paintbrush.

Writing children’s books has provided me with a perfect vehicle to communicate my ideas and vision and, I hope, give back to children some of the magic they have shown me.



—A Caldecott Honor Book
—A Coretta Scott King Award for Illustration
—A New York Times Best Illustrated Book
—A Parents’ Choice Gold Award
—A School Library Journal Best Book of the Year
—A Horn Book Fanfare
—A Booklist Editors’ Choice
—An ALA Notable Book
—A Parenting Magazine Reading Magic Award
—A Publishers Weekly Best Books of the Year

“This allegorical tale sparkles. . . . The spectacular artwork resonates with color and texture. . . . A practical and stunningly beautiful book.”—Starred, The Horn Book Magazine

“Innovative and stirring”—Starred, Publishers Weekly


WINNER 1991 School Library Journal Best Book of the Year
WINNER 1991 Booklist Books for Youth Editors' Choice
WINNER 1991 Library of Congress Children's Books of the Year
WINNER 1991 Horn Book Fanfare
WINNER 1991 New York Times Best Illustrated Book
WINNER 1991 New York Times Notable Book
WINNER 1991 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Book
WINNER 1991 Reading Rainbow Feature Books
WINNER 1992 Colorado Blue Spruce Young Adult Book Award
WINNER 1992 Caldecott Honor Book
WINNER 1992 National Parenting Publications Award (NAPPA)
WINNER 1992 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Book
Teachers Guide

Teacher's Guide


Inspired by people who have overcome adversity, Faith Ringgold creates picture books for children that celebrate freedom, courage, and peace.

Through the character of 8-year-old Cassie Lightfoot in Tar Beach and Aunt Harriet's Underground Railroad in the Sky, Ringgold takes young readers on a flight through time and introduces them to famous people and events in American history. In Tar Beach, through her dreams and her ability to fly, Cassie makes things better for her family during the Great Depression. One night, while flying among the stars, Cassie and her brother, Be Be, encounter Harriet Tubman and learn about slavery in Aunt Harriet's Underground Railroad in the Sky.


Faith Ringgold was born in Harlem in 1930. She received a degree in art education from the City College of New York and was an art teacher long before she became a professional artist. She is best known for her "painted story quilts," some of which hang in the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City. Tar Beach, Ringgold's first book for children, won the Coretta Scott King Award for illustration and was named a Caldecott Honor Book. Ringgold is now a professor of art at the University of California at San Diego. She lives in California and in New Jersey.


Pre-Reading Activity

Discuss the meaning of the familiar expression, "free as a bird." Ask students to write a short composition or poem about where they would fly if they had the freedom and ability to do so. Give each student a paper square and ask them to design a quilt square that best represents their idea. Use the quilt squares to make a border surrounding a display of students' written works.

Thematic Connections

Discuss with the class the difference between fanciful and realistic dreams. Why would Cassie Lightfoot's dream in Tar Beach be considered a fanciful dream? Tell students that many of the changes that have occurred in the world began with a dream. Ask the class to discuss Martin Luther King, Jr.'s dream for the world. What was Harriet Tubman's dream? Compare Mama Love's fanciful dream in The Invisible Princess to Dr. King's "real" dream. How did Martin Luther King, Jr. help the dreams of his ancestors come true?

Ask students to discuss how flying is used as a metaphor for freedom in Tar Beach and Aunt Harriet's Underground Railroad in the Sky. In Talking to Faith Ringgold, Ringgold says that she believes that she can do anything. How does believing in oneself give a person the freedom to try new things?

Ask students to define courage. Why does it take courage to become a hero or a heroine? Invite the class to name the many ways that Martin Luther King, Jr., Harriet Tubman, and Patience in The Invisible Princess showed courage.

Interdisciplinary Connections

Social Studies
Ask students to draw a map of the United States and color the slave states. Then have them find out the location of the terminals on the Underground Railroad and mark them on the map.

Tar Beach is set in Harlem during the Great Depression. Discuss with the class the meaning of the word "depression." Ask the class to research the many hardships that families faced during this time. How was the Depression even more difficult for African Americans? How might Cassie's life be different today?

Harriet Tubman was born on a plantation in Maryland. She made 19 trips north on the Underground Railroad, taking over 300 slaves to freedom. Ask students to use a map to determine three different routes that Harriet Tubman could have taken from Bucktown, Maryland, to St. Catharines in Canada. Have students calculate the distance of each route. Which route was the best to take? They should consider factors such as distance, terrain, access to waterways, etc.

Cotton was grown on most of the large plantations in the South. Ask students to research how the invention of the cotton gin changed the industry and how cotton is harvested today. Students may also want to trace the development of the cotton mills and list the uses of cotton.

One Step Beyond: The Arts

Music & Storytelling
When all of the slaves were freed in The Invisible Princess, there was "music and dancing and storytelling." Divide the class into two groups. Instruct one group to research music like "Go Down Moses" that dates back to the days of slavery. Have the other group locate stories that originated from the African American culture. Allow each group time to perform some of the songs and stories that they discovered.

Creative Drama
Martin Luther King, Jr. is famous for his "I Have a Dream" speech. Plan a class production entitled "Dreams of Freedom," making Cassie Lightfoot the narrator. Ask students to research famous African Americans and their contributions to "freedom" for their race. Some suggestions may include: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Ida Wells, Mary McLeod Bethune, Rosa Parks, and Coretta Scott King. Have students prepare and deliver speeches about "freedom" that each of these individuals might make. Present this production to another class in celebration of Black History Month.

Teaching Ideas prepared by Pat Scales, Director of Library Services of the South Carolina Governor's School for the Arts and Humanities in Greenville, SC.


Ask students to list unfamiliar words in each book and try to define the words from the context of the stories. Words they may need to discuss in The Invisible Princess include repentance, tumultuous, and remorse. Students may need discussion regarding terms that refer to slavery and the civil rights movement, including: conductor, slave master, overseers, boycott, fugitives, segregation, and integration.


Aunt Harriet's Underground Railroad in the Sky by Faith Ringgold[0-517-88543-3]
The Invisible Princess by Faith Ringgold; illustrated by the author[0-440-41735-X]
My Dream of Martin Luther King by Faith Ringgold[0-517-88577-8]
Talking to Faith Ringgold by Freeman; Faith Ringgold[0-517-88546-8]

  • Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold
  • December 03, 1996
  • Juvenile Fiction
  • Dragonfly Books
  • $7.99
  • 9780517885444

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