Finding Langston

Book review by
Jan Carr, Common Sense Media
Finding Langston Book Poster Image
In lovely, moving story, boy who lost mom discovers poetry.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Kids learn about Great Migration, when 7 million African Americans migrated to the North; rural Southern life vs. urban Northern. Excerpts of poems by Langston Hughes, bits of his biography. Other African American writers: Paul Laurence Dunbar, Arna Bontemps, Gwendolyn Brooks, Countee Cullen, W.E.B. Du Bois, Jessie Fauset. Chicago Black Renaissance. Harlem Renaissance. Chicago in 1946, its black neighborhood Bronzeville. Historical significance of George Cleveland Hall branch of library, first branch of Chicago Public Library to have African American branch manager, Vivien G. Harsh, had important lecture series with prominent African American writers. Information about books, libraries: nonfiction, anthology, call numbers. Period details: WWII ended 1945; segregated train cars.

Positive Messages

Loss is hard but good things happen to help us adjust. People we've lost are like guardian angels, looking down and guiding us. Literature helps provides meaning to our lives. Poetry is "a way of putting all the things you feel inside on the outside." Libraries contribute significantly to education and a community's cultural life.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Langston is a sensitive boy able to connect with poetry, express pain he feels after loss of his mom. He's resilient, determined, pursuing love of poetry and going to the library even when it's difficult. His mom and neighbor love literature. Librarians, other caring adults help him. He learns to stand up for himself. Langston Hughes, other prominent African American writers and cultural figures mentioned are also strong role models.

Violence & Scariness

Boy bullies and hits Langston, tears up his book.

Language

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Finding Langston is a novel by Lesa Cline-Ransome, who's well known for her picture books, many of them biographies of African American subjects, such as Before She Was Harriet and Game Changers: The Story of Venus and Serena Williams. Here she skillfully makes the Great Migration come alive through the eyes of an 11-year-old boy who's lost his mom and moved with his dad from the sleepy South to big, bustling 1946 Chicago. The story's sweetly handled. There's some bullying from boys in his class, who throw a few punches. Excerpts from poems by the boy's namesake, Langston Hughes, resonate with his experience and are woven liberally into the text, as are references to other writers and prominent cultural figures from the Chicago Black Renaissance. There's one sexual reference, when Langston remembers his parents at night in Alabama: "Sometimes I could even hear kissing and other things too."

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What's the story?

In FINDING LANGSTON, a boy with the same first name as the poet Langston Hughes moves with his dad from Alabama to Chicago after the death of his mom. In 1946, they're part of an influx of African Americans from the South during the Great Migration. Langston misses his mother acutely, and yearns to go back to the red clay soil of Alabama, where people didn't rush and weren't so rude. At his new school, he's taunted as "country boy" and targeted by a trio of bullies. But Langston finds solace in the neighborhood library, though at first he's not even sure what a library is, since back home blacks weren't allowed to step foot in libraries. But at this historically significant branch, he sees photos of prominent black authors and is steered to the books of Langston Hughes, whose poems about missing the South have special meaning for him and help him make his peace with his new home.

Is it any good?

This emotionally rich story of a young boy adjusting to the loss of his mom works as a lovely human story, as well as an introduction to the Great Migration and the poetry of Langston Hughes. Finding Langston weaves in historical information meaningfully but gently. Readers can think about what it might be like to move from a rural community with outhouses to stacked urban apartments with indoor plumbing. And Cline-Ransome makes it easy to enter the poem excerpts by tying them so closely to the boy's own experience. There's lots of information about the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago in 1946, and much of the story takes place in the historically significant George Cleveland Hall branch of the Chicago library, which hosted an important lecture series featuring black writers of the era.

But the book is never overwhelmed by the historical content and works beautifully on its own as a warm, touching story. Hearts will go out to this appealing young narrator as he tells his story, and eyes may tear up as he forges new human connections and begins to heal. Cover art by Cline-Ransome's husband, James Ransome, tops the treat.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the poetry in Finding Langston. Why do you think the boy Langston liked the poems of Langston Hughes so much? Do you like poetry? How does it make you feel?

  • Did you know about the Great Migration, when large numbers of African Americans moved from the South to the North? What do you think causes large numbers of people to migrate from one place to another? Does that happen today?

  • What did Langston learn about life in Chicago and how was it different from life in the South? What did he like about the library? Have you been introduced to new writers or subjects at the library?

Book details

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For kids who love African American stories and tales of grief

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