I didn’t know much about Zora Neale Hurston, except for the fact that I’d loved one of her most famous books, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Now that I’ve read this picture book, I want to know more.
Just look at that girl, clutching her book, running barefoot in the world, and followed by an assortment of storybook characters. Those overalls give us a bit of insight into her independent spirit.
In a town called Eatonville—
a place where magnolias smelled even prettier
that they looked, oranges were as sweet as they
were plump, and the people just plain ol’
got along—lived a girl who was attracted
to tales like mosquitoes to skin.
Zore was her name.
This young girl claims her space. She absorbs a culture of stories down at the general store and then starts to make up her own. Encouraged by her mama to “jump at the sun,” Zora takes this to heart. But when her mama soon dies, life takes a turn, and sets Zora off on a journey that depends on the strength of her character and her stories.
When Zora has a run-in with her stepmother, she leaves home at age 14, working a series of jobs for the next 12 years, never able to go back to school. Finally, at age 26, she tells a high school she’s 16, so she can attend classes for free, and finally graduates. With her diploma in hand, she heads to Howard University, and soon meets authors like W.E.B. Dubois, and is bitten by the writing bug.
She leaves Howard, heads to New York, and becomes best pals with Langston Hughes. She scrapes by. She enters stories in a writing contest and wins all sorts of awards. Now on the literary world’s radar, Barnard offers her a scholarship. She takes that leap and this time stays for the duration. For her final class to earn her degree, she heads back home to create a collection of “Negro folklore.”
Degree in hand, she continues to collect folklore, traveling throughout the South, to Haiti and the Bahamas, until she finally settles in Florida and begins to write her books.
And now, when you open those books, it’s as if you were visiting
on Zora’s porch just like she porch-visited all those years ago; she’d’ve
offered you a chair and filled you full of High John de Conquerer tales.
Or told you the talking mule lie she got form the Florida railroad workers.
Course she’d woof about that ol’ Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox, too.
And that sun…that sun would’ve burned down
mightily pleased, just ah-listening.
“Jumping at the sun” appears as a metaphor for taking risks throughout this book, something that Zora does every time she faces a challenge. It’s clear that this talented woman became a mesmerizing storyteller, all starting with her roots in that general store. Such is the power of story. Williams’ rhythmic language pulls readers through Zora’s story as if we, too, are hanging out on the porch—listening.
Alcántara’s illustrations match Hurston’s exuberant spirit and her love for life, as well as showcase the many HATS she wore!
Read Hurston’s children’s stories: The Skull Talks Back and Other Haunting Tales, and Lies and Other Tall Tales and then write your own tall tale.
Practice JUMPING rope to this “tall tale” rhyme:
Miss Zora wrote a story.
She named it Grampa Goat.
She put it in the bathtub
to see if it would float.
It drank up all the water.
It chewed up all the soap.
It tried to eat the bathtub
like a juicy canteloupe.
Now raise you hand up high
if you think this tale is true.
There’s swampy land in Florida
I’d like to sell to you.
Pair this book with Happy Birthday, Madame Chapeau by Andrea Beaty, illustrated by David Roberts
Title: Jump at the Sun: The True Life Tale of Unstoppable Storycatcher Zora Neale Hurston
Author: Alicia D. Williams
Illustrator: Jacqueline Alcántara
Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2021
Ages: Elementary school
Themes: Taking risks, tall tales, Black History
For more perfect picture book recommendations, please visit Susanna Hill’s website.