By Kirsten Cappy
The Beautiful Blackbird Children’s Book Festival was created to honor the influence of Black children’s book creator Ashley Bryan on a new generation of book creators. In a festival interview, author Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow said she emulates Bryan’s books for being “Black joy personified.”
As Thompkins-Bigelow’s picture book Your Name Is a Song opens, the main character is feeling anything but joy. It is the first day of school and the girl’s name got “stuck” in her teacher’s mouth. Some kids at lunch pretend to choke on the girl’s name. When her mother picks her up, the girl stomps out and declares she is never going back.
In their walk across the city, the mother tells her daughter, “Names are songs.” In a read-aloud video created by the festival, local singer and librarian Christina Richardson lifts her voice in harmony with the story. Singing when the characters sing, Richardson’s performance tells all readers that African, Black American, and Muslim names are magnificent – rich with fire, dreams, and music.
As the book closes, we watch the girl step back into the schoolyard and lift her voice to sing her name – Kora-Jalimuso. The author composed the girl’s name from two names in her Guinea-born mother’s Mandingo community. “Jalimuso” is the name of female griots, the keepers of oral tradition. “Kora” is the name of the harp used by griots to preserve ancestry through story and song. Thompkins-Bigelow’s family has a long history of being griots and she passed that legacy onto Kora-Jalimuso.
“The [African] diaspora that is in me is all throughout the book,” said Thompkins-Bigelow. While her mother is an African immigrant, her father is Black American, descended from enslaved Africans. Her father’s pride in Black resiliency shows in Thompkins-Bigelow’s celebration of Black American names. She especially loves those names Black people choose for themselves to “make a way out of no way.”
In the Your Name Is a Song read aloud, available on BeautifulBlackbird.com, Thompkins-Bigelow says people of the diaspora are “singing out the stories that need to be heard.” Not only do readers hear that their names have music, but a companion festival video teaches readers how to turn the consonants and vowels of their names into an actual song. Singing names not only instills pride, but also gives others the tools to remember and respect them. What is the song of your name?
Kirsten Cappy is the executive director of I’m Your Neighbor Books, a nonprofit that celebrates the lives of New Arrivals and New Americans with books like Your Name is a Song. I’m Your Neighbor Books is a founding partner of the Beautiful Blackbird Children’s Book Festival.