Harlem on Their Minds

Debut picture books by Jason Reynolds and Michael Datcher celebrate the cultural history of a neighborhood.

One click of his camera’s shutter is all it took for the New York Times photographer Chester Higgins Jr. to capture the magic of two powerful literary figures — the regal Maya Angelou, aglitter in sequins, and the soft-shoed Amiri Baraka, shoulders bowed and knees bent — dancing together. We don’t know what the song was, but the photo suggests there was enough rhythm to make Angelou put her hand on her hip and enough groove to make Baraka snap his fingers.

Higgins’s photo, in turn, is all it took to inspire the multi-award-winning Jason Reynolds (“Stuntboy,” “Long Way Down,” “Look Both Ways”) to write his debut picture book, so he could answer the question that immediately popped into his head: “Why were they dancing?”

Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times

THERE WAS A PARTY FOR LANGSTON: King o’ Letters (Caitlyn Dlouhy/Atheneum, 56 pp., $18.99, ages 4 to 8), illustrated by Jerome Pumphrey and Jarrett Pumphrey, begins, therefore, in February 1991 at the grand opening of Langston Hughes Auditorium at the New York Public Library’s Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture as “all the best word makers” show up in their finest.

Hughes called Harlem home for decades. And as Reynolds writes, across a double-page spread of glowing apartment building windows inhabited by jiving silhouetted tenants, he could “make the word HARLEM sound/like the perfect place to have a party,/make it seem like you could bust a move/right there in the H or the L or the M of it.”

But Reynolds does more than chase down the source of a party. He expands his question’s answer into a joyful ode to Hughes; much as Hughes himself often did, he uses the power of poetry to make a party out of language.

In this synchronous collaboration with the Pumphrey brothers, hand-stamped, digitally edited illustrations spin Hughes’s words into an inspirational staircase carrying a bookish Angelou to flap her literary wings “like a free bird.” Bighearted laughter, generated by Hughes’s famous line about freedom laughing in the face of hate, erupts from images of everyday folks housed inside playfully sized letters spelling “Ha hA.”

Jerome Pumphrey and Jarrett Pumphrey

The informal use of Hughes’s first name tells us he is a friend, who wrotehis neighborhood as America/and his family as America/and his funky music as America/and America as America, too,” while also holding court as “King o’ Letters,” inspiring esteemed leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and countless cultural luminaries. The Pumphreys use subtle shadows throughout to appoint Hughes with a crown and scepter.

Although some of Reynolds’s layered poetic references may be lost on younger readers, they will still provide opportunities for discussions of history and literature beyond the page.

Generations of word-makers who peer from the book spines lining the Schomberg Center’s shelves join the high-stepping guests here: Zora Neale Hurston, Octavia Butler, Ashley Bryan, W.E.B. Du Bois, looking at all the people, shimmying, full of dazzle.”

Hughes himself wasn’t in attendance that night (he died in 1967), but Reynolds and the brothers Pumphrey fill their book with enough love of Langston to keep the party going.

Frank Morrison

Love is also at the center of another debut picture book, HARLEM AT FOUR (Random House Studio, 48 pp., $18.99, ages 4 to 8), a story of two Harlems, told in two parts, by Michael Datcher (“Raising Fences”).

Part One begins with Datcher’s 4-year-old daughter, Harlem, named after the Harlem Renaissance, waking up for a day of adventure with her dad, shown on the book’s cover with a camera hanging from his neck. “Fierce can’t be photographed./Shutter speed/Too slow/To frame you,” he writes affectionately of her.

As the pair venture beyond their Harlem apartment, Frank Morrison uses his distinctive, stylized portrait technique and sometimes dizzying perspectives to depict a contemporary landscape of street-corner jazz musicians, Studio Museum “playdates with painters” and graffiti-washed buildings that pay tribute to hip-hop.

Frank Morrison

Morrison’s bold, bright palette continues indoors as father and daughter make music, art, science and happy messes together to the tune of — what else? — Bob Marley’s “One Love.”

Part Two is the story of Harlem the neighborhood. It begins in 1904, when Philip A. Payton Jr., known as the Father of Harlem, founded the Afro-American Realty Company: “Papa Payton/Bought homes/In Harlem, the birthplace/Of author James Baldwin/Then rented them to/Brownstone-colored families.” Datcher’s illuminating verse, spare yet sweeping, offers readers snapshots of the community’s history.

Frank Morrison

Morrison moves skillfully from a group portrait whose warm tones invite readers to gaze into the eyes of hopeful, newly arrived families of the Great Migration, to an aerial view of the hats of huddled commuters gathered at the corner of 135th Street and Lenox Avenue on a snowy day for the opening of New York City’s first subway line.

In one of the book’s most powerful spreads, Malcolm X and the young awe-struck poet Sonia Sanchez face each other in profile, shielded from the rain by an umbrella, one generation protecting and empowering the next.

Datcher ends with two young graffiti artists — a girl and a boy — tagging a building with “Magical words/That painted Black pride/Across their beating chests.”

Lesa Cline-Ransome is the author of the Finding Langston trilogy and many picture books, most recently “The Story of the Saxophone,” illustrated by James E. Ransome.

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