"That year, our first in northern Alabama, we lived beside a country road that was so red it might have been made of brick dust." Thus begins Arna Bontemps' story about how he came to write Sad-Faced Boy, his third children's book published in 1939. The summer days were hot, so he took his typewriter outside and worked in the shade of the house. Word got out that he enjoyed listening to singing, and, one day, from the hills beyond the cow pasture across the road, a quartet of boys appeared and began to sing to the accompaniment of a guitar. The lead singer was a sleepy eyed teenager named J.P. Morgan. They came back often and sang, but they also enjoyed talking. Bontemps asked them about their lives and about their relatives beyond the hills, but they also had questions for him.
"Tell us," they said, "about this Harlem place that people talk about." So Bontemps told them about Harlem, making it as appealing as he could and assured them that many boys no older than they had gone to "old, tall, high-stepping, good-looking Harlem and gotten along beautifully, especially boys with a guitar and some good songs." Bontemps didn't see the quartet for a while until one of the four appeared and told him that one day when he had been out plowing in the field, the other three wandered off and disappeared, without telling him or anyone that they were going or where they were headed. Several months passed with no word from the three boys, until, one day, J. P. Morgan appeared in Bontemps' front yard, and he asked J.P. where he had been. The boys had made their way to Harlem, where they discovered that everything Bontemps had told them about Harlem was true.
They sang and earned money by their singing, but it seems that some of the boys in New York were so mean and tricky that an unsuspecting stranger found it hard to get along. In fact, one day, they were out walking down the street. J.P. was wearing a new pair of shoes when the three of them were set upon by city boys who overpowered them, took their money and, as a final indignity, took the new shoes right off J.P.'s feet. They were homesick, and it was too cold to go barefooted in Harlem, so they decided that home was a good place to be and returned to northern Alabama. After hearing this tale of adventure, Bontemps felt a story coming on, went back to his typewriter, and, over the next few months, wrote Sad-Faced Boy. J.P. Morgan became Slumber, the sad-faced boy, and his two fellow travelers became Slumber's brothers, Rags and Willie. The three of them jump a freight train in Alabama headed for New York where they explore the big city but, like the real boys, they soon become homesick and long for the taste of ripe persimmons and for warm weather and happily find their way back home to northern Alabama.
Copyright 2006© Rita Smith
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