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Big Apple Books: Tar Beach

Tar Beach
by Faith Ringgold

What's a tar beach, you ask? I've lived in NYC for ten years, yet I didn't know the answer until reading Faith Ringgold's delightful story. A tar beach refers to a building rooftop, and it's where the story's main character, Cassie Lightfoot, spends many a summer night escaping the heat with her family.

photo credit: Good Reads

Living in Harlem during the Depression, eight year old Cassie is a dreamer. While laying on a mattress with her little brother up on tar beach, Cassie's nightly dreams take her soaring over New York City, to places that seem very out of reach on the ground. Her imagination allows her to fly up over the George Washington bridge (which her father helped build) to the lights of midtown Manhattan. Despite her young age, she seems keenly aware of her family's situation, that her father is not allowed into the labor union, because her grandfather was not a member. She knows the impact of racism; that her father is looked down on because of he's "colored" and a "half-breed Indian." Cassie is wise beyond her years.

What's really lovely about Tar Beach is that the book was originally a work of art. Faith Ringgold began her career as a painter, and is best known for her "story quilts," which combine painting, quilted fabric and storytelling. It is also semi-autobiographical; Ringgold grew up in Harlem, experiencing the Depression and racism first hand. Cassie's story is her story.

Tar Beach captures the spirit and imagination of an eight year old girl, but above all, embraces her strength.

"I will always remember when the stars
fell down around me and lifted me up
above the George Washington Bridge."

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