Take a Picture of Me, James VanDerZee!

By Shelf Awareness

James, the oldest son born to John and Susan Elizabeth VanDerZee, the butler and maid for President Ulysees S. Grant, was raised in Lenox, Mass., in an artistically inclined family. He "liked to paint, but drawing people was hard. He could never get their expressions right. James wanted to share the beauty he saw in his heart."

When a gentleman comes to his home and uses a "contraption called a camera" that perfectly captures "everyone's smiles and [his] mother's sweet gaze," James knows immediately how one makes great pictures: with a camera. He weeds his neighbor's garden for a quarter a day until finally he saves $5 and becomes the second person in Lenox to own a camera.

In time, James moves to New York, then New Jersey, then back to New York, where he opens his own portrait studio in Harlem amid the cultural celebration "called the Harlem Renaissance." Unlike other photographers of his time who mainly take pictures of poor, rural black people, James photographs famous people--Marcus Garvey, Joe Louis, the New York Black Yankees, Florence Mills, Mamie Smith--and focuses on showing the growing black middle class. Andrea J. Loney's (BunnyBear) text highlights VanDerZee's determination and imagination as it lays out his journey from young dreamer to success story to outdated craftsman to eventual historical hero. Keith Mallett's (How Jelly Roll Morton Invented Jazz) acrylic on canvas illustrations set tone beautifully with gentle spring and fall colors in Lenox, strong browns and reds in the darkrooms and brassy golds and blues in the Harlem of the 1920s and '30s. The vibrant illustrations paired with the lively text make Take a Picture of Me, James VanDerZee! a picture book biography that truly shares the beauty VanDerZee saw in his heart.