Re-Reading Black Folktales by Julius Lester (1939-2018)

Tom Feelings’ rendering of Stagolee on the cover of Black Folktales

A few weeks ago, I re-read Black Folktales by Julius Lester, and posted a short review of it on  This morning I opened up yesterday’s New York Times and learned that Julius Lester died last Thursday, January 18, 2018.  I’m rather dismayed. Here, I post my [goodreads] review with images.

Tom Feelings’ illustration for “The Girl With The Large Eyes”

I just re-read Julius Lester’s Black Folktales – 12 re-tellings of African and Afro-American folktales – for nostalgia’s sake. This book first came to my attention as a child in the 1970s. I read the old edition with it’s beautiful illustrations by the late Tom Feelings. Storyteller/author Julius Lester (b.1939) was a folk singer during the Civil Rights Movement and went on to write books for children, as well as adolescents and adults, eventually authoring more than 44 books, becoming a college professor, and converting to Judaism.

With this book, Lester re-wrote the folktales for children of the late 1960s, so if you weren’t around then you might not understand some of the vernacular Lester employs that was common in a lot of black communities during that time, i.e. saying “split” for leave, and referencing the Black Power movement, etc.

Tom Feelings’ illustration of God for the folktale “How God Made the Butterflies”

My favorites are “How God Made Butterflies,” “Why Apes Look Like People,” and “Stagolee.” Lester’s 1969 Stagolee is a baad mutha……who ain’t afraid of white folks, who is so invincible, so strong, so fearless – that he even manages to stay alive 30 years longer than he’s supposed to! – attracting the attention of Heaven. I won’t give away what it takes to finally get him dead and buried, but I will share this excerpt of what happened after he rose up out of his grave and found St. Peter:

““You ain’t getting in here!” St. Peter yelled.
“Don’t want to, either. Hey man. Where all the colored folks at?”
“We had to send ‘em all to Hell. We use to have quite a few, but they got to rocking the church service, you know. Just couldn’t even sing a hymn without it coming out and sounding like the blues. So we had to get rid of ‘em. We got a few nice colored folks left. And they nice, respectable people.”
Stagolee laughed. “Hey man. You messed up.”
“Yeah, man. This ain’t Heaven. This is Hell. Bye.”
And Staglolee took off straight for Hell.”
(Every time I read this section I bust out laughing!)

I must mention here that I feel a great appreciation and gratitude for Julius Lester for being the author of children’s books – nearly 50 years ago when it was even less common – that allowed black children like myself to see our culture celebrated and know that storytelling was a part of our history and heritage. He dedicated Black Folktales: “In memory of Zora Neale Hurston, who made me glad I am me, and to H. Rap Brown.” Some of the tales Lester re-tells in this book were from Hurston’s Mules and Men, but in 1969 Mules and Men was out of print, and Alice Walker had yet to renew interest and educate a new generation about Hurston’s work.

The artist Tom Feelings (1933-2003) created wondrous illustrations for this book and many others, including The Middle Passage: White Ships Black Cargo, Lester’s To Be a Slave, and Maya Angelou’s Now Sheba Sings the Song. Both of these black men were Newberry Award and Coretta Scott King Award winners.

Rest in power and folkloric peace, Julius Lester.
traditional customs, tales, sayings, dances, or art forms preserved among a people

folk song
a song originating among the people of a country or area, passed by oral tradition from one singer or generation to the next, often existing in several versions, and marked generally by simple, modal melody and narrative verse

a tale or legend originating and traditional among a people or folk, especially one forming part of the oral tradition of the common people
Julius Lester’s Black Folktales was featured in “Leslie’s Black History Month Homage to Retro “YA” Titles,” a photo story of works I read in the 1970s that featured young black characters. You can check it out by clicking here.


  1. I learn so much when I read your posts, Leslie. Its interesting how some of the words that were part of black vernacular came to be used everywhere. I grew up on Vancouver Island in Canada in the early 70’s and “split” for leaving was commonly used. I see Julius Lester also wrote a writing craft book! I wonder if it is still in print? I’ll have to look.

    1. Hey Susanne, I’m glad you didn’t split without leaving your comments!
      Now you’ve got me wondering if I should have consulted Geneva Smitherman’s 1977 classic, Talkin and Testifyin: The Language of Black America before choosing “split” over “he was baad, jim!”as an example of black vernacular from the 1970s?

      now….if I remember correctly, On Writing For Children & Other People is a kind of memoir of his background and the experiences that made him a writer – it’s been a while since I read it. 159 pages and published in 2005.
      On page 130 Lester writes: “Even though most of the books I’ve written have their roots in black culture, I do not write only for black people. I write for anyone who honors my efforts by picking up a book I’ve written because, in its essence, story is one heart touching another. Story is the vehicle we ride as we set out to explore the infinite inner space of our beings.”

  2. I too saw the obituary yesterday and thought back about how long I had known about Lester. Tom Feelings illustrations, too, were priceless. When my daughter was born in 1975, I struggled to find racial diversity in her books. Feelings’ work was important.

    1. Elizabeth, your comments remind me of the years my sisters and I received birthdays cards where my mother and grandmother used crayons to make the images of little girls resemble us with brown skin and dark hair. We thought they were being creative/we were too young to understand that greeting cards with children of color on them were hard to find.

  3. What a powerful post! I have heard much talk about Julius Lester but sadly have not had the pleasure of reading his work. This is one of the reasons why I love reading your blog Leslie, because you always bring back names I haven’t heard in a while who definitely deserve a lot more love than they actually get. I’m going to definitely seek out something to read by Julius Lester. I remember we used to have a copy of Black Folktales at home but all of those books were taken and probably, sadly thrown out. That’s a long story. Thank you for reminding us of the richness of the African-American literary canon! #readsoulit

    1. Hi Didi –
      It occurred to me that I might be an ideal person to bring attention to Julius Lester since his stories were part of my early reading life. He was a young writer, then, too. I was stunned to learn that he went on to be so prolific, and I intend to read more of his work in the future.
      ….as for your “long story” – I’d like to read or hear about it some day….
      Glad you liked this post, and I’m looking forward to learning what you have up your sleeve for February 2018 – the 4th year of #ReadSoulLit❣️

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