Kenneth Wissoker, editorial director of Duke University Press, about how the house landed the rights to reprint James Baldwin’s only children’s book, Little Man, Little Man—and why the publisher decided to bring it back into print now.
The book had originally been published by Dial Press in 1976. Baldwin wrote the book in response to the urging of his young nephew, Tejan Karefa-Smart, who would ask, “‘Uncle Jimmy, when are you going to write a book about me?” Baldwin wrote the story and had a French artist friend, Yoran Cazac, do the charming illustrations. At the time, the story seemed for nine- or ten-year-olds with its loving but frank portrayal of everyday life in the Harlem neighborhood, while the picture-book format seemed aimed at younger children. In any case, the book went quickly out of print.
One of the editors of our edition, Nicholas Boggs, first discovered the book in a college course, before writing about it as part of his Columbia University Ph.D. thesis. He first wrote me about it more than a dozen years ago. Even though we don’t usually publish children’s books, it seemed like a good idea—but one that would be pretty hard to make happen. Boggs enlisted then Duke Professor Jennifer Brody (now at Stanford), a Duke University Press author, to help out on the edition, and together they wrote the informative introduction. He had tracked down the artist, Cazac, just before he died, and then stayed in touch with his widow. But even with all these connections, it still took several years to obtain the rights to reprint the book from the Baldwin estate and that of the artist. Boggs contacted Baldwin’s niece and nephew and asked them to contribute their own stories. As sometimes happens, despite the long process, Little Man, Little Man is appearing at exactly the right time. We’ve gotten glowing stories everywhere from The New York Times to People magazine. After Raoul Peck’s film about Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro, and at a time when there is ever more need for a variety of children’s stories, this book feels like a classic, both of another time and completely necessary for our day. In our world of graphic novels, Young Adult literature, and Black Lives Matter, Baldwin’s novel for his nephew speaks with urgency and relevance to us all.
RECOMMENDATIONS from David Frye A.M. ’90, Ph.D. ’91
In writing Walls: A History of Civilization in Blood and Brick (Scribner), Frye faced the challenge of presenting a complex, unfamiliar topic to a broad audience. Luckily, he wasn’t the first to take up that challenge. Below, Frye lists five favorites that set a standard for bringing history to the masses with intelligence and style:
The Waning of the Middle Ages by Johan Huizinga—The distinction between popular and academic history was less defined when Huizinga wrote his evocative account of life and culture in the fourteenth century. Huizinga’s masterful selection of evidence taught scholars and laypersons alike the value of looking at art and literature outside the canon.
The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman—Over the course of a highly productive career, Tuchman never surpassed her early achievement in writing this book, but, then, who has? Tuchman’s richly detailed account of the first month of World War I remains one of the most gripping historical narratives ever written.
Civilisation: A Personal View by Kenneth Clark—How is it that the transcribed narration of a documentary series hosted by an aging, self-effacing, and distinctly old-fashioned art historian still transfixes us fifty years after its release? Even the BBC’s 2018 update Civilisations, with its cast of intellectual luminaries, failed to match the stream of provocative thoughts that once spilled from the mind of the sexagenarian Clark.
Accidental Empires by Robert X. Cringely—In chronicling the early years of the computer revolution, Cringely faced a particularly daunting text: having to explain technical issues to a non-technical audience. It is a testimony to Cringely’s skill that his readers, confronted with a work that is both technical and historical, are left with the impression they are reading a breezy piece of gossip.
Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic by Tom Holland—Another book on Caesar? If Tom Holland is the author, it’s well worth a read. Holland has emerged as a master at infusing familiar stories with a fresh narrative voice.
By Duke Alumni & Faculty
Living in a Mindful Universe: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Heart of Consciousness (Rodale Books) Eben Alexander M.D. ’80, H ’81, H ’87 and Karen Newell
Red Card: How the U.S. Blew the Whistle on the World’s Biggest Sports Scandal (Simon & Schuster) Ken Bensinger ’97
Dreams That Can Save Your Life: Early Warning Signs of Cancer and Other Diseases (Findhorn Press) Larry Burk ’77 and Kathleen O’Keefe-Kanavos
The Month of Their Ripening: North Carolina Heritage Foods through the Year (UNC Press) Georgann Eubanks ’76
An Unseen Light: Black Struggles for Freedom in Memphis, Tennessee (University Press of Kentucky) Edited by Aram Goudsouzian and Charles W. McKinney Jr. A.M. ’93 Ph.D. ’03
Proud: My Fight for an Unlikely American Dream (Hachette Books) Ibtihaj Muhammad ’07
The School Discipline Fix: Changing Behavior Using the Collaborative Problem Solving Approach (W.W. Norton & Company) J. Stuart Ablon and Alisha R. Pollastri ’98
Wealth, Actually: Intelligent Decision-Making for the 1% (Lioncrest Publishing) Frazer Rice ’95