I’ll have to admit that I had never heard of Romare Bearden until I saw Claire Hartfield’s Me and Uncle Romie. He was a child living in Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance, and grew up to be an important artist of the 20th century. But I know so little about artists. I really only know the most famous ones, Michaelangelo and DaVinci, Money and VanGogh, Dali and Picasso.

Bearden knew Picasso, too. He met him in the 1950s, when he went to Europe to study art. That’s not part of the book, though. The book introduces us to Bearden by introducing Bearden to his nephew, James.

I’m not sure if Bearden actually had a nephew named James or not. James’s visit with his Uncle Romie is fiction. But as James learns about his Uncle Romie, and about Uncle Romie’s art, we learn, too.

The Visit with Uncle Romie

And it’s a delightful story. James’s mom is pregnant with twins, and the doctor orders her off her feet until the babies are born. So James’s Aunt Nanette and Uncle Romie invite him to stay with them in New York City for the summer.

James puts on a brave face, but inside, he’s not sure that he likes the plan. He’ll miss his friends and family in North Carolina, of course. And he’ll miss his birthday. Not entirely, of course. But he celebrates his birthday the same way every year, with a baseball game and a homemade lemon cake. Will Aunt Nanette and Uncle Romie remember to celebrate his birthday? Will they understand about baseball? They’re family, of course. But they live so far away. He’s never actually met them before. It’s as if he’s going to spend the summer with strangers.

Even though the book is meant as an introduction to Romare Bearden and his art, Hartfield keeps the story focused on James. And that works really well. His feelings of wonder and delight as he experiences New York City are simple and real. His worry that nobody will remember his birthday is real, too. As a result, when he’s learning about his uncle, and his uncle’s art, that feels real, too. It doesn’t feel like a bunch of facts just pretending to be a story.

The Illustrations and More

The illustrations in Me and Uncle Romie are by Jerome Lagarrigue, another artist I know far too little about. In Me and Uncle Romie, he pays tribute to Bearden by incorporating collage into the illustrations. The resulting art is more representational, less abstract, than most of Bearden’s work — which it needs to be, for a picture book. But it’s beautiful and evocative.

To see images of Bearden’s work, try this Google search. To learn more about his life (including his career in baseball!), read this article from The Atlantic.

And read Me and Uncle Romie. It deserves a place on your bookshelves.

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