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Sam and the Tigers
by Julius Lester and illustrated by Jerry Pinkney
1996

This book delights me on three levels.

First, the story. My maternal family are fabulous packrats, so my mother's books from childhood survived, at least some of them. We had an illustrated Little Black Sambo. I had no idea that the story was racist. The story was written to take place in India, but certainly my mother's copy had jet black people with afros as the subject. Julius Lester is african american and he was disappointed in that as well. We both love the story: a child defeating tigers! Tigers turning into stripey butter is so magical as well. Julius Lester rewrote the story to take it back. It takes place in Sam-sam-sa-mara where everyone is named Sam. The child getting ready for school, both of his parents, and all the other people. What a lovely twist on calling people an insulting name, to take it and turn it around.

Secondly, the illustrations. Jerry Pinkney does lavish illustrations. The family of Sams go to the market and Sam picks out clothes for the first day of school: bright purple pants, a bright red shirt, electric green shoes. They buy from elaborately dressed vendors. A hippo, a giraffe, an ostrich in a flowered hat, others. Of course the tigers would want clothes as well! The drawings have wonderful details including faces in the bark of the trees. The tigers are fabulous as well, with or without purple pants.

Third, the language. When Sam meets each tiger on the way to school, each tiger demands a part of his outfit as passage and to keep from being eaten. And each tiger puts on the item of clothing and says, "Ain't I fine!" Yes, they are fine. And when Sam loses all his outer clothes and is sitting crying, the tigers run into each other. The tigers argue: "I am the finest tiger that is, that was and that will ever be!"

When I dress up, I still look in the mirror and laugh to myself. "Ain't I fine!"

For reQuest 2019: the reTurn