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Langston's Train Ride Booktalk

Editor Ken Geist talks about the poetry and inspiration behind Robert Burleigh's historical fiction picture book, Langston's Train Ride.

  • Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5

Clackety clack clack clack...

Can you hear the rhythm of the train?

Langston Hughes did.

When Robert Burleigh wrote his historical fiction picture book Langston's Train Ride, he wanted to capture just one thing: the magical moment when Langston Hughes rose to accomplish his dream and came to believe in himself as a writer.

In Langston's Train Ride, Robert Burleigh, the author of acclaimed books for children such as Edna and It's Funny Where Ben's Train Takes Him, employs an unusual method of telling Langston's story by imagining the birth of Langston Hughes's first famous poem The Negro Speaks of Rivers, which Hughes wrote on a train ride to Mexico in 1920. With first-person prose that bumps and sways in time to a rhythm of trains and memory, Burleigh evokes the time in Langston's life when he was not certain he could be a poet, when he wondered, "Can I sing my America, too, as other great poets have sung theirs? Can I?"

Langston's Train Ride explores the flight of Hughes's imagination that inspired The Negro Speaks of Rivers, which first appeared in Crisis, a magazine edited by W.E.B. Du Bois. On his way to visit his father in Mexico, Langston listened to the pounding tempo of the rails and watched the blurring of the landscape outside his window. As a dying sun glinted off the surface of the Mississippi River, Langston had his breakthrough; he began to think about all of the history that the rivers and his people shared, about the Black slaves who worked along the Mississippi and about the slaves who were sent down the river to be worked to death at the cruelest plantations, and he thought of the African rivers — the Congo, the Nile,  the cradles of his people. This grandson of the first Black American to be elected to public office and child of abolitionists wondered, "Maybe we're all part of a big river that flows from way back to here. And from here to who knows where?" The history, the waters, they mixed and slid about in Langston's imagination, and the first three words of this immortal poem, "I've known rivers" were scratched onto the back of an envelope with a dull, stubby pencil.

But Langston's Train Ride is not only a historic retelling. It is also a beacon for other young people with a dream. The poetry of Langston Hughes reaches across generations, cultures and languages. He found poetry in ordinary places and ordinary people, but before Hughes could soar to the heights of success that he reached, he, as any writer, had to find the confidence in himself to do it. He had to find his voice.

As Robert Burleigh's tactile, poetic prose gives breath to Langston Hughes's dreams and aspirations, the fresh, hip and striking art by Leonard Jenkins, a New York-based artist who has illustrated several books for children, including Malcolm X and If I Only Had a Horn: Young Louis Armstrong, grounds the setting in the noise of the train and the grittiness of New York City and it brings the man and his time to life, helping to tell his story. Perfect for classroom poetry unit use, and an inspiration for the dreamer in all of us, here is a book for any young person with a dream.

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  • Subjects:
    Achievement and Success, City Life, Determination and Perseverance, African American
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