Amazing Grace (25th Anniversary Edition)
written by Mary Hoffman, illustrated by Caroline Binch, with Afterwords by Floella Benjamin and LeVar Burton
(Frances Lincoln, 2015)
Amazing Grace is the special story of one girl’s determination to reach for her dreams, no matter what anyone else might say to stop her. And amazingly, Grace has been inspiring children for twenty-five years, although just like Peter Pan, the character Grace so wishes to be in her school play, she hasn’t aged at all. In fact, young readers encountering her for the first time will totally relate to her as a contemporary. This 25th Anniversary edition of Amazing Grace has a new introduction from its creators Mary Hoffman and Caroline Binch, in which they describe the background to the book – including how the artwork was modelled by a ‘real life Nana, Ma and daughter.’ And at the end there are tributes from both sides of the Atlantic: UK author and former children’s TV presenter Floella Benjamin remembers how Amazing Grace came along ‘At last!’, a story that featured a black child who is nevertheless not defined by her race; and US actor and Reading Rainbow hero LeVar Burton explains why the book is one of his favourite children’s books ‘of all time’.
Grace loves stories, whether they are read to her or she makes them up herself. She ropes her friends and her Ma and Nana and even the cat into her re-enactments or she sometimes plays every part herself. The illustrations fill in all the details beautifully, showing the toys and everyday utensils that are adapted to make props – I especially love the stethoscope made from string and a wooden spoon. Readers turn the pages to see Grace taking on roles from across the classic stories: Joan of Arc, Anansi the Spider, a peg-leg pirate, and Dick Whittington (Joan apart, juicy female roles are sadly lacking). The double-page that shows Grace as Hiawatha and then as ‘Mowgli in the back garden jungle’ does, however, need to be held up as a reminder that breadth of experience through reading is important for young children: whilst Grace’s story highlights a can-do attitude and the notion that you can be whatever you want to be because of what you do not what you are, the stereotypes that have been passed down through some of these classic stories can only be broken by ensuring that children read contemporary stories set within the cultures they represent. There is still too much of a dislocation in the UK between dressing up in a feathered headdress with a painted face and awareness of how that sits within contemporary Native American culture.
[Update 5 October: It would appear that the US 25th Anniversary edition has removed the page about Hiawatha, as pointed out by Debbie Reese in the comments below. Here’s a link to her post – and to Roger Sutton’s post at The Horn Book about weeding library books, from where (in the comments) Debbie learnt about the change to Amazing Grace. Both posts have elicited interesting discussion.]
The core message of Amazing Grace touches everyone: in Nana’s words, ‘You can be anything you want, Grace, if you put your mind to it.’ But Grace is black and she faces both sexist and racist objections to her wish to play Peter Pan. It is noteworthy that these comments come from other children, whose matter-of-fact reasoning reflects astutely the insidious harm caused by the thoughtless handing down of social attitudes. Nana doesn’t just use words to get the message across to Grace: she takes her to the ballet where the prima ballerina is the granddaughter of a friend she grew up with in Trinidad. Ma laughs off the idea that a girl can’t play Peter Pan, but it clearly touches a nerve when she hears about the objections because Grace is black. Her anger doesn’t overcloud the narrative as she is immediately quelled by Nana: however, it subtly conveys that she too has endured racist abuse.
Whilst Amazing Grace offers a huge amount to think about, it is in essence a joyous children’s story that gets readers behind its young heroine, rooting for her to achieve her dream. That is what gives it its enduring quality and that is why children will continue to love this and all the other Grace stories.