Yesterday I knew the title of my post sounded vaguely familiar, and the words ‘The Color of Water’ had a nobler use than the one I was putting them to, but I just couldn’t put my finger on it … then in the middle of the night, I knew all at once — and I rushed to my shelves this morning and found:
Lenore’s Rules for Reading like an Author
1. When you’re an author, you’re always reading.
2. You should read something every day.
3. You should read only good writing.
4. If you read bad writing, your own writing will be bad.
5. Everything you read affects your writing.
6. Actually, everything you do affects your writing too.
7. So don’t hit your sister.
8. Eat your spinach.
9. Listen to your mother.
10. Turn off the TV.
11. Don’t read in the dark.
12. But if you do, use a flashlight.
13. And a magnifiying glass too, if you’ve already ruined your eyes.
Now a little something about THE COLOR OF WATER by James McBride . . .
It’s a grown-up book. I rarely read grown-up books (see rule #5 above). Usually reading a grown-up book puts me in a bad place to write a children’s book. I don’t know all the reasons why, but I think it has something to do with the fact that books change you. Grown-up books make me more . . . well, more grown-up. And children’s books … they make me see want to skip rope, build a rocket to the moon, call my best friend and talk to her for hours, then digaditchfillitwithwaterandrollinit, then run full-speed ahead with my eyes closed screaming at the top of my lungs. Yes!!!!!!! I LOVE children’s books.
So when it comes to grown-up books I have to be very extremely picky, or else! One super-duper dark and serious grown-up book could set me back for days, even weeks. I could stop writing altogether because everything that I write sounds like I’m crying, or lost, or both! Because I am!
Anyway, about THE COLOR OF WATER. It’s a grown-up book, but it’s not too grown-up. James McBride writes about his childhood and growing up in Harlem. He was one of twelve children. All of them were black and their mother was a white, Jewish woman. Everywhere she went in the 1950s and 60s, with her gaggle of children in tow, people stared and made snide remarks. James says he was often embarrassed and scared, but his mother kept walking.
When James asked why she was different from her children, she would say only, “I’m light-skinned.” When he asked if he was black or white, she said, “You’re a human being.” And when James asked what color God was, she said, “God is the color of water.”
All of her children graduated from college and became successful.
When James grew up, he spent fourteen years interviewing his mother. He tells her story by using the answers she gave him in the interviews, and in between, you get his story too.
I think that it would make a great read-a-loud for grades five and up. The story is rich, honest and plainly told. But a word of warning to those reading aloud — it will catch your breath, and it will make you cry. Just so you know.
Ruth McBride Jordan died in 2010. You can read her obituary from the New York Times here.