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Julius Lester (January 27, 1939 – January 18, 2018) was an American writer of books for children and adults and an academic who taught for 32 years (1971–2003) at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He was also a photographer, as well as a musician who recorded two albums of folk music and original songs.
Early life and family
Born on January 27, 1939, in St. Louis, Missouri, Julius Lester was the son of Rev. W. D. Lester, a Methodist minister, and Julia (Smith) Lester. The family moved to Kansas City, Kansas, in 1941, and to Nashville, Tennessee, in 1952. In 1960 he received his BA from Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, with a major in English and minors in Art and Spanish.
In 1961 he moved to New York City where he married Joan Steinau. They had two children, Jody Simone (1965) and Malcolm Coltrane (1967). The couple divorced in 1970. As of July 2012, Malcolm Lester is head of Grace Episcopal Day School in Kensington, Maryland.
New York years
During his New York years, Lester hosted "Uncle Tom's Cabin", a radio show on WBAI-FM (1968–75); cohosted (with Jonathan Black) Free Time, a television show on WNET-NY (Channel 13), for two years; taught a course on Afro-American history at the New School for Social Research; and recorded two albums of traditional and original songs for Vanguard Records, Julius Lester (1966) and Departures (1967). A compilation of songs from both albums was released on a CD, Dressed Like Freedom, on Ace Records in 2007.
In 1971 he began teaching in the Afro-American Studies department of the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He remained in that department until 1988 when he was pushed out and then he became a member of the Judaic and Near Eastern Studies department, where he remained until his retirement at the end of 2003. During his 32 years at the university, Lester taught courses in five departments: Comparative Literature ("Black and White Southern Fiction"), English ("Religion in Western Literature"), Afro-American Studies ("The Writings of W. E. B. Du Bois"), ("Writings of James Baldwin"), ("Literature of the Harlem Renaissance"), ("Blacks and Jews: A Comparative Study"), and Judaic Studies ("Biblical Tales and Legends") and ("The Writings of Elie Wiesel"), History ("Social Change and the 1960s"), one of the university's largest and most popular courses.
Lester was awarded all three of the university's most prestigious faculty awards: the Distinguished Teacher's Award, the Faculty Fellowship Award for Distinguished Research and Scholarship, and the Chancellor's Medal, the university's highest honor. The Council for Advancement and Support of Education selected him as the Massachusetts State Professor of the Year 1986.
Since 1968 Lester has written 44 books: eight nonfiction, 31 children's books, one book of poetry and photographs (with David Gahr), and three adult novels. His very first book was an instructional book on how to play the 12-string guitar, co-authored with Pete Seeger. Among the awards his books have received are the Newbery Honor, Boston Globe–Horn Book Award, Coretta Scott King Award, National Book Award finalist, ALA Notable Book, National Jewish Book Award finalist, National Book Critics Circle Honor Book, and the New York Times Outstanding Book Award. His books have been translated into eight languages.
He has published more than 200 essays and book and film reviews for such publications as The New York Times Book Review, The New York Times Op-Ed page, The Boston Globe, Village Voice, The New Republic, Moment, Forward and Dissent.
His photographs have been included in an exhibit of images from the civil rights movement at the Smithsonian Institution. He has had solo shows at the University of Massachusetts Student Union Gallery, the Forbes Library, Northampton, Mass., Valley Photo Center, Springfield, Mass., and the Robert Floyd Photography Gallery, Southampton, Mass.
List of works
- The Folksinger's Guide to the 12-String Guitar as Played by Leadbelly, Lester and Pete Seeger (1965)
- Look Out, Whitey! Black Power Gon' Get Your Mama (1968)
- To Be a Slave (1968)
- Search for the New Land (1969)
- Revolutionary Notes (1969)
- Black Folktales (1969)
- The Seventh Son: The Thoughts and Writings of W. E. B. DuBois (1971)
- Two Love Stories (1972)
- Long Journey Home: Stories from Black History (1972)
- The Knee-High Man and Other Tales, illustrations by Ralph Pinto (1972)
- Who I Am, photographs by David Gahr (1974)
- All is Well (1976)
- This Strange New Feeling (1982)
- Do Lord Remember Me (1984)
- The Tales of Uncle Remus: The Adventures of Brer Rabbit, illus. Jerry Pinkney (1987)
- Lovesong: Becoming a Jew (1988)
- More Tales of Uncle Remus: Further Adventures of Brer Rabbit, His Friends, Enemies, and Others, illus. Jerry Pinkney (1988)
- How Many Spots Does a Leopard Have and other Tales, illus. David Shannon (1989)
- Further Tales of Uncle Remus: The Misadventures of Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, Brer Wolf, the Doodang, and Other Creatures, illus. Jerry Pinkney (1990)
- Falling Pieces of the Broken Sky (1990)
- The Last Tales of Uncle Remus, illus. Jerry Pinkney (1994)
- The Man Who Knew Too Much, illus. Leonard Jenkins (1994)
- And All Our Wounds Forgiven (1994)
- John Henry, illus. Jerry Pinkney (1994)
- Othello: A Novel (1995)
- Sam and the Tigers, illus. Jerry Pinkney (1996)
- From Slaveship to Freedom Road, paintings by Rod Brown (1998)
- Black Cowboy, Wild Horses: A True Story, illus. Jerry Pinkney (1998)
- What a Truly Cool World, illus. Joe Cepeda (1999)
- When the Beginning Began, illus. Emily Lisker (1999)
- Albidaro and the Mischievous Dream, illus. Jerry Pinkney (2000)
- Pharaoh's Daughter: A Novel (2000)
- The Blues Singers: Ten Who Rocker the World, illus. Lisa Cohen (2001)
- When Dad Killed Mom (2001)
- Ackamarackus: Julius Lester's Sumptuously Silly Fantastically Funny Fables, illus. Emilie Chollat (2001)
- Why Heaven is Far Away, illus. Joe Cependa (2002)
- Shining, illus. John Clapp (2003)
- The Autobiography of God (2004)
- Let's Talk About Race, illus. Karen Barbour (2005)
- On Writing for Children and Other People (2005)
- Day of Tears: A Novel in Dialogue (2005)
- The Old African, illus. Jerry Pinkney (2005)
- Time's Memory (2006)
- Cupid: A Novel (2007)
- Guardian (2008)
- The Hungry Ghosts (2009)
- The Girl Who Saved Yesterday' (2016)
- Newbery Honor, 1969, and Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, 1971, both for To Be a Slave
- Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, 1972, and National Book Award finalist, 1973, both for The Long Journey Home: Stories from Black History
- Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, 1973, for The Knee-high Man and Other Tales
- Coretta Scott King honor, 1983, for This Strange New Feeling, and 1988, for Tales of Uncle Remus: The Adventures of Brer Rabbit
- Parents' Choice Story Book award, 1987, for The Tales of Uncle Remus, and 1990, for Further Tales of Uncle Remus
- Reading Magic Award, 1988, for More Tales of Uncle Remus
- Boston Globe–Horn Book Award, American Library Association Notable Book, and Caldecott Honor, all 1995, all for John Henry
- ALA Notable Book, 1996, for Sam and the Tigers: A New Telling of Little Black Sambo, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney – runner-up for the 2016 Phoenix Picture Book Award
- Coretta Scott King Award, 2006, for his novel Day of Tears: A Novel in Dialogue
- Distinguished Teacher's Award, 1983–84
- Faculty Fellowship Award for Distinguished Research and Scholarship, 1985
- National Professor of the Year Silver Medal Award, Council for Advancement and Support of Education, 1985
- Massachusetts State Professor of the Year and Gold Medal Award for National Professor of the Year, Council for Advancement and Support of Education, both 1986
- Distinguished Faculty Lecturer, 1986–87.
- "Search results for 'Julius Lester'". WorldCat (worldcat.org). Retrieved 2010-03-30.
- Julius Lester at Profotos.com.
- "Biography: Julius Lester". Scholastic Teachers (scholastic.com/teachers). Retrieved 2010-03-30.
- "Discover Author Julius Lester". HarperCollins.com. Retrieved 2010-03-30.
- "Julius Lester: There's 'no magic formula' for blacks and Jews". J (jweekly.com). February 16, 1996. San Francisco Jewish Community Publications Inc. Retrieved 2015-09-11.
- Brad Pilcher. "Not the Face in the Mirror: An Interview with Julius Lester". American Jewish Life (ajlmagazine.com), January/February 2007. Retrieved 2015-09-11.
- "Julius Lester, professor emeritus". Judaic and Near Eastern Studies. University of Massachusetts Amherst (umass.edu/judaic). Archived from the original on 2014-12-02. Retrieved 2013-07-29.
- "My Books". Julius Lester. Authors Guild (authorsguild.net). Retrieved 2015-09-11.
- "Julius Lester". www.facebook.com. Retrieved 2018-01-18.
- "Julius Lester, professor who embraced his Jewish and African-American identities, is dead". Retrieved 2018-01-18.
- The Girl Who Saved Yesterday page at Creston Books.
- "Phoenix Picture Book Award". Children's Literature Association (childlitassn.org). June 2015. Retrieved 2015-09-11.
- "Coretta Scott King Author Awards". The African American Literature Book Club (aalbc.com). Retrieved 2010-03-30.
- Other sources
- "Julius Lester". Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Volume 51. Gale Group, 2003.
- Lester, Julius. Lovesong: Becoming a Jew, 1988.
- Oppenheimer, Joel. "The Soul that Wanders". The New York Times. January 31, 1988. Retrieved 2015-09-11.
- Official website
- SNCC Digital Gateway: Julius Lester, Documentary website created by the SNCC Legacy Project and Duke University, telling the story of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee & grassroots organizing from the inside-out
- Manuscript Finding Aids at Jones Library (Amherst, MA)
- Julius Lester at the Internet Speculative Fiction Database
- Julius Lester at Library of Congress Authorities, with 68 catalog records
- Julius Lester at Profotos.com