Review: Amazing Grace

Lavar Burton’s favorite picture book doesn’t disappoint.

Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman, illustrated by Caroline Binch.
Dial Books for Young Readers, Penguin Books USA, New York, 1991,  Reprinted Scholastic, New York, 1993.
Picture book realistic fiction, 24 pages.
Lexile: 680L
AR Level: 3.5 (worth 0.5 points)

Grace loves stories, whether they are read or watched or told to her.  More than anything, she loves to act out those stories.  When her class is producing Peter Pan, classmates say she can’t play Peter because she’s a black girl.  But Grace believes she can do anything.

Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman and Caroline Binch

This book is something of a classic.  It was featured on Reading Rainbow and became somewhat ubiquitous in school libraries in a short amount of time.  Lavar Burton has said that Amazing Grace is his favorite picture book, and it’s easy to see why.

This is a case of an experienced author and illustrator team who worked together to create something greater than the sum of their parts.  Much fuss has been made over author Mary Hoffman, and she’s certainly fabulous, but in my mind illustrator Caroline Binch is the real star of this picture book (after Grace, of course).  My favorite sequence is pages 3-11, where Grace is shown in a variety of outfits and hairstyles and backgrounds, culminating in playing “doctor” to her weary mother and grandmother.

When younger, my favorite pages were the Joan of Arc/Anasazi spread.  When you open those pages you are trying to figure out who she might be and suddenly it just comes to you dead on and the extra stockings and the look and the little rips in her tights are just so perfect.

Grace as Joan of Arc and Anansi on pages three and four of Amazing Grace.

As an adult I now have a different appreciation for this same sequence of quick changes.  The book opens with Grace listening to her grandmother with an adoring look on her face, Grace playing with her black and white baby dolls, then Grace being so many things. Grace might naturally fall out to be the star, but unlike Dara Palmer, she’s inviting others into her imaginary world and not pushing her way into the spotlight.

But highly impressive to me was not just the costume changes and the impressive (yet realistic things a kid might find around the house) props, but also her hair.  Binch does an incredible job illustrating the impressive variety of hairstyles that Grace’s mom and grandmother presumably do for her.  She has skinny braids that are down, she has thick braids wound around the back of her head, she has twists and she wears head wraps and hats and inventive things to transform into each character.  No wonder they are so tired they can only muster up the energy to be patients!

In her letter for the 25th anniversary edition, Binch states:

I paint realistic images from photographs I take, so the first step was to find people to play the parts.  My aim is always that the illustrations also tell the story by facial expressions and body language, alongside the text.  Because of this I felt it was important to find a real life Nana, Ma, and Daughter.

She did a stellar job, and I must admit I’m curious about the family that portrayed these now famous characters.  You can see more of the pictures from the book and work in progress at The Guardian’s Amazing Grace gallery.

When Nana takes Grace to the ballet, I’m curious if Misty Copeland was already dancing in 1991 or this is based on another star.  I loved that Grace was pointed toward a role model by her loving family, even if we already know the answer to this book’s central question.  After all, haven’t we already seen Grace be all manner of man and beast without regard to minor details like race or gender or species?

Nana takes Grace to see Rosalie Wilkins dance Juliet in Romeo and Juliet on page 18 of Amazing Grace.

One aspect of this book I haven’t seen mentioned much is that it is an all-women household.  It’s nice to see that even back in 1991 a diverse protagonist was shown with a strong nuclear family of herself, her mother, and her grandmother.

In short, this is highly recommended.  I recently learned there are several more picture books and a few early chapter books that feature Grace, and I am excited to read them.  I enjoy reading this book aloud too, although it can be a bit of a tricky one since some pages have only a sentence and others have a few paragraphs.  With a little practice on pacing, it is a great read-aloud and so beneficial for students.

We likely have a copy at home but I couldn’t find it, so I checked this book out from the library for my review.  Now that the 25th anniversary edition is here, I might have to buy a new copy.

May 27th, 2017 EDITED TO ADD:  It’s come to my attention that there are two pages which were removed from this book that were in previous editions and could be quite offensive or give children a stereotypical impression of Native Americans or Indians.  Read more at AICL, and consider my recommendation to be for the new edition.

Author: colorfulbookreviews

I work in a library by day and parent the rest of the time. I am passionate about good books representing the full spectrum of human diversity for every age group and reading level. This blog is my attempt to help parents, educators, and librarians find the best children's books authored by or featuring characters of color.

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