Through the Looking Glass Children's Book Reviews

Take a Picture of Me, James VanDerZee!

Take a Picture of Me, James VanDerZee!

Andrea J. Loney
Illustrator:  Keith Mallett 
Nonfiction Picture Book
For ages 6 to 8
Lee & Low Books, 2017   ISBN: 978-1620142608

James VanDerZee lived in a house in Lennox, Massachusetts with his four siblings, and all the children learned about art and music. James could play both the violin and the piano well, but his artistic endeavors gave him trouble. He so wanted to be able to draw people but found it hard to do. The people he drew just wouldn’t come out the way he wanted them to. Their beauty did not translate from his pencil to the paper in front of him.

One day a man came to take a picture of the VanDerZee family. He used a device called a camera to create the picture, and James was delighted when he saw the photograph when it was ready. A camera was what he needed.

Wanting to acquire one these wonderful inventions, James entered a magazine contest where the prize was a camera. All he had to do was to sell more sachets of women’s perfume than anyone else. James won, but his prize turned out to be a dud, so he started all over again. He worked in his neighbor’s garden so that he could afford to buy a camera of his own.

When he finally had five dollars, James bought his precious camera and he started taking pictures of everyone. He turned his closet into a darkroom so that he could develop the photos that he took, and he worked hard to make sure that the people and places that he photographed “look their best.”

When James was eighteen he moved away from his home in Lenox and went to Harlem.  What an exciting place Harlem was at that time! James did a variety of jobs before he finally got the one he wanted; he became an assistant photographer in a portrait studio that was based in New Jersey. Unfortunately, because James was African American, he was not allowed to take the portraits. He had to stay behind the scenes working in the dark room.

One day James’ boss went on vacation and James was left in charge of the shop. Finally he was going to have his chance to take photos, and he would take them the way that he wanted them taken too. He would find a way to present the sitters so that they always would “look their best.”

This was exactly what James did, and the people who sat for him loved the portraits he took of them. He was so successful that he was able to strike off on his own and he opened his own portrait studio in Harlem.

This wonderful picture book biography tells the story of a remarkable man who was able to touch the lives of countless people through the lens of his camera. His portraits were so beautiful and expressive that they ended up becoming a part of Harlem’s history.

At the back of the book readers will find further information about James VanDerZee and his work.