Knoxville, Tennessee

by Nikki Giovanni; ill. by Larry Johnson

Scholastic, 1994

38 pages

Just a few weeks ago, I watched Thomas Balmes’s documentary Babies with my husband and daughter. The film follows four babies “from first breath to first steps,” offering a mostly unadorned view into their daily lives.

The babies are from very different parts of the world: Ponijao is from the Namibian countryside, Bayar lives on the steppes of Mongolia, Mari is from Tokyo, and Hattie hails from San Francisco.

My daughter is fascinated by all things baby, so I expected her to enjoy the film, which she did (really, really did). What I didn’t expect was her thoughtful reaction to it.

In particular, she seemed keenly aware of the fact that Ponijao was quite happy without any of our everyday conveniences and luxuries—plumbing, electricity, furniture, even (oh, horrors!) television and toys.

Even more, the film seemed to affect her attitude toward such luxuries. Since watching it, she has been more careful with and appreciative of her toys, and I’ve seen a definite uptick in her ability (or maybe just her willingness) to enjoy everyday tasks and entertain herself.

Clearly, this film inspired her–and, like a true type-A mom, I’m now on the hunt for books to reinforce this new appreciation for simplicity.

This is where Knoxville, Tennessee comes into the picture.

Written by famed poet Nikki Giovanni, the book is a celebration of her own childhood experiences in and around the title city, where she was born.

The book’s text is barely a dozen lines, just a young girl’s recitation of what she loves about spending summers in Knoxville.  She mentions food from her grandparents’ garden, walking barefoot through grass, and climbing into a warm bed at night, among other simple pleasures.

The text (not surprisingly) is lilting and evocative, and Larry Johnson’s full-page paintings are the perfect accompaniment.  I wouldn’t have thought it was possible to make oils look like watercolors, but Johnson has done it.  The result is a series of moving, vibrant paintings overlaid with an ethereal, dreamlike atmosphere.

I can feel the shimmery, sticky Tennessee heat; hear the church choir’s voices waving out to the picnickers; feel the coolness of each blade of grass on the soles of my feet.

In an age of constant advertising, social media, and licensed merchandise (even food!), this book reorients kids toward the pastimes children have enjoyed since time immemorial.  Good food, the outdoors, and the love of family.

I think it’s the perfect book to generate the kind of inspiration my daughter found in Babies: a new appreciation for the joys to be found in simple pleasures.

And I’m glad it’s a read-with-me book.  Because I certainly need that inspiration, too.

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