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Sugar Hill: Harlem’s Historic Neighborhood

Sugar Hill: Harlem’s Historic Neighborhood
Written by Carole Boston Weatherford and Illustrated by R. Gregory Christie
Published in 2014 by Albert Whitman & Company
Grades 2-8
ISBN: 978-0-8075-7650-2
Book Review
“Sugar Hill, Sugar Hill where life is sweet and the neighbors smile at all they greet. Where doctors and lawyers live next door to the owners of the corner store.” A rhythmic, rhyming read-aloud, Sugar Hill takes you on a stroll through one of New York City’s most historic neighborhoods. A master at precise language, Carole Boston Weatherford, invites readers to learn about a neighborhood rich in history. Home to African American artists, performers, lawyers, authors, and activists at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, Sugar Hill continues to be a neighborhood of inspiration rich in diversity and cultural heritage. R. Gregory Christie’s illustrations boldly depict the people and streetscapes that have made Sugar Hill a significant landmark in New York’s history and will inspire students to notice details about life in New York nearly one hundred years ago. The author’s note includes further details about Sugar Hill and includes a Who’s Who of brief biographies of figures referenced throughout the book, including jazz greats Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Sonny Rollins, and Miles Davis; artists Aaron Douglas and Faith Ringgold; entertainers Lena Horne and the Nicholas Brothers; writer Zora Neale Hurston; civil rights leader W. E. B. DuBois; and lawyer Thurgood Marshall. This book would be a welcome addition to a unit on biographies to introduce students to important figures in America’s cultural history or as part of a thematic study of neighborhoods, examining what and how neighborhoods change over time.
Teaching Ideas / Invitations for Your Classroom:
Grades 2-8
Neighborhood Study: Sugar Hill. Following a read-aloud of the book, catalogue with students the elements that Weatherford describes as the heart of Sugar Hill during the 1920s. Who are the people that made their mark there? What were the activities people engaged in? In what ways is Sugar Hill described through pictures and words as prideful? In what ways does the description of Sugar Hill support their understandings of Harlem and New York City, and in what ways does it offer a new foundation of knowledge for you and your students? Using a map of New York City, support students to notice the perimeter of Sugar Hill within Manhattan. Using resources suggested in Further Explorations, compare and contrast Sugar Hill in the 1920s to Sugar Hill today. What has changed? What has remained the same?
Your Neighborhood: People, Places, Culture. Take a walking tour of your school’s neighborhood with digital cameras, clipboards, and pencils in hand to document hallmarks of your local streets. Encourage students to notice the landscape, people, and cultural markers. Encourage them to notice something new about their own neighborhood that they had never noticed before. Create a class book that describes your own school’s neighborhood using Carole Boston Weatherford’s book as a mentor text for language, artistry, and layout.
Duet Model: Harlem. Using a duet model, compare and contrast Sugar Hill with Walter Dean Myers Caldecott Honor Book, Harlem. Support students to notice the songlike poetry of each text as well as the similarities in illustration style. Also support students to notice how Walter Dean Myers adds new layers of understanding to better understand Harlem including the pain of discrimination and racism depicted through the illustrations and words. Like, Sugar Hill, the topic may be out of context for many young students and teacher support will be needed to support students to understand frequent cultural references. Finally, support students to consider the ways in which both books depict pride and determination as defining characteristics of the neighborhoods they describe.
Black Entertainment History in America. Sugar Hill features many notable entertainers from the Harlem Renaissance. Use the websites listed below in Further Explorations, as well as reference materials from your local library to identify other notable Black entertainers in American history. What is similar and different about their rise to fame? What is different? How have those achievements developed over time, and in what sociopolitical context were those achievements made? Invite students to select other Black entertainment pioneers to study, and have them put together a multimedia presentation gathered of what they learned.
Book Design and Illustration Study. From the front cover, readers may find themselves drawn to Sugar Hill based on the large, bold, bright font of the title as well as the close-up of a woman winking and wearing a decorative hat. Upon close investigation, readers can begin to theorize themes of the book—that Sugar Hill is worth zooming in on, noticing, and admiring, and that the neighborhood in the 1920s was playing with ideas, metaphorically winking at the world. Throughout the text, the lead words of every page are capitalized, bold, and bright, suggesting significance. The illustrations are equally playful, conveying a lighthearted feel to the neighborhood at a time of great ideas and great actions. Support students to notice the choices the author, illustrator, and publisher made to draw readers in, to evoke feelings, and to inspire wonder. As students craft their own picture books, use Sugar Hill as a mentor text for playing with font size, color, and illustration for effect.
Illustrator Study. R. Gregory Christie is an illustrator with a rich collection of works and honors including being a three-time recipient of the Coretta Scott King Honor Award in Illustration for The Palm of My Heart: Poetry by African American Children (1996), Brothers in Hope: The Story of the Lost Boys of Sudan (2006), and Only Passing Through: The Story of Sojourner Truth (2001). His titles have also been included in the New York Times’ Year’s Best Illustrated Children’s Books. His own interests in jazz music, often influence his books and he has illustrated numerous jazz album covers. Research with students the depth and variety of Christie’s work in a focused illustrator study. Support students in small groups to compare Sugar Hill to another one of his titles or pieces noting characteristics of his style. Support upper elementary and middle school students to analyze the visual codes and conventions that convey meaning. Create a chart to support students’ thinking around visual codes including color, texture, line, shape, and form and conventions such as balance, layout, and verticality.
Lyrical Language: The World of Poetic Nonfiction. The language choices Weatherford makes create an engaging, poetic text meant to be read aloud again and again. Support students to notice rhyming patterns as well as structural choices such as the length of phrases and sentences as well as purposeful line breaks. Consider typing the text of the book in the form of a traditional poem. Support students to notice how the book is similar to and different from other kinds of poems. What effect does the picture book format have on our interpretation of the text? In what ways does transferring the print into a more traditional poetry format have on the meaning students make? What do students notice about the language choices Weatherford made that they didn’t notice before in the picture book format? What structural and sound choices did Weatherford make to create a poetic effect that they can incorporate into their own poetry writing?  Create a text set of poetic nonfiction texts to explore how other writers use poetry to provide readers with knowledge of people, places, and topics such as Love to Langston by Tony Medina, and Dave,the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave by Laban Carrick Hill.
Critical Literacy
Grades 6-8
Authenticity in Multicultural Children’s Picture Books. Both the author and the illustrator of Sugar Hill are African American and have individually written and illustrated many books that feature African American history. In what ways do you think their race and cultural backgrounds supported the writing of this book? Does race and cultural background matter in the authorship of books that feature people of color? In what ways would the book have less “authenticity” if it had been written and/or illustrated by people with a different cultural background?
Black Elite. The first page of the book reads “Sugar Hill, Sugar Hill where life is sweet/ And the “A” train stops for the black elite.” How do students think the phrase “black elite” should be interpreted? In what ways could this phrase be interpreted differently by different people depending on their race and experience with the neighborhood of Sugar Hill?
Further Explorations
Online Resources
Author’s Site
Illustrator’s Site
History of Sugar Hill
Sugar Hill, Then and Now
409 Edgecombe Avenue, An Address of Influence in Sugar Hill
Broadway’s Housing Communities Site on Sugar Hill Development
The Sugar Hill Children’s Museum of Art and Storytelling
Faith Ringgold and the Sugar Hill Museum
New York Times article on Duke Ellington’s Take the A Train
Black Entertainment History in America Timeline
Famous Entertainment Firsts in Black History – photo gallery
Black History Firsts in Arts & Entertainment
Books
Adler, D. (1999). A picture book of Thurgood Marshall. Holiday House.
Fradin, D.B. (2012). Zora: The life of Zora Neale Hurston. Clarion Books.
Greenfield, E. (2009). Paul Robeson. New York, NY: Lee and Low Books.
Myers, W.D. (1997). Harlem. New York, NY: Scholastic.
Myers, W.D. (2008). Jazz. New York, NY: Scholastic.
Pinkney, A.D. (2006). Duke Ellington: The piano prince and his orchestra. Hyperion Books.
Powell, P.H. (2014). Josephine: The dazzling life of Josephine Baker. Chronicle Books.
Watson, R. (2012). Harlem’s little blackbird. New York, NY: Holiday House.
Katie Cunningham About Katie Cunningham

Katie is an associate professor of literacy at Manhattanville College. Her work focuses on children’s literature, literacy methods, and literacy leadership. Katie is the author of Story: Still the Heart of Literacy Learning and co-author of Literacy Leadership in Changing Schools. She is passionate about the power of stories to transform lives.