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The Harlem Charade

The Harlem Charade

The Harlem Charade

Written by Natasha Tarpley

Published by Scholastic, 2017

ISBN #978-0-545-78387-3


Grades 3 and up


Book Review


Art, adventure, and activism are at the center of The Harlem Charade, Natasha Tarpley’s novel about three very different seventh graders who unite to solve a series of mysteries in their own backyard of Harlem, New York City. Jin, a Korean American girl, spends her days helping her grandparents run their bodega and quietly observing the world around her. Alex, an African American girl, prefers to work alone as she tries to make amends for what she perceives as her wealthy family’s disregard for the “invisible people.” Elvin, an African American boy, is a recent transplant from California who finds himself suddenly homeless and on the run when his grandfather is mysteriously attacked and hospitalized. Elvin suspects the assault on his grandfather was related to the discovery of a long lost painting by a famous Harlem artist in a nearby garden. But what does that painting have to do with Elvin’s grandfather? And if the two events are indeed connected, is Elvin in danger as well? Weaving local politics and history into the puzzle, Tarpley tells the story of Harlem’s days as a cultural mecca of the past and as a vibrant community of the present that is being threatened yet again. A cast of helpful secondary characters aids the young trio, and an author’s note and information about the locations and events in the story are included. All together, The Harlem Charade is an entertaining and thoughtful reflection about how art, community, and social justice can merge in powerful ways.


Teaching Ideas and Invitations

Observing and Collecting – A Writer’s Notebook. Throughout the story, Jin pauses to “collect” observations and ideas in her notebook. She sits in her grandparents’ bodega and takes notes on the various customers who enter the store. She writes down bits of information and clues that could possibly turn into leads to solve a mystery. Set aside time each day for students to simply observe what is going on around them. You might bring them to a place that is well populated to give them lots of opportunities to do this: the school cafeteria, the recess yard, a nearby parking lot, a field or park, etc. Encourage them to also carry their notebooks and a pen around with them throughout the day, so they can jot down observations and bits of information that catch their attention. Then, have them periodically review their notebook entries for ideas they might want to expand into a piece of writing. If you already use writer’s notebooks with your students, have them discuss ways that Jin’s notebook resembles theirs. If you and your students are new to the notion of a writer’s notebook, you might want to read Ralph Fletcher’s A Writer’s Notebook or Jack Gantos’s Writing Radar with them.

The Art of Harlem. From music to literature to the visual and performing arts, the New York City neighborhood of Harlem has a rich legacy in the art world. With the help of a school or local librarian, have students research the artistic history and community of Harlem, perhaps beginning with the Harlem Renaissance as an introduction. Students may want to divide into small groups that research a particular form of art (e. g., dance or poetry). Have students present their findings in multimedia presentations, encouraging them to do so in the artistic mode(s) and media they studied. One resource to share to begin this inquiry includes the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and other resources are listed below in Further Explorations.

Neighborhood Social Justice, Community Service, and Activism. There are many forms of community service and activism described in The Harlem Charade, from Alex’s everyday acts of kindness to Ameenah Hardwick’s and Verta Mae Sneed’s organized protest of the Harlem World project to the establishment of the Invisible Seven. One might even argue that Councilman Markum’s efforts to build Harlem World is a form of community service. All are efforts to make a positive change at the local level. Have students identify all the examples of service and activism in the book, analyzing the goals, underlying philosophies, and values of each. How effective is each effort? What are the pros and cons of pursuing such lines of service and activism? After examining these examples, encourage students to identify ways they can participate in social justice, community service, and activism in their neighborhoods, towns, and counties, and explore ways they can actually pursue them.

Local Artists and Art Galleries. As Tarpley noted, a number of art galleries opened in Harlem to celebrate the community’s artists in ways they felt were more authentic. If your school is near enough to New York City, take students on a tour of the galleries. You can also visit a number of them virtually (see websites listed below in Further Explorations, as well as the Harlem One Stop website for a list of museums). What do the galleries have in common? What are their expressed missions? Who supports and funds them? Whose art is displayed there? How do these galleries compare in terms of size, scope, mission, and artistic reputation with “larger” and more well known museums, such as the Met or the Smithsonian? If you and your students are not near NYC, use this also as an opportunity to look at the ways that local artists are showcased where you live. Where are the museum and galleries in your town or county?

Art Mystery Text Set. The art mystery is an entertaining genre of children’s literature. Gather together a collection of books that center the visual arts in a mystery or puzzle, such as From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E. L. Konigsburg; Chasing Vermeer, by Blue Balliett; and The Gallery, by Laura Marx Fitzgerald. Compare which works and periods of art are central to the mysteries. How is the artwork the key to solving the puzzle? What artistic or visual literacy skills do the protagonists need to decipher clues? How does each author weave the history and context behind each work of art into the story? Students can work in small groups to analyze these stories and then share their discoveries with the whole class. If they are truly engaged and inspired, challenge students to write their own art mysteries.

Natasha Tarpley Author Study. Gather a collection of Natasha Tarpley’s work and biographical information, using some of the resources listed below in Further Explorations. As a class, read through the books she wrote, noting similarities and differences across the books’ formats, styles, and subject matter. Pay special attention to her use of language and patterns in setting, theme, character, and plot across the books. Based on students’ inquiries, observations, and analyses, compile a list of lessons about writing gained from this study and invite your students to try out some of the techniques you have discussed in their own work. See the websites and titles listed below as a starting point for gathering information.


Critical Literacy


The Harlem on My Mind Controversy. Building upon the information in the novel and Natasha Tarpley’s author’s note, have students conduct further research into the 1969 Harlem on My Mind exhibit. Thanks to the benefits of modern technology, your students can take a virtual tour of the exhibit via the Smithsonian Archives of American Art. Read the statement by the exhibit’s originator and curator, Allon Schoener; the statement by Thomas Hoving, Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art at the time of the exhibit; and this 2015 New York Times article by art critic Holland Cotter, who visited the exhibit as a young student. What were the issues at the heart of the controversy? Whose voices played a part in the exhibit? Whose voices were intended to be there? Whose voices weren’t? You might also share the picture book biography, Take a Picture of Me, James Van Der Zee!, about the man whose photographs were used for the exhibit. Have students debate their own thoughts about the exhibit, making sure to use evidence from the exhibit and the texts they read to support their claims.


Further Explorations

Online Resources


Natasha Tarpley’s website


Natasha Tarpley interviews


The Library of Congress Harlem Renaissance Web Guide


PBS Learning Media – What was the Harlem Renaissance? – Harlem Renaissance


Smithsonian American Art Museum – African American Art: Harlem Renaissance


Harlem on My Mind Exhibition Records


More information about Harlem on My Mind


Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture


Harlem One Stop – List of Museums


Studio Museum in Harlem


Contemporary African Art Gallery


Essie Green Galleries


The Gadson Gallery


Harlem Needle Arts Gallery


Black Entertainment History in America Timeline


Famous Entertainment Firsts in Black History – photo gallery,0,2995745.photogallery



Balliett, B. (2004). Chasing Vermeer. Ill. by B. Helquist. New York: Scholastic.

Fitzgerald, L. M. (2016). The gallery. New York: Dial. See our Classroom Bookshelf entry here.

Fletcher, R. (2003). A writer’s notebook: Unlocking the writer within you. New York: HarperCollins.

Gantos, J. (2017). Writing radar: Using your journal to snoop out and craft great stories. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Konigsburg, E. L. (2007/1970). From the mixed-up files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. New York: Atheneum.

Loney, A. J. (2016). Take a picture of me, James Van Der Zee! Ill. by K. Mallet. New York: Lee and Low.

Myers, W. D. (2008). Here in Harlem: Poems in many voices. Holiday House.

Orgill, R. (2016). Jazz day: The making of a famous photograph. Ill. by Francis Vallejo. Somerville, MA: Candlewick. See our Classroom Bookshelf entry here.

Powell, P. H. (2014). Josephine: The dazzling life of Josephine Baker. Ill. by C. Robinson. Chronicle Books. See our Classroom Bookshelf entry here.

Weatherford, C. B. (2014). Sugar Hill: Harlem’s historic neighborhood. Ill. by R. G. Christie. Whitman & Company. See our Classroom Bookshelf entry here.

Grace Enriquez About Grace Enriquez

Grace is an associate professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former English Language Arts teacher, reading specialist, and literacy consultant, she teaches and writes about children’s literature, critical literacies, and literacies and embodiment. Grace is co-author of The Reading Turn-Around and co-editor of Literacies, Learning, and the Body.