Study Guide

Tar Beach

By Faith Ringgold

Tar Beach Introduction

It's a bird! It's a plane! It's…Cassie Louise Lightfoot, flying over the Hudson River like Superman!

If Superman were an eight-year-old girl in a pretty dress, that is.

Cassie doesn't have her own comic (yet), but she happens to be the star of Tar Beach, a stunning children's book illustrated with original paintings. The bright colors and the intricate patterns will pull you into Cassie's world. We hope you're not afraid of heights, cause Cassie's high on life.

No, seriously. She's very high up in the air.

Tar Beach is partly based on the real story of author Faith Ringgold, who grew up in Harlem and loved hanging out on the rooftop of her building just as much as Cassie does. As far as we know, Ringgold does not have the powers of flight. (No big shocker there.) But here's a secret—Cassie doesn't, either.

Sure, she spends her evenings flying all over New York City—but it's only in her imagination.

Ringgold is best known as a fine artist who makes story quilts. The quilts tell a story with words and pictures painted on the fabric. In fact, Tar Beach was based on one of those quilts. The original story was written around the borders of the quilt itself, though it's been changed only a little for the book. Bonus fun fact: the quilt's squares form the border of the book.

Published in 1991, Tar Beach was the first of many books, many of which explore similar themes of dreams, flight, and African-American history. It's also considered one of her best, having placed as a runner-up for the Caldecott Medal and won the Coretta Scott King Award. Trust us, this book is quality.

Sound good? We thought so. Now take a deep breath, close your eyes, and get ready for takeoff. Scratch that: open your eyes back up. You're going to need those for reading…and for taking in the gorgeous illustrations.

What is Tar Beach About and Why Should I Care?

We all know what we're supposed to do when life gives us lemons: make a sour face and ask for something else.

We're kidding. Everyone knows that you're supposed to make lemonade. The idea is that, with the right attitude, it's possible to turn something sour into something sweet.

That's all fine and good if you're the Barefoot Contessa. But what if you're more of a glass-half-empty sort of person? What if you're a (gulp) Gordon Ramsay?

Yeah, we're guessing Gordon would just yell at the lemons, and probably anyone else who happened to be near them.

A lot of books about suffering focus on all the, you know, suffering. (It's not just books for grown-ups, either. Remember the end of Old Yeller?) And yeah: that's important. It's really important to write (and read) about pain and suffering, even though it's not easy.

But it's equally important to depict struggle as something with the possibility of being super beautiful. That's where Tar Beach comes in. It doesn't sugarcoat the truth, which is that life can be hard sometimes. But it does show that it's possible to find beauty, happiness, and hope in life's dark and difficult moments.

Cassie's story is set during a tough time for the Lightfoot family. It's also set during a sad time in history. Luckily, the Great Depression and segregation are a thing of the past. But people still struggle to pay their bills, and racism still exists. Faith Ringgold's joyful art reminds us to look for happiness, even when it's hard. That's useful advice for adults and kids alike.

In other words: don't yell at the lemons, weirdo. Make the lemonade.

Tar Beach Resources


Faith Ringgold's Website
Read more about the author on her personal blog, which has info about all her most recent projects.

Fancy Art Stuff Part I
Learn more about the quilt on which Tar Beach is based on the Guggenheim Museum's website.

Fancy Art Stuff Part II
The author had an important exhibit at the Tate Museum, in London, in 2017. Read about it here.

Articles and Interviews

A Museum's Profile
Here's some info and pics from her long life.

Fancy Profile
Here's an article about the author in ArtNews.


The Author Talks About Quilts
Ringgold talks about quilts and their connection to women's art.

The Author Reads Tar Beach
Hey, it's Faith Ringgold reading the book for NPR.

The Author Shows Us the Quilt
Here's the author talking about the Tar Beach quilt.


NPR Interview
Here's Faith Ringgold on the radio.


Meet the Author
Here's what Faith Ringgold looked like in 2016.

Check Out the Cover
Stop us if you've seen this one before. It's the Tar Beach book cover.