You can feel the happiness in Cassie's words and see it in the colors on every page.
Just beneath the surface, though, there are hints of trouble. Daddy's having a hard time at work, and he left the family—maybe for good. Mommy's been crying a lot. Cassie's old enough to sense when things are wrong.
But at the same time, she's hopeful about the future. She knows she can do anything and go anywhere. She knows how to fly.
Tar Beach is a children's picture book that's based on a fine artwork. Right off the bat, that gives us a clue that this story will combine different things in interesting ways.
The author uses elements of her own childhood in Harlem and combines them with fiction. How do we know it's not pure autobiography? One hint is that the narrator's name is "Cassie," not Faith. (Take that, Sherlock!)
Finally, the story uses fantasy to help us understand Cassie's inner life. It's not pure fantasy because we're not supposed to believe that Cassie's literally flying around New York City. We know that she's using her imagination.
We hope that by now this is clear, but we'll say it one more time: Tar Beach is the rooftop of Cassie's apartment building. She and the Lightfoot fam—Mommy, Daddy, and Be Be—like to hang there at night with the neighbors. Sounds like fun, right?
Need a refresher on the meaning behind Tar Beach? We got you. Click on over to our Symbols section.
Tar Beach deals with some tough themes—racism, parental abandonment, financial hardship—so it's important that the story ends on a positive note: Cassie and her brother flying "among the stars." (24)
That sounds hopeful, right? Right. Still, there are a lot of big questions left unanswered. Does Daddy ever come home to the Lightfoots? Does the union ever let him join? We just don't know.
Cassie divides her time between the New York nighttime sky and her apartment down below. Since she's so close to the George Washington Bridge, we can make an educated guess that her family lives in Harlem.
(That part of town is known for its African-American heritage, by the way. Ever heard of the Harlem Renaissance? If not, check out this guide ASAP.)
We also know that the story mostly takes place during the late 1930s. (Cassie's eight years old, and she was born in 1931.) This means that the story takes place smack dab in the middle of the Great Depression. (Check out this guide for more on that.)
It was a depressing time—being a Depression and all—but Cassie tends to focus on the bright side.
So, here's the thing: the reading level in terms of words and vocabulary isn't hard. But kids are probably going to need adult help to understand what's really going on. This is a subtle story about mature subjects, including the Great Depression, the history of racism, and parental abandonment. It's heavy stuff, and a lot of info is conveyed indirectly.
That said, Tar Beach can absolutely be enjoyed without understanding it on those deeper levels. For kids who aren't quite ready to learn about the American economy, Cassie can just be a girl who likes to fly—the story still works. This is the kind of book that has something to offer readers of all ages.
Tar Beach's illustrations they draw on folk traditions like quilting, and use a colorful, flat style that's often associated with folk art. When Cassie flies over the city, for instance, she doesn't look super-realistic. Also worth noting? Her power of flight has a folk tale quality about it. (See the Symbols section for more details.)
Another important stylistic quality is the way in which the words and the art are both vivid and dreamy at the same time. The verb tense shifts over the course of the story so it's hard to place each moment in time. The plot follows a sort of dream logic as it weaves in and out of real-life events and Cassie's imagination. There are lots of vivid details to appeal to our senses, especially in the bright colors and all those tables full of yummy-looking food.
Tar Beach. Is that in Florida? South Carolina? Mexico, or maybe the Caribbean?
Nope. Quick geography lesson: Tar Beach isn't anywhere near the open ocean. It's a rooftop of an apartment building in New York City. But this particular rooftop is like a beach in that it's a place where our girl Cassie Louise chills with her family in the summer. It's where they go to relax and escape from their everyday troubles for a spell.
Escaping up to the roof reminds us a lot of how Cassie escapes into her imagination after her dad leaves. It's quick, easy, and free—not too shabby.
Let's take a closer look at the words themselves, because they're a little surprising together. "Tar" isn't exactly a word that we associate with the great outdoors or natural beauty, right? Thick, sticky tar isn't something you look forward to seeing when you're on a vacation, especially at the beach.
But in Cassie's mind, Tar Beach is like an amazing resort. It speaks to the power of her imagination, and also the ability to make the best out of a difficult situation. Optimism was an important skill during the Great Depression, when the book was set. Turning humble materials into something fantastic was probably an important skill for Cassie's family, who probably didn't have a lot of money. Finally, a real beach might have been hard to find for Cassie's family, since many beaches back then were segregated.
Faith Ringgold did a lot of sewing to bring this story to life—and we're not talking metaphorically.
The quilted squares that border the pages represent an actual quilt—a work of art made by the author that lives in the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. (Before Tar Beach was ever a book, it was a fine-art quilt.) More generally, quilts are a symbol of family and tradition.
Are quilts important to Cassie's family in particular? Hard to say, but the spread on Mommy's bed looks like a quilt to us. We can make a guess that quilts remind Cassie of her parents, and her family's heritage.
Those colorful fabric squares of the quilt that surround the page give the book a warm, cozy feeling, which is interesting to compare and contrast with the story itself. On one hand, Cassie's memories and daydreams seem to represent all the warmth and color and happiness of a quilt. But pulling against that is the darkness she hints at, what with the challenges of the times (remember, this was the Great Depression), the racism (it's implied Daddy is denied union membership because he's Black) and her family's situation (since we're pretty sure Daddy flew the coop.)
Think about it. If you were going through a big change, wouldn't it feel good to crawl under a beautiful old quilt? We're guessing the answer is a resounding yes.
It's a good George Michael song, and it also happens to be super important in this book. See, in literature, especially African-American literature, flight usually symbolizes freedom. In her imagination, Cassie is free to go anywhere and do anything.
Question: What is Cassie flying away from? Her family's problems, is one answer. But more broadly, she's flying away from something bigger: oppression.
Oppression is the opposite of freedom and flight, and it's also a familiar theme in African-American literature, especially in stories about slavery. Slavery was long gone in the U.S. by the time Cassie was born, but remember she's living before Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks and all the other heroes of the Civil Rights Movement.
Picturing herself as a person who could fly was a powerful act of imagination. It was symbolic of Cassie's ability to transcend all the forces that tried to hold her—and other African Americans—back.
When you see the word "I" all over the place, it's a very good sign you're dealing with a first-person narrator.
Our narrator, Cassie, even introduces herself, so we know exactly who's talking. (How polite!)
I can fly—yes, fly. Me, Cassie Louise Lightfoot… (10)
Pleased to meet you, Cassie Louise.
First-person narrators have a magical way of drawing you into their story, because it's the literary equivalent of sitting around talking to someone. While Tar Beach is really for readers of all ages, the book's target audience just happens to be kids who are around Cassie's age.
If you think that's a coincidence, think again. The author is using Cassie to make a special connection with her youngest readers.
Cassie begins her story by telling us that she will "always remember" Tar Beach. We can't say for sure, but if we had to bet, we think she's speaking as an adult looking back on her childhood.
This plot is a little sneaky, because the conflict is underneath the surface. (If you're feeling fancy, the literary term for sneaky stuff like that "subtext.") We know Cassie's dad can't join the union. She never says it outright, but that's because of racism.
Remember what we said about sneakiness? Cassie tells us she wants to give her dad a building so that "Mommy won't cry all winter when he goes to look for work and doesn't come home." (16)
Then, on the next page, we see Mommy alone in bed. It sounds like Dad left home and never came back.
It's easy to miss that Mr. Lightfoot abandoned his family because Cassie launches into her daydream where he's a rich businessman. Then she tells us about another night on Tar Beach. It's like he never left—if you blinked, you might've missed it.
On the last page, we see Cassie and her brother Be Be flying over New York City. The future is wide open, and anything is possible.