Study Guide

Tar Beach Themes

By Faith Ringgold

  • Family

    The Lightfoots are, in many ways, the classic American family. Two kids: one boy, one girl. Mommy makes fried chicken. Daddy works in construction. In many ways, Cassie has a wonderful childhood. You can tell how much her family members love each other.

    But you know that thing where people only put their best pictures on Instagram? Cassie's a little bit guilty of doing that with the pictures here. When Mommy cries, Cassie likes to imagine a happy mom who sleeps in every morning.

    Who can blame her? Everyone wants to have a perfect family…but we don't always get one.

    Questions About Family

    1. What do the Lightfoot family and the Honeys have in common? In what ways are they different?
    2. Name at least three ways in which you can tell how much Cassie loves her family.
    3. How do the bright colors and patterns make you feel about the Lightfoots' home?

    Chew on This

    Tar Beach is about a family that's really tight.

    Tar Beach is about a family that's torn apart.

  • Race

    Tar Beach is in many ways a special celebration of Black people and culture. With the beautiful artwork and the dynamic Lightfoot family, the story is a loving portrait of Black life in America.

    At the same time, Tar Beach touches on racism during the Great Depression, which as you might have guessed, was a big problem.

    Cassie's just eight years old, so racism is at least a little bit over her head. But she's heard her father say that the union rejected him, and she knows that's unjust.

    Questions About Race

    1. Which pieces of Cassie's story are unique to African Americans? Which pieces could be anyone's story?
    2. How do you think it makes Cassie's dad feel when the union won't let him join?
    3. Can you spot any differences between racism in the 1930s and racism today? Are there any ways in which things have stayed the same?

    Chew on This

    Racism is the main problem in Cassie's life.

    Racism is a piece of Cassie's life, but it's mostly in the background.

  • Memory and the Past

    In Tar Beach, time doesn't move forward in the usual way. Instead, time is wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey, Doctor Who-style.

    See, at the beginning of the story, it seems like Cassie is looking back, telling us about a memory. In the middle of the story, it seems like she's living in the present. By the end, she's telling us what will happen in the future. These shifts are all very subtle, but we're here to help you crack the code.

    Just don't ask us what time it is.

    Questions About Memory and the Past

    1. Which events in the story truly happened? Which events happen only in Cassie's imagination?
    2. Which New York City landmark opened on the same day as Cassie's birthday?
    3. How might the story be different if it were set in the present day instead of in the 1930s?

    Chew on This

    Cassie is remembering Tar Beach as an adult looking back on her childhood.

    Cassie is remembering Tar Beach as a child; it's set in her recent past.

  • Dissatisfaction

    Cassie's world is warm and happy, but it's not exactly perfect. Cassie's old enough to know that something's not quite right between Mommy and Daddy. And the fact that she knows so much about her dad's problems at work suggests that he's been talking about them at home. A lot.

    Cassie can't ignore that stuff; in fact, it seeps into her imaginative play, as we'll see show you in Theme 5 (Dreams, Hopes, and Plans). For now, let's focus on her family's problems.

    Questions About Dissatisfaction

    1. Why is Daddy so frustrated at work?
    2. What makes Mommy so sad?
    3. What advice would you have for Cassie if she were your friend?

    Chew on This

    The story is better because the dark details are beneath the surface.

    The story would have been better if the dark details had been on the surface.

  • Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    Tar Beach runs on a sort of dream logic. The line between reality and fantasy feels as Cassie blends the story of her life with her imagination.

    But Cassie's imagination isn't totally footloose and fancy free; it's working overtime to solve the Lightfoot family's problems. She has a lot of hopes and plans for her family in the future. But there's a sharp contrast between her optimistic attitude and the attitude we see in her parents, who sometimes seem worn down by life.

    Questions About Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    1. Do you think Mommy and Daddy ever dreamed that they could fly like Cassie? Why or why not?
    2. How does the nighttime sky help set the right mood for a book that's about hopes and dreams?
    3. What series of events led Daddy to lose hope?

    Chew on This

    Tar Beach is a book about the importance of hope.

    Under the surface, Tar Beach is a book about hopelessness.

  • Society and Class

    To hear her tell the tale, Cassie Lightfoot is the richest gal in New York City. She has everything that money can buy: fancy buildings, a diamond necklace, and a lifetime supply of ice cream.

    Wait a second. Scratch that. She doesn't have any money. She only owns the buildings in her imagination. The diamond necklace is just the George Washington Bridge. And maybe worst of all, she doesn't actually have endless ice cream.

    There's some tension in the book between what Cassie "owns" when she's playing pretend and what she actually owns. Some of the stuff she dreams about is just silly, like the necklace. But some of the things she thinks about, like a job for her dad, point to things that her family really, really needs in real life.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. Find two or three clues that tell us about Cassie's family's class.
    2. How was society different in the 1930s, when the book was set? Find two or three examples in the book.
    3. How might Cassie's life be different if her dad were allowed to join the union?

    Chew on This

    If Tar Beach were about a rich family, the story could be similar.

    If Tar beach were about a rich family, the story would be totally different.

  • Admiration

    Cassie has a huge amount of admiration for the world around her. She admires her father for his hard work. She looks for beauty in everything she sees. She sees joy and possibilities wherever she looks. She really, really admires the local ice cream factory. (Hey, we get it.)

    She appreciates Tar Beach, time with her family, the neighborhood they live in, and the city of New York—basically, all the good stuff in life.

    Questions About Admiration

    1. Why does Cassie admire her father so much?
    2. How does the artwork convey Cassie's sense of wonder?
    3. Of all the things in the book, what do you think Cassie admires most?

    Chew on This

    Cassie's superpower is her sense of wonder. She finds something to admire in everything she sees.

    Cassie admires the world around her too much. Sometimes she doesn't seem to see things as they are.

  • Freedom and Confinement

    Close your eyes and imagine that you live in New York City. In the summer. In a tiny apartment. In the 1930s. That's pre-air conditioning, people.

    Okay, now imagine walking up to the rooftop. You're up high, where you can catch the breeze. You take a deep breath of the soft summer night air. That feels better, right?

    The thing is: freedom and confinement isn't just about being indoors or outdoors. It's also about how you live life.

    Cassie is living during the Great Depression. Her dad left home (and had been out of work before that), so her family probably doesn't have a lot of money. And on top of all that, the Lightfoots are African American, so they have a particularly strong connection to the idea of freedom. They most likely have not-so-distant ancestors who were slaves, and although they are legally free themselves, they still have to face the oppression and adversity that existed because of their race—especially before the Civil Rights Movement.

    Still, there's a sense of lightness in everything she does. She seems excited about the future. That's what it means to feel free.

    Questions About Freedom and Confinement

    1. Which characters seem to feel the most free? Who feels trapped?
    2. At which point in the story do you think Cassie feels the most free?
    3. How does Cassie use her imagination to escape from dark problems?

    Chew on This

    Tar Beach is a story about experiencing freedom.

    Tar Beach is a story about feeling trapped.