A forgotten children's book by Langston Hughes and Elmer W. Brown emerges in Cleveland
Students from Northeast Ohio are learning the basics of art curation as they share a forgotten story about two artistic legends of Cleveland.
Artist Elmer W. Brown and writer Langston Hughes met in the 1930s at Karamu House, where Brown was an actor and graphic artist and Hughes a playwright.
Their friendship evolved into a partnership as they tried to publish a children's picture book, "The Sweet and Sour Animal Book,” featuring poems by Hughes and illustrations by Brown.
The book was never published, but it’s finding new life in 2023 thanks to a group of students and a determined art educator.
Sabine Kretzschmar is the president of ARTneo, the former Cleveland Artists Foundation, which has had the manuscript of the forgotten book since the 1980s when Brown’s widow donated it.
“They are lovely, whimsical verses about various animals for children that literally have the sweet and the sour in them,” Kretzschmar said.
David Hart, an associate professor of art history at the Cleveland Institute of Art, said the two friends were attempting to combat common stereotypes of the day.
“Langston Hughes wanted to create a book for children that did not have the kinds of racist stereotypes that so much children's literature throughout the 20th century had,” Hart said.
Kretzschmar also works in education at the Cleveland Museum of Art and directs its Currently Under Curation program, which enlists area high school students to curate their own exhibit each year.
The current class got the assignment to curate an exhibition featuring the 20-plus images and poems bringing “The Sweet and Sour Animal Book” to life at the ARTneo galleries at 78th Street Studios in Cleveland. The exhibit is on view through July 24.
“Oh, it's so cool,” said Shawna Polster from Solon High School, who’s one of the students that’s spent the school year learning about Hughes and Brown while organizing the exhibit.
“It’s like you’re walking into the book,” she said. “Like you're holding a part of history that no one knows about.”
Besides the book exhibition, the students also created a reading room inspired by the book’s illustrations.
Kretzschmar has high hopes for the future of the “Sweet and Sour Book.”
“I think it is delightful to behold. It is such a thrill to get the story out there. It's been many years in the making, and I'm hopeful that it finds a bigger platform,” she said. “My big hope is that it finds its place in the history of children's literature, maybe that some phenomenal designer puts it into print.”