March 5, 2024

Forgotten Langston Hughes Children’s Book
Gets New Life in Exhibition

In 1936, Langston Hughes and the artist Elmer W. Brown wanted to publish an illustrated children’s book. Hughes was already an acclaimed figure of the Harlem Renaissance. Brown was a younger painter and illustrator who met Hughes in the creative orbit of Karamu House, the renowned Black theater in Cleveland where Hughes premiered several of his plays.

Together, they created a children’s picture book called The Sweet and Sour Animal Book. Hughes’ spirited verses and Brown’s whimsical illustrations together would tell tales about a hungry parrot, a mournful cow and other creatures that express in simple verse a range of feelings from unhappiness and remorse to bliss and confidence. Hughes’ stature opened some publishers’ doors, and according to letters he wrote to Brown, the feedback he heard was mostly positive.

The book was never published at the time. However, 90 years later, their original collaboration has been brought back to life through an exhibition called The Sweet and Sour Journey of Langston Hughes and Elmer W. Brown. The show was a collaboration between the Cleveland Museum of Art and ARTneo.

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Elmer W. Brown’s “Polly Wants a Cracker,” about 1930s, which bears Langston Hughes’s signature. Credit: ARTneo Collection