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Putting Books to Work: TAR BEACH

by Kathleen Hunter
 | Feb 18, 2014

TAR BEACH (Crown Publishing, 1991) 
Written and Illustrated by Faith Ringgold
Grades K–5

Tar Beach book coverTAR BEACH, by Faith Ringgold, is a beautiful picture book with imaginative illustrations. The story is told from the point of view of eight-year-old Cassie Louise Lightfoot. During the summer Cassie and her family play at the “tar beach,” which is the rooftop of the apartment building where she lives in Harlem. Cassie lies on the “beach” and imagines herself flying through the sky over the rooftops. She dreams about being free—to go where she wants without any boundaries, or anyone to tell her she can’t. And so begins the story of Cassie’s flying adventure.

The notion of flying has wonderful and magical connotations in the African American culture. Historically, flying was symbolic to African Americans for freedom from slavery and the opportunity to return to their native land. In TAR BEACH, flying symbolizes freedom in Cassie’s world. In her flying dreams her father owns the buildings he looks up to rather than down from buildings he builds as a construction worker. Cassie’s mother has the privilege of laughing and sleeping late into the morning like the well-to-do neighbors. And best of all, her family eats ice cream every day!

You’ll notice that the border on the illustrations resemble a quilt. Originally, the author wrote this story on a quilt that she sewed and then used as a canvas for her paintings. The actual quilt is part of a series called, “Woman on a Bridge.” They are on display at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City.

Although TAR BEACH is an older publication, it’s still in print—and continues to give a taste of what can be done in the classroom to teach African American culture, language, and history. Hopefully, these lessons will spark awareness in the students and provide some background knowledge for future lessons.

Cross Curricular Connections: language arts using imagery commonly found in the African American culture, reading comprehension, vocabulary, art, history.

Ideas for Classroom Use:

History and Symbolism

Read the story out loud to your students. Be sure to show them the pictures as you read. I especially like technology in the classroom at times like this. You can display the pictures on a big screen while the students follow along with the text as you read aloud. This is a fun way to meet every child’s level of reading and comprehension. After you have finished the story you can engage your students in a deeper understanding of the text. Here are a few questions to prompt a lively group discussion:

  • What is meant by “tar beach” in the story? (The blacktop roof on the top of Cassie’s apartment building where she lives). How does the reader know this?
  • What does flying symbolize for Cassie? (Possible answers might be: Freedom for herself to go beyond the boundaries of her home, freedom for her father from racial bigotry with the unions and freedom for her mother to be able to live like the wealthy neighbors who can sleep late each morning). Ask students to give examples from the text and illustrations to support their answers.
  • Are Cassie’s adventures real or imaginary? How can you tell?
  • What are some traditions that Cassie and her family have?

Visualizing/Verbal Sharing:

Materials: beach towel for each student (students can bring a towel from home).

Clear some space in your classroom by moving desks and tables to the side. Ask your students to lay out their beach towels and lie on their backs. Next, ask them to imagine they are at “tar beach.” Tell them they are flying through the sky. Remind them that flying is symbolic for freedom from something in their lives. It could be something as immediate as homework to something deeper like a parent being out of work.

Invite students to share out loud to the class what some of their freedoms are. I always enjoy taking part in activities with my students whenever possible. This one particularly lends to the teacher participating. So, remember to bring your beach towel, too!

Dream Journal:

Materials: notebook paper, pencils

This activity can be done after the previous activity or on its own. Ask your students to either return to their desks or to find a spot on their “beach” to write their dreams down on paper. This activity lends itself quite nicely to a free-write or journaling exercise. Or you can extend this activity over the course of a few days to include the writing process from prewrite to final draft.

Paper Quilt:

Materials: crayons/paints/pastels (choose the medium that you think will best suit your group of students), blank sheets of paper, large sheet of butcher paper (any bold color will do)

Now your students can make their flying adventures in their minds come to life on paper. Pass the book around to groups of students to refer back to while they make their own illustrations. Remind your students of the vibrant colors the author/illustrator used. After your students have completed their illustrations, mount them on one large sheet of butcher paper to resemble a quilt of flying dreams. And, if you also did the writing activity you can include your students’ writings along the border of illustrations, similar to Faith Ringgold’s. Now your classroom quilt is ready to go on display!

Additional Texts:

Frame, Jeron Ashford (2003). YESTERDAY I HAD THE BLUES. Tricycle Press.

Ringgold, Faith (1995). AUNT HARRIET'S UNDERGROUND RAILROAD IN THE SKY. Random House Children’s Books.

Additional Resources and Activities:

Virtual Museum Visit
If you can’t make it to the real Guggenheim, take your students on a virtual field trip and show them the quilt that preceded TAR BEACH. The site also offers a lesson plan and more information about author/artist Faith Ringgold.

This lesson plan, from, focuses on liberation and racism by comparing these two titles in a complex, multifaceted manner.

Teacher’s Guide
This teacher’s guide, from Teachers @ Random House, contains a plethora of ideas for more thematic and interdisciplinary connections, as well as suggestions for further reading.

TAR BEACH Discussion Guide
Short guide from Scholastic with suggestions for pre- and post-reading discussions.

Kathleen HunterKathleen A. Hunter, MS is a literacy tutor and aspiring children's book author. You can visit her online at


© 2014 Kathleen A. Hunter. Please do not reproduce in any form, electronic or otherwise.

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