Book Review: Jaden Toussaint, the Greatest, by Marti Dumas ’98

Marti Dumas '98
By August, parents and caregivers are thinking about back-to-school reading. Some are wracking their brains, trying to entice a reluctant reader to crack open a book. Others are seeking enough books to keep a precocious reader engaged. For emergent readers who have graduated from easy readers but are not ready for a full length novel, it can be difficult to find chapter books.

Enter Jaden Toussaint, a 5-year-old with pep, science smarts and cool ninja dance moves. And, in his words, a big Afro to go with his gigantic brain. Alas, he does not know everything. And he is not an enthusiastic reader (of books)—understandable since most 5-year-olds are not reading independently.  

In Episode 1: The Quest for Screen Time, Jaden, a practitioner of scientific inquiry, shows resource and verve as he goes about achieving his goal, to the delight of his practically perfect teacher and supportive family. Subsequent adventures feature Jaden at home and at school, contending with buck moth caterpillars or worrying that his sophisticated cousin Muffin will upstage him. In book four, the Loup Garou swamp monster statue adds a hint of Louisiana culture to the narrative.

Author Marti Dumas ’98 clearly knows children, boys especially.  Readers will relate to Jaden’s struggles to practice patience and his use of dance moves to shake off all his excess energy. He’s a likable character whose innate curiosity makes him an adept problem-solver. 

The pacing is quick as Dumas valiantly covers a lot of ground in a scant 48 pages. While Jaden’s solutions are predictable, readers who are fond of series fiction won’t mind. Illustrations and speech bubbles complement the humor and add depth to the narration and appeal for fans of graphic novels.

Marti Dumas ’98 lives in New Orleans, also home to her Jaden Toussaint character. The fifth book in the chapter book series came out in July.

A 1965 article by educator Nancy Larrick brought attention to the disturbing absence of children of color in children’s books. Fast-forward 21 years: children’s author (and Amherst honorary degree recipient) Walter Dean Myers wrote in The New York Times, “If we continue to make black children nonpersons by excluding them from books and by degrading the black experience, and if we continue to neglect white children by not exposing them to any aspect of other racial and ethnic experiences in a meaningful way, we will have a next racial crisis.” 

Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop’s touchstone metaphor “mirrors, windows and sliding glass doors” describes the need for young people, in their reading, to both see themselves and learn about other perspectives. Yet in 2012, only 7.5 percent of the 3,600 new children’s books were about people of color. In 2014, Myers wrote again in the Times, galvanizing a movement.

Recent bestseller lists are encouraging, with titles by such diverse authors as Kwame Alexander, Sharon Draper, Linda Sue Park, Jason Reynolds, Angie Thomas and Nicola Yoon. By 2055, predicts the Pew Research Center, the United States will have no single racial or ethnic majority. We will need diverse books by diverse authors and artists for our diverse children.

Jaden Toussaint is an African American hero created by an African American author. And for those who prefer fantasy to realistic fiction, Dumas’ next foray will be into the fantasy genre, her version of the Andersen mermaid story. 

Yeh is vice president and publisher of Crown Books for Young Readers.