Brain Pickings

Life Doesn’t Frighten Me: Maya Angelou’s Courageous Children’s Verses, Illustrated by Basquiat

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A priceless primer on poetry and contemporary art for little ones, and a timeless reminder of the power of courage in all of us.

Fear is the enemy of creativity, the hotbed of mediocrity, a critical obstacle to mastering life. Few embody the defiance of fear with greater dignity and grace than reconstructionist Maya Angelou, who has overcome remarkable hardships — childhood rape, poverty, addiction, bereavement — to become one of today’s most celebrated writers. Like a number of other celebrated “adult” poets and novelists who have also written for children — including Sylvia Plath, Mark Twain, Anne Sexton, William Faulkner, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, Mary Shelley, Leo Tolstoy, Oscar Wilde, Aldous Huxley, Gertrude Stein, James Thurber, Carl Sandburg, Salman Rushdie, Ian Fleming, and Langston Hughes — so has Angelou: The 1993 gem Life Doesn’t Frighten Me (public library), conceived and edited by Sara Jane Boyers, pairs Angelou’s simple, strong words with drawings by legendary artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose signature style of child-like fancy and colorful emotional intensity offers a perfect match for Angelou’s courageous verses.

Shadows on the wall
Noises down the hall
Life doesn’t frighten me at all

Tough guys fight
All alone at night
Life doesn’t frighten me at all

Panthers in the park
Strangers in the dark
No, they don’t frighten me at all.

Don’t show me frogs and snakes
And listen for my scream,
If I’m afraid at all
It’s only in my dreams.

Life doesn’t frighten me at all
Not at all
Not at all.

Hear Angelou read the poem herself, which she says she wrote “for all children who whistle in the dark and who refuse to admit that they’re frightened out of their wits”:

Life Doesn’t Frighten Me is an absolute treat in its entirety, a priceless primer on poetry and contemporary art for little ones and a timeless reminder of the power of courage in all of us. Complement it with Angelou’s stirring meditation on home, belonging, and (never) growing up.

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