Between the Lines: How Ernie Barnes Went from the Football Field to the Art Gallery

Between the Lines: How Ernie Barnes Went from the Football Field to the Art Gallery Written by Sandra Neil Wallace and Illustrated by Bryan Collier Published in 2018 by Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers ISBN 978-1-4814-4387-6 Grades K-5 Book Review “Ernest looked around his neighborhood. It no longer appeared ordinary. In the movement […]

32960656._UY1854_SS1854_Between the Lines: How Ernie Barnes Went from the Football Field to the Art Gallery

Written by Sandra Neil Wallace and Illustrated by Bryan Collier

Published in 2018 by Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers

ISBN 978-1-4814-4387-6

Grades K-5

Book Review

“Ernest looked around his neighborhood. It no longer appeared ordinary. In the movement of every football play…in the explosion of a the swivel and swerves of game action, he saw beauty.” In this picture book biographic tribute to Ernie Barnes, Between the Lines introduces young readers to the man, the artist, and the athlete in equal measure. The book begins with Ernie as a young boy growing up in North Carolina in the 1940s where he made mud paintings in his backyard after it rained. His childhood motivations to draw came from his lived reality –the junk man peddling hubcaps, families walking home from church, the old man snoring on the green sofa in the vacant lot. While he preferred to have “drawing hands” not baseball or football hands, he grew to be 6’3” and the local football coach recruited him to his high school team. The trials and tribulations of Ernie’s football career leading to the NFL and AFL are explained by former sportscaster Sandra Neil Wallace. Her writing provides enough detail to support readers to understand that Barnes’ life path was as looped and crossed as his early lines in the mud. What comes across most to readers is Barnes’s steadfast pursuit of his craft and his ability to affirm the beauty that surrounded him whether he was sketching the movements of his fellow players or flowers that grew in cracked sidewalks. Fans of Bryan Collier’s work will recognize his signature watercolor and collage illustrations which incorporate a variety of perspectives and textures to further support readers to understand the hope and struggle that Wallace’s words convey. The actual art of Ernie Barnes is intentionally incorporated into the illustrations to introduce readers to the exaggerated figures and expressive movement that Barnes was best known for without compromising Collier’s signature style. Extensive back matter includes a historical note, author’s note, illustrator’s note, and quote sources and includes further explanation about Barnes’s influence on the art world and the Black is Beauty cultural movement. Between the Lines is a powerful read aloud selection to support young people to know that our identities are fluid and never singular and that beauty can be found in our own realities.

Teaching Ideas: Invitations for Your Classroom

Affirming Beauty through Art: Duet Model. Ernest Barnes used art as a means to paint his reality, but also to affirm beauty in everyday life around him. He became known for his dynamic paintings of sports, particularly the ways he captured the beauty and grace of football. But, he was also known for the ways he captured the beauty of daily life with paintings of playground scenes and dance halls. Explore with students how Ernie came to view the world this way by looking back at the scene between Ernest and his art teacher, Mr. Wilson. Extend your students’ thinking by comparing Between the Lines with Maybe Something Beautiful, a fictional story based on the muralist Rafael Lopez. In what ways do both books affirm beauty found in everyday life? One book is written as a picture book biography, the other is fictionalized. Which reading do students enjoy more? Why? Support students to affirm beauty in their own neighborhoods through art by providing a variety of art materials to choose from including watercolor, collage, murals, photography, or even video creation.

Self-Taught Artists: Duet Model. Pair Between the Lines with A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin by the author-illustrator team Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet. Both men were self-taught artists at different times during the 20th century. In what ways were their life stories similar? How were they different? What inspiration did both men find in their lives to create art? What are people your students know that are self-taught in a particular skill? Have your students used Youtube, other media, or books to teach themselves things like video game strategies, how to code, or how to learn an instrument? Have a conversation with students about what they can do to teach themselves things they want to learn using Ernie Barnes and Horace Pippin as models.

The Significance of Setting: Civil Rights and America’s Segregated South. Explore with students the ways the Civil Rights Movement and the position of African Americans throughout Ernest’s life influenced his life trajectory. For example, we learn in the beginning of the book, that Ernest’s Mama was a housekeeper who did not feel welcome in museums. By the time Ernest is in college, the Civil Rights Movement was breaking down barriers and he could visit the local museum but still paintings by African American artists were notably absent. Later in the story, Ernie reads “I Am A Negro” by Paul R. Williams which stirs in him his longing to be an artist. Discuss with students whether or in what ways they think Barnes’s life story would be different if he were a young person today.

Theme Study: Courageous Life Choices. The English word courage comes from the French word corage and the Latin cor meaning heart. Share with students this etymology and ask them how did Barnes live whole-heartedly. Throughout his life, Barnes had to make choices about what to pursue and how to direct his life. Discuss with students the various acts of courage Barnes displayed in the book and whether they would have made the same life choices. Courage is often instilled in us thanks to the support of others. Discuss the importance of Mama and Mr. Wilson, Barnes’s art teacher, in supporting him to be courageous and confident in his life pursuits. Who are the people in your students’ lives that support them to be courageous?  Then, ask your students how they themselves live whole-heartedly even when faced by things that scare them or they find difficult.

Who Am I? Who Are You? Human Library Exploration. Barnes’s story shows us that we are never one thing. We all play multiple roles and have multiple identities. He was not an artist or a football player. He was both. He was also a son, a teammate, and a student. Explore with students the many identities Barnes had that are explained in the book. Then have students create “character profiles” of themselves where they write or sketch the multiple roles and identities they have possibly including: son, daughter, brother, sister, friend, sports player, card collector, animal lover, etc. You may want to extend this exploration further by creating a “Human Library” event to encourage students to shatter stereotypes they have about one another by engaging in face to face conversation that encourages students to share parts of themselves others may not know. The “Human Library” is an international movement that began in Denmark in 2000 and is now held in more than 70 countries.

Painting Mud: Sensory Art Experiences.  On the first page of the book, readers are introduced to Ernest as a boy who loved the North Carolina rain for the opportunity it provided to paint in the mud with a stick. This simple sensory experience launched his love of art. Revisit this page with students and note the ways Sandra Neil Wallace describes Ernest’s mud painting: “He drew straight lines and curved lines. Looped lines and crossed lines. Lines that kept moving, past his father’s new picket fence and onto Willard Street.” (unpaged). Invite students to reenact this scene, by creating their own mud paintings following a rainy day. Encourage students to create their own kinds of lines and then have them step back and view their paintings at-large. Discuss with the class what they thought of the experience and how they could paint with mud, snow, or sand in the future as a way to release their imaginations. If you are unable to take students outside to paint in the mud, consider creating a small sensory bin filled with wet dirt to allow students to engage in the sensory experience that launches the book.

Visual Study. It’s noted in the book that Ernest never sold the painting titled The Bench. Project an image of The Bench for students to visually analyze starting by first naming what they see. What is the story the painting tells? What personal associations do students have? What do they wonder? What do they notice about Barnes’s use of color, layout, and line choices to create a sense of movement or anticipation inherent to football? Engage students in a discussion about why they think that Barnes never sold The Bench. Conduct a simple Google image search to project other artworks by Barnes such as the Sugar Shack which was featured in the closing of the 1970s television show Good Times. Have students select a favorite image for further study by answering some of the same questions to deepen their visual analysis. Invite students to try to draw a scene from their own lives using Barnes’s signature techniques. You may want to go on a neighborhood walk like Barnes did to find everyday scenes to capture through art.

Mixed Media Art Study and Exploration. Gather other books illustrated by Bryan Collier including Dave the Potter by Laban Carrick Hill; I Too, Am America by Langston Hughes; Rosa by Nikki Giovanni; Barack Obama by Nikki Grimes, and Uptown which he also wrote. Support students to simply immerse themselves in his illustrations noticing the ways he uses watercolor and collage to create various effects. Then, provide students with watercolors and collage materials for them to create their own scene about something in their own lives or something from their imaginations.

*Picture Book Biography Genre Study: Artists’ Stories.  Many wonderful picture book biographies of artists have been published in the last few years. Gather together a collection of picture book biographies of artists (the listing below from The Classroom Bookshelf will get you started). Read the books with your students and closely examine the choices that the biographers have made about text and illustration. Which aspects of their subjects’ lives have they chosen to highlight? Do they focus more on the childhood or adult life of the artist? How are the artists’ mentors, inspirations, commitments, and styles presented? When examining the illustrations, discuss how the art of the picture book biography enhances the reader’s’ understandings of the artists’ lives and work. You might find it particularly interesting to note how the artists’ works are depicted in the book. Are they reproductions of the actual works or are they illustrators’ representations?

*African American Artists: Text Set Exploration. Learn more about Ernest Barnes and other renowned African American artists through a text set that focuses on African American Artists. Begin with artists specifically mentioned in Between the Lines: Henry O. Tanner, Edmonia Lewis, and Palmer Hayden. Examine examples of their work and seek out additional biographical information through an online investigation. Next, gather picture book biographies of other African American artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Horace Pippin, David Drake, Jacob Lawrence, Ashley Bryan, Clementine Hunter, Augusta Savage, and Benny Andrews (see the Further Explorations section below for titles and seek out additional titles from your local libraries). Compare the artists’ life stories and their art, considering the historical context of the work, their influences, their challenges, and their accomplishments.  Consider asking students to work in small groups to research an artist, creating a presentation to share their findings with their classmates.

Critical Literacy

Diversity Gap Study of Museums. When Barnes was in college, he visited a museum and asked where the paintings were by African Americans. The art guide responded, “Your people don’t express themselves that way.” Support students to share their responses to this moment in the text. In what ways does this statement reveal prejudices of the segregated South at the time? Would anyone still hear statements like that today? Then, engage upper elementary students with an inquiry into whose art gets displayed in museums. Research with students the permanent collections of well-known national and international museums. If available, go on a field trip to a local museum to notice and wonder about whose work is valued and why.

African American Art: Appropriation and Agency. Pair Between the Lines with the middle grade novel The Harlem Charade about art, adventure, and activism. Investigate the collections from museums of African American art (see Further Explorations below). What do the galleries have in common? What are their expressed missions? Who supports and funds them? Whose art is displayed there? How do these galleries compare in terms of size, scope, mission, and artistic reputation with “larger” and more well known museums, such as the Met or the Smithsonian? If you and your students are not near NYC, use this also as an opportunity to look at the ways that local artists are showcased where you live. Where are the museum and galleries in your town or county? Extend this study by considering the ways African American art have been “discovered” and appropriated such as the Gee’s Bend Quiltmakers. In what ways did they hold on to their agency? Compare this to Ernie Barnes’s agency in what became of his artistic works.

Further Explorations

Online Resources

Ernie Barnes Official Site

Bryan Collier’s Site

Sandra Neil Wallace’s Site

Indianapolis Public Library: Black History: Painters and Artists

Human Library Movement

Smithsonian American Art Museum – African American Art: Harlem Renaissance

Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture

Harlem One Stop List of Museums

Gee’s Bend Quiltmakers


Benson, K. (2015). Draw what you see: The life and art of Benny Andrews. New York, NY: Clarion.

Bryan, A. (2009). Words to my life’s song. Ill by. B. Meguinnes. New York, NY: Atheneum.

Bryant, J. (2013). A splash of red: The life and art of Horace Pippin. Ill. by M. Sweet. New York, NY: Knopf.

Burleigh, R. (2014). Edward Hopper paints his world. Ill. W. Minor. New York: Henry Holt.

Campoy, F.I. & Howell, T. (2016). Maybe something beautiful. Ill. by R. Lopez. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Collier, B. (2004). Uptown. New York, NY: Square Fish.

Duggleby, J. (1998). Story painter: The life of Jacob Lawrence. New York, NY: Chronicle.

Farish, T. (2016). Luis paints the world. Ill. by O. Dominguez. Minneapolis, MN: Carolrhoda Books.

Giovanni, R. (2007). Rosa. New York, NY: Square Fish.

Hill, L.B. (2010). Dave the Potter: Artist, poet, slave. Ill. by Bryan Collier. New York, NY: Little Brown.

Hughes, L. (2012).  I, too, am America. Ill. by Bryan Collier. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers.

Novesky, A. (2012). Georgia in Hawaii: When Georgia O’Keeffe painted what she pleased. Ill. by Y. Morales. New York, NY: Harcourt.

Parker, M.B. (2012). Colorful dreamer: The story of artist Henri Matisse. Ill. by H. Berry. New York, NY: Dial.

Rosenstock, B. (2014). The noisy paint box: The colors and sounds of Kandinsky’s Abstract Art. Ill. by M. Grandpre. New York, NY: Knopf.

Schroeder, A. (2009). In her hands: The story of sculptor Augusta Savage. Ill. by J. Bereal. New York: Lee & Low.

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*Teaching Invitations from Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat Classroom Bookshelf entry

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