Wednesday, March 14, 2007


Oney Judge was considered "like another one of our children" according to the first First Lady Martha Washington, with a few exceptions: Oney would not be allowed to learn to read, to earn money, and would be denied the liberties of being a free citizen. George Washington planned to free the slaves he "owned" upon his death, but Martha Washington had no such intention. Martha was careful to make sure none of the slaves from her household stayed in Philadelphia for longer than six months, lest they be granted their freedom, and intended to trade her servants around, separating their families. Knowing this, her seamstress devised a plan to escape to New Hampshire, so that she could live with a free black family. But even as she tried to live her life independent of the Washingtons, a prideful Martha was hard pressed to give up machinations to get her back, especially once Oney had a baby that Martha considered her "property." Through the cooperation of many diverse allies, Oney repeatedly manages to give the big wigs the slip, but page after page we root for her to find the peace from flight she so deserves. This is a perfect example of a picture book for older kids, a story of injustice thwarted that is made all the more chilling by its basis in fact. (7 and up) Older audiences (11 and up) will want to check out a master of historical fiction's take on the situation, via Ann Rinaldi's TAKING LIBERTY.

Also of interest:
by Ellen Levine, illustrated by Kadir Nelson (Scholastic). Being denied freedom upon the death of his master, and being separated from his wife and children, it seems Henry Brown has nothing else to lose. With the help of an abolitionist, he concocts a plan to mail himself to freedom in a wooden crate, which he manages to do after surviving a harrowing voyage. This amazing true story pulls no punches when it comes to the pain this main endured before his decision to escape in this daring and dangerous manner, or the hope that managed to survive in this remarkable man's heart, even after all the unthinkable adversity he experienced. I don't think I could ever love any of Kadir Nelson's illustrations more than I did in ELLINGTON WAS NOT A STREET by Ntozake Shange, however, the power of the oil paintings in this latest offering is undeniable. (7 and up)

These latest releases from new, revisionist prespectives are so refreshing and well done. If you want more, try the unique series A HISTORY OF US (9 and up), which relies on primary sources and makes history read like the narrative that it is. Whether or not you agree with all the points of view presented in these provocative books, the series creates a wonderful arena for discussion and reflection, and will help to create the kind of thinkers that will cast a skeptical eye to media...the kind of thinkers the generation coming up will need to be. Basically, these are the social studies textbooks you wished you had as a kid; how nice that our kids can have them!

And one last thought, on a personal note:
I was recently at a conference where books were being sold, and I was at a luncheon table with a woman who was showing me the purchases she had made. Among them was HENRY'S FREEDOM BOX. "I have an African American child in my class," she explained. On the one hand, I think it is wonderful that such books that reflect African American history are available, that children can see themselves reflected in the literature (which hasn't always been the case for many races and ethnicities), and I was glad she made the purchase. But on the other hand, I was concerned, because I didn't understand the need for that somewhat self-conscious explanation. If she did not have an African-American child in her classroom, would she not have bought that book? Would it have been considered relevant? Are other purchases made with this criteria: does she look at the cover of a book about Abraham Lincoln or Eleanor Roosevelt and think, "this might work, I have a Caucasian kid in my class," or is that reserved for books that feature children of color? While I imagine her motive may have been noble and right, offering books that might represent the culture of her student, I think we have to be careful that it isn't the only occasion we add such titles to our collections. African American history is also American history, and its dissemination benefits all of our citizens...these are people and stories that all children in our country deserve to know, regardless of race or ethnicity. Teachers and parents, especially if you work or live in a homogenous school or community, you don't have to apologize or rationalize or explain when you buy a book that widens horizons and gives children the chance to vicariously meet people they would not or could not in their day-to-day lives. Recognize that you have a special opportunity, maybe even a responsibility to take integration another step from the classroom to the bookshelf. Be inclusive in your collection based on the excellence of the text and illustrations sooner than the race of the reader, and in this way, your collection will be richer and naturally more representative of many people, and your children can fully benefit from the empathy towards the human experience that great children's literature--and great literature at large-- has to offer.

Links are provided for informational use. Don't forget to support your local bookseller.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Amen! I have the opposite situation! My school is 99.9% black and I debated the purchase of books about other ethnic groups. But I've decided that my kids need to learn about other people's experiences, whether they want to or not! So we've got books about the Holocaust, being Asian-American, Native Americans, etc. Now, if I could only get more kids to read them!!!


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