A Slave Named Dave

Dave the Potter

The historic record doesn’t tell us much about Dave: which is not uncommon for those whose rights are trampled in the name of profit. What little we do know comes largely from the poems he wrote on the pottery he created: both of which make Dave remarkable.

I like this book. But, I almost panned it because it’s not  representative of the overwhelming majority of the historic American slave experience. Laban Carrick Hill leans heavily toward the romanticized side of slavery to tell the story of Dave’s extraordinary gifts. Thus his owner – and any signs of oppression – are completely absent.  However, because I’m balancing this account with other books depicting the horrors of slavery, Dave the Potter has a place in my classroom. But it couldn’t possibly stand alone.

As is often the case with Bryan Collier‘s work, his moving, well-researched illustrations alone were enough to make this book worth my time.


Under the Quilt of Night

Under the Quilt of Night

If you told me, “Hey! Check this out! I’ve got an awesome POETIC picture book on the underground railroad!” My reaction would be something like, “Hmm, you want me to bore my students death?!”

Don’t get me wrong. I legitimately enjoy poetry. As in, I’ve written a couple hundred poems. But few authors seem capable of producing poems that work well in the picture book market. Call me a doubter… because I am.

But forget about that for now; because Deborah Hopkinson and James E. Ransome delivered the exception to the rule. Under the Quilt of Night is historical fiction told from the perspective of a young girl as her family escapes slavery on the Underground Railroad.

Hopkinson and Ransome give us a sense of real danger as “the master” peruses her family with hounds and guns. But they balance this looming threat with the kindness of strangers, as good prevails and the family finds their way into the arms of freedom.

Lyles Station

A Place Called Freedom

Lyles Station Indiana was a small African American settlement in southern Indiana founded by freed slave Joshua Lyles. Told in the words of his son, A Place Called Freedom is historical fiction based on Joshua’s story of journeying to and starting Lyles Station.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and absolutely recommend it because it captures the essence of both the underground railroad and the Lyles Station story. But I was hoping Scott Russell Sanders would have not embellished the story quite so much. It’s a fault I’m almost willing to overlook.

Honoring The Greensboro Four


On February 1, 1960 four Black friends took Martin Luther King‘s, “We must meet hate with love” to Woolworth’s “WHITE ONLY” lunch counter.

Thus ignited the spark that set off sit-ins in over 60 cities. Six months later, the Woolworth’s lunch counter was desegregated.

Andrea Davis Pinkney and Brian Pinkney masterfully deliver the story of the Greensboro North Carolina sit in with a sprinkling of quotes from King and illustrations worthy of this pivotal moment in US history.

This seemed like a timely selection with Black History Month right around the corner and the passing of Franklin McCain: one of the four friends who started the sit in.

Bill Robinson: Rap A Tap Tap

Rap A Tap Tap

In my quest to branch out during Black History Month, I came across this short and sweet tribute to Bill Robinson: the legendary tap dancer better known as “Bojangles”. I love Leo & Diane Dillon’s simplistic illustrations and telling of Bill Robinson’s story.

My experience is that kids understand the book far better after seeing him dance. This is the clip I use.

A Few Words About Martin’s Big Words

Martin's Big Words 2

Martin’s Big Words is the story of Martin Luther King Junior’s life. Briefly put, it’s…

Masterfully written… Like Martin Luther King Junior’s public speaking, there’s a beautiful cadence to Doreen Rappaport‘s writing.

No holds barred… He’s taken to jail.  He gets shot. He dies. (Bryan Collier‘s illustrations don’t show King’s shooting or death; but the somber candles and black cathedral background, with Martin’s deep eyes, can bore an indelible mark in the mind).

Not devoid of context… Martin states, “God is with this movement”. He also prays with people. (Just like he actually did.)

Profoundly moving… I nearly cry (or actually do cry) every year when I read this book; and I’m not a crier.

“If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.”

It seems so somber to enter the New Year with Abraham Lincoln’s remarks on slavery that I second guessed posting it.

That lasted about three seconds. Slavery is too sinister to ignore.

In the US, January 11 is National Human Trafficking Awareness Day and (by way of Presidential Proclamation) January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month.

So, how does one address this issue with a room full of 6-7 year olds?

From my perspective, there’s inevitable tension between the desire to talk about the problem and the desire to protect children’s innocence.

To balance these interests I begin with the historic context of slavery in the US and (of course) a picture book.

Henry Cole’s Unspoken is my current favorite starting point. There aren’t any words; and that makes for a great deal of student led questioning and inferring. With nominal guidance, they grasp what’s transpiring and the deplorable nature of slavery.

Objective #1 (awareness) accomplished.

Review of Unspoken