Ben & the Emancipation Proclamation – Black History Month PPBF

Title: Ben and the Emancipation Declaration

Author: Pat Sherman

Illustrator: Floyd Cooper

Publisher: Eerdman’s Books for Young Readers, 2010

Ages: 8-12

Themes: African Americans, Unites States, President Lincoln, Emancipation, literacy

Genre: Fiction

Opening:

“Excuse me, sir,” Ben tugged on the sleeve of a passing gentleman, “Does that say Broad Street?” He pointed to the wooden sign on the corner.
“Yes.” The man pulled away impatiently.
“And that other one please. That’s King’s King’s Street, right?”
“Right”
Ben studied the signs, trying to remember the letters. Broad. B-R-O-A-D. King. K-I.
“Boy?” The man had turned to stare at him. “Shouldn’t you be getting along?”
“Yes, sir.” ben threw his carrying sack over his shoulder and hurried away. Don’t let them know you can read. That’s what his father had told him. Slaves weren’t allowed to read.

Synopsis:

Ben and the Emancipation Proclamation is a biographical picture book based on the true story of Benjamin C. Holmes, a slave who read “The Message of Abraham Lincoln” to the men in a slave prison where he was being held. We learn that Ben’s father taught him the alphabet but is then sold and sent to parts unknown. Ben continues his education in secret (at the urging of his mother) when he is apprenticed to a tailor in Charleston. Once the Civil War reaches Charleston, Ben is sent to the overcrowded slave prison to await sale. It is in this crowded room, that he reads the Emancipation Proclamation and receives a jubilant response for two reasons.

Why I like this book:

To focus on a young person’s interaction with the Emancipation Proclamation brings home its meaning to young readers. Themes of separation from family, literacy, and perseverance permeate the narrative, making it a terrific text for social studies units on civil war/black history. But the story could also inspire young or struggling readers to improve through hard work.

This story has beautifully illustrated in oil by Floyd Cooper. The sepia tones are reminiscent of old pictures and add to the sense of historical authenticity. Through subtle and careful narration the author helps readers understand the dangers of Ben’s literacy. While on an errand, a store clerk hands him Pearl’s Soap instead of Pear’s Soap; Ben has to correct her by asking for “the yellow box, not the blue one.” 

Personal narratives like this can help bring alive this pivotal moment in American history.

Resources/Activities:

This picture book is a great introduction to slavery during the Civil War, and could certainly be used with a 6th grade class to help students develop “historical empathy.”  

Reading the author’s note, you discover that the real Benjamin Holmes might have been 15-17 years old when the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, although in the illustrations he appears to be younger. 

Find more “Perfect Picture Book Friday” reviews at Susanna Leonard Hill’s blog HERE.

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The Truth of Right Now – Book Recommendation

Title: The Truth of Right Now

Author: Kara Lee Corthron

Publisher: Simon Pulse, Jan. 3rd, 2017

Ages: 14+

Themes: abuse, family conflicts, mental illness, violence, racism, white privilege

I received an ARC of this novel from the publisher in exchange for an impartial review.

Synopsis:

When privileged white girl Lily returns to her preppy Manhattan high school for her junior year after a dramatic year off, her so-called friends hardly welcome her back with open arms. In the midst of working through the reason for her attempted suicide over the summer, and her classmates’ rebuff and bullying, she encounters a new kid, Dari (Dariomauritius Raphael Gray), also an outsider.

An unlikely couple given their class and race backgrounds, they start a relationship. They at least share some things in common, like coming from broken homes and using their creativity as a survival tool. They swiftly grow close and their romance hits some epic teenage highs and lows. However, their friendship isn’t the panacea they both long for. Lilly’s naive lack of understanding of the threats faced by her Trinidadian-American boyfriend result in a tragic twist at the end. 

Why I like this Book:

In her debut novel, Kara Lee Corthron crafts a gutsy realistic story of two teenagers from equally broken but vastly different worlds. Despite class and race polarities, they are drawn together by a mutual need for acceptance and friendship. The narration alternates between the two protagonists, and I appreciated the author’s choice to write Lily in the first person and Dari in the close third. Both characters are brutally raw and authentic in their struggle to navigate the vagaries of high school, home and their new friendship, while dealing with inner wounds. Cynical Dari and unstable Lily’s existential turmoil and simmering anger does not feel exaggerated given the early loss of innocence they have both experienced. 

Dari’s controlling, abusive immigrant dad who kicks his son out, and Lily’s struggling, enabling author mom provide two richly developed secondary characters, essential to this character-driven plot. New York, with its complexity of diversity and prejudice is a rich and pulsingly real backdrop to the unfolding plot. I can picture the Staten island ferry and the smell the stormy salty air on Brighton beach. 

The pacing is excellent, and the author manages to sustain that ‘on the edge’ feeling of teen intensity through intimate internal dialogue. The “right now” is present on every page.

Two things particularly impressed me as I read this novel: firstly, how well the author portarys a West Indian-American teen (I had a big Trinidadian friendship group when I lived in London); secondly, how even growing up in a diverse city such as 21st century New York, a young white teen can be truly very ignorant of what a less privileged and black teen faces on a daily basis. This added much to the integrity of the novel for me.

Activities/Resources:

The Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453)

Teens 13 and older can get advice and find someone to talk to at Scarleteen

Here’s a list of websites and phone numbers of CPS (child protection Services) by state) 

 

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Black History Month PPBF – Lift Your Light a Little Higher

lift-your-lightTitle: Lift Your Light a Little Higher
The Story of Stephen Bishop: Slave-Explorer

Author: Heather Henson

Illustrator: Bryan Collier

Publisher: Athenium Books for Young Readers, 2016

Ages: 6-9

Themes: Slavery, exploration, caving, reading, pioneers, biography, Kentucky, Mammoth cave

Opening:

The past is like a cave sometimes.
Dim and dusty, and full of twisting ways.

Not an easy thing to journey down. ‘Specially when you’re searching out a path that’s hardly been lit, a trail that’s never been smooth or flat or plain to follow.

Synopsis:

Grab your lantern and follow the remarkable and world-famous Mammoth Cave explorer—and slave—Stephen Bishop as he guides you through the world’s largest cave system in this remarkable homage to the resilience of human nature.

Welcome to Mammoth Cave. It’s 1840 and my name’s Stephen Bishop. I’ll be your guide, so come with me, by the light of my lantern, into the deepest biggest cave in all of the United States. Down here, beneath the earth, I’m not just a slave. I’m a pioneer. I know the cave’s twists and turns. It taught me to not be afraid of the dark. And watching all these people write their names on the ceiling? Well, it taught me how to read too. Imagine that. A slave, reading. But like I said, down here I’m not just a slave. I’m a guide. I’m a man. And this is my story. (Goodreads)

Why I like this book: 

Most readers, myself included, will probably not have heard of this African American who led guided tours through the Mammoth Caves of Kentucky prior to the Civil War on his master’s orders. Bishop was the first to discover many of Mammoth’s sights. He was the first to draw an extensive map of the cave and the first to cross an impassable chasm called the “Bottomless Pit”. He learned to read as people signed their names on the cave’s ceiling, though learning to read and write was forbidden for slaves. He  found an environment underground that despite the darkness opened up a new world for him.

Henson tells the story in lyrical prose narrating both Bishop’s discoveries but also paralleling the dark side of slavery with the darkness of the Mammoth. Told in an intimate first person POV, with Bishop inviting the reader to take this historical tour with him. Bishop guides the reader through his story just as he guided thousands of visitors through Mammoth Cave thus inviting children into this time period for duration of the book. 

Collier’s illustrations are powerful with many beautiful spreads where light and dark palettes are symbolically used. He manages to capture both the haunting side of slavery and the hope that one man’s life can offer. 

This man’s story is a tale of resilience and personal discovery. Bishop’s pride in his work as a guide, explorer and archaeologist stands in stark contrast to his lack of rights above ground. The book juxtaposes the tragedy of slavery with the freedom and resilience one man developed in that enslaved state. The final line sums up the story well, “And sometimes you just got to lift your light a little higher; sometimes you just got to go beyond what’s written down to get to what’s been left untold.”

Resources/Activities:

Back matter contains an author’s note and an illustrator’s note with additional information, an historical sketch of of Bishop, a map of Mammoth Cave, and a list of resources.

This is a great addition to elementary school personal narratives for black history month.

Find more “Perfect Picture Book Friday” reviews at Susanna Leonard Hill’s blog HERE.

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