While visiting with author/illustrator Hazel Mitchell last month I had the privilege of accompanying her to visit renowned author, artist, poet, patron Ashley Bryan in his home on Little Cranberry Island, Acadia, Maine. He not only showed us around his studio and the new Asley Bryan Center, but he shared his latest picture book with me and gave me a signed copy. It was released two days ago and is a masterpiece of art and literature, which I will treasure.
Title: Freedom Over Me, Eleven Slaves, their Lives, and Dreams Brought to Life
Author& Illustrator: Ashley Bryan
Publisher: Athenium Books for Young Readers, Sept 13th 2016
Themes: slaves dreams, property, slave auctions, poetry
Mrs. Mary Fairchilds
I mourn the passing of
my husband, Cado Fairchilds.
He managed our estate alone.
Eleven Negro slaves,
They carried out the work
That made our estate prosper.
He never hired an overseer.
Through textured paintings and poetry Ashley shares the lives of eleven slaves, pieces of property from a real plantation, some of whom were sold at auction at the death of their owner. These are real slaves whose lives, tasks, hopes and dreams are re-imagined. A price does not delineate a life, nor can chains limit the potential in every woman, man or child. Each individual comes alive on these pages The poems speak of tasks and treats, relationships, drudgery and songs of freedom. The importance of their faith and their community is underlined and how their trades often lead to dreams and creative outlets unknown to the whites.
Some of the slaves were born into slavery others talk of their early days in Africa pre slavery. Often in their poems the slaves speak of their African names. The fear of separation is ever present and the importance of song to strengthen them is emphasized.
Why I like this book:
Several years ago author/illustrator Ashley Bryan left his small island, Little Cranberry, off Bar Harbor to visit a local auction on mainland Maine. There he came across the original documents of the auction of slaves from the estate of Cado Fairchilds along with other slave related documents from the first half of the 19th century. I had the rare honor of visiting Ashley this August in his island home and visiting The Ashley Bryan Center. While there, Ashley read aloud from this manuscript. He shared of his finding the documents that inspired this narrative and how the information of this slave auction moved him so much it took years to find the right place in his creativity to tell their stories. It isn’t often that a picture book brings me to tears but this one does.
This is a tribute to the dignity of man and the resilience of the human spirit.
Originally the poems were simply about the facts of each sale of ‘property’ but then his editor requested more about their lives. On reflection it seemed to Ashley that he couldn’t just share about their work lives on the estate but he needed to develop their dreams. Over months of painting and writing he allowed each slave to share his dreams. These magnificent poems and artwork are the result of this creative process. They bring dignity and beauty to these eleven lives and these poetic stories will help young readers understand that each name and each slave was more than a price or a function they were people like you and me. This is a very unusual and moving addition to any unit on slave history that you may be doing with elementary age children. And we should be talking about these historical events with this age group.
The illustrations are rendered in pen, ink and watercolor. Ashley uses a technique that almost makes me feel he has carved the figures from wood giving vivid, deep expression to each character. Each slave has two sections of poems: their tasks and life as slaves where their portraits and price have a backdrop of sale documents, whereas the background to their ‘dreams’ page is filled with color and vitality, and often a more African flavor.
Ashley Bryan goes to the heart of how a slave is given a monetary value by the owner, contrasting this with the one thing that can never be bought or sold—dreams. Both the poetry and art are extraordinary in this masterful work .
- This is a great opportunity to talk about primary sources with young readers. Ashley includes copies of some of the original auction documents at the back of the book.
- The poetry is glorious and could definitely be used as a mentor text for writing free verse maybe inspired by photos of historical people.
- Discussion will naturally flow from this text about: the acquisition, sale, treatment and perception of slaves by their white owners; along with the feelings and dreams of these slaves.
- There is an author’s note about how this story came about. This could also lead to a discussion about story ideas!
Each week a group of bloggers reviews picture books we feel would make great educational reads. To help teachers, caregivers and parents, we have included resources and/or activities with each of our reviews. A complete list of the thousands of books we have reviewed can be found sorted alphabetically and by topics, here on Susanna Leonard Hill’s website.
Diverse Children’s Books is a book-sharing meme designed to promote the reading and writing of children’s books that feature diverse characters. This community embraces all kinds of diversity including (and certainly not limited to) diverse, inclusive, multicultural, and global books for children of all backgrounds. http://www.thelogonauts.com/2016/09/diversekidlit2.html