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