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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