One of the things I love best about my work in children’s literature is how seamlessly it melds with my life as a mother. When I was elected to serve on the 2011 Caldecott committee, I wrote to family and friends, saying, “Thousands of picture books will come my way and I have just the perfect test audience waiting at home. It’s all feeling pretty happily ever after…” Ultimately, I’d overestimated the number of books I would receive from publishers (I ended up getting close to 700), but I was right to anticipate how well my committee service would dovetail with mothering. Every new box of books delivered to my door was a source of pleasure for me and my children as we eagerly dove in to see what stories and art awaited us.
One of the books our committee chose to honor was Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave by Laban Carrick Hill and illustrated by Bryan Collier. Less a comprehensive picture book biography than a meditation on the triumph of the human spirit and artistic expression in the face of oppression, this picture book is an exemplary offering of poetic text, enriching information, and downright gorgeous and emotionally powerful illustrations. Although my older children had looked at it, and I used it with great success in mock Caldecott sessions that I led with sixth graders at my partner’s school, it wasn’t a book I read with my younger children at home. In retrospect, I think perhaps I shied away from it as read-aloud fare for then four- and five-year-old Caroline and Stevie, thinking that they didn’t have the historical knowledge or maturity to grapple with the reality of Dave’s life as a slave. However, when I returned home after the awards were announced at the ALA midwinter meeting, I knew that I wanted to read all three of the books we’d honored with all five of my kids in order to share the experience with them.
Medal winner A Sick Day for Amos McGee illustrated by Erin E. Stead and honor book Interrupting Chicken by David Ezra Stein were titles that my kids already knew and loved. As I picked up Dave the Potter to read aloud that night, I began to second-guess the reasons I’d neglected to share it with them earlier. Ultimately, Caroline wasn’t particularly invested in the book, but as I witnessed Stevie’s enthrallment with the story and art, I rediscovered it as a brilliant introduction to some of the hard truths of American history for young children, rather than a book that demands broad historical context or the sophistication of an older reader.
As a white mother of children of color, I’ve found myself continually striving to shelter them from the painful facts of historical and contemporary racism while instilling in them a sense of pride in their heritages and truthfully exposing them to the realities of oppression and prejudice in developmentally appropriate ways. I haven’t experienced racism as they have or will, so the best I can do is act as an ally to them, much as a straight parent of a gay child might emerge as that child’s advocate and ally on personal and broader levels. This isn’t a perfect parallel, but it’s something I’ve held onto as I’ve read books like Dave the Potter with them, explaining that people with skin like mine enslaved people with skin like theirs, while also acknowledging that as children of Puerto Rican, Jamaican, African American, Irish, and French Canadian heritage, they have individual biological family histories that align and depart from this particular history in different ways. It’s complicated! But books like Dave help tremendously.
“It is so amazing that Dave learned how to read and write,” I told my kids as we looked at the closing picture of him etching a poem into the side of one of his pots and read his words.
“Why?” Stevie asked. “He’s a grownup.”
“Remember how we talked about what ‘slave’ means?” I asked. Stevie nodded, as did Natayja sitting behind him, and then Emilia piped up: “It means you’re not free. And it’s really bad because that means people owned other people.”
“Yes,” I said, watching Stevie’s face as he absorbed all of this. “Because way back then, when white people enslaved black people in this country, they also made laws to keep black people from learning how to read or write because reading and writing could make them more powerful.”
“That’s not fair,” Stevie said.
“No, it’s not. None of it was fair. But Dave learned how to read and write anyway, and he learned how to make these pots. He was very smart and very brave.”
“I’m learning how to read and write now too,” Stevie said proudly, and I felt him forging a connection between himself as an African American boy beginning to grapple with knowledge of racism and Dave as an enslaved African American man asserting his own dignity and worth in a society that railed against it.
“Read all of Dave’s poems,” Stevie insisted when I reached the back matter of the book, which features italicized bits of boldface text with words that Dave wrote on his pots. And so I did.
I doubt that Stevie grasped the meanings of every short poem, but I know that he was moved by the power of the story that Hill and Collier made of this man’s life and art. “Let me see that book again,” he said, reaching for it. And for the next twenty minutes or so, I tried to give him space for a private communion with the book, as the girls and I shifted gears and read from Natalie Babbitt’s The Search for Delicious — though I couldn’t resist stealing glimpses of him as he traced his fingers around the edges of the pots in the illustrations and studied Dave’s face from page to page.
Although we keep most of our children’s books on the built-in bookcases of the room we call the “children’s library” at home, Stevie brought Dave the Potter to his bedroom that night, and I’ve since read it with him and seen him looking at it by himself many times. One night, as he struggled with a particular injustice of the institution of slavery, he said, “It isn’t nice to make people work and not pay them.” Later he asked, “Why didn’t they run away?”
“Some people did,” I told him, and then we talked about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad as I made a mental note to share some of the many books we own about that part of American history with Stevie and his siblings. Emilia was already familiar with Tubman’s name, and she said that she was very brave for helping so many people escape to freedom.
“So did she get everybody except for Dave?” Stevie asked, his face falling as he thought about this particular person, one of myriad nameless people in his new, limited knowledge of history.
“No, she didn’t get everybody; there were too many people to help. But she helped lots and lots of people.”
We kept talking about how proud he and his siblings should be of the heritage they share as biological descendents of people who somehow made lives for themselves within a system that denied their humanity. Stevie beamed as we talked about pride and bravery, hope and rebellion, but I know how deeply he felt the injustice of it all as well. As I reflect on this awakening in my little boy, one step in many he will take from innocence to experience, I am grateful for books and the discussions that they’ve provoked because they’ve helped me be the mother my children need and deserve as they grow up and discover where they’ve come from, who they are, and who they might yet become. Of course, I want to protect Stevie, and I ache to see him trying to wrap his mind around the idea that a person could own another person; but I’m deeply moved by his reaction to this book’s affirmation of Dave’s triumph and by his proud sense of identification with it:
“He has dark brown skin like me because we are both African American,” Stevie said as he looked at Dave for the umpteenth time, and I recalled his earlier fascination with the differences in skin color that exist in our multiracial adoptive family and in the broader world around him.
“I know how I got this dark brown skin,” he told me when he was three years old.
“How?” I asked, wondering if he would talk about his birth parents.
“Well. When I was borned, I just got to choose, and I choosed this dark brown skin because I thought it was the most beautiful.”
“Like Beautiful Blackbird?” I asked him, referencing Ashley Bryan’s picture book.
“Uh-huh!” Stevie quoted, then quickly added, “But I am not black. I am dark, dark brown.” Later, when he was anticipating the start of kindergarten, he asked me, “Does my teacher know I have brown skin?”
“I don’t know,” I told him. “Why?”
“I just wondered,” he said, very matter-of-fact. “And does she have skin like me, or you, or in the middle like Emilia?”
“I don’t know,” I said again, and I reflected on the erroneous adult goal of raising “colorblind” children. Was Stevie’s questioning about skin color in this instance really innocent of the value society places on racial constructions? I couldn’t be sure, which is all the more reason I am dedicated to the discussions we have at home about race, skin color, racism, oppression, and resistance, and I hope that they will play some role in contributing to Stevie’s positive self-concept. Meanwhile, I know that other factors are at play too, including an inner core emotional resilience that he displays. Acknowledging this strength is something I try to do in my parenting in an effort to avoid letting misguided, overprotective impulses get in the way of their individual forays, intellectual and otherwise, into the flawed but beautiful world they’ve inherited. Sometimes, as in my not-so-well-thought-out failure to read Dave the Potter to Stevie before it won the Caldecott Honor, I fall short in this effort when I underestimate my children’s resilience and capacity for reading and thinking about such complex and difficult issues.
Of course, I’m not alone in this struggle to balance honesty with protective impulses. A few years ago the Eric Carle Museum hosted an exhibition of illustrations from Julius Lester and Jerry Pinkney’s The Old African, and curators decided to place small signs outside of the gallery warning visitors with young children about the graphic nature of pictures depicting scenes from the story about the Middle Passage and other scenes in which enslaved people were tied and beaten. The impulse was not censorious in nature but intended to provide a head’s up that the pictures would likely demand contextual conversation. Some pictures are worth more than a thousand words.
Based on my observations in the gallery, I know that some people did not see the signs and were caught unaware when they walked into the gallery with their young children. Others had only cursory conversations about the pictures with the children in their care. They didn’t seem to know how to talk with their children about pictures presenting such horrors. But most parents and teachers who spoke with me about the exhibition were grateful for its content and for the rich, if difficult, conversations it elicited.
“It’s not like there should be a pretty, gentle book about slavery,” one mother said to me.
And I couldn’t agree more. Although Dave does not present as harrowing a depiction of slavery as The Old African or, say, Tom Feelings’s Middle Passage does, it is not gentle, as it does not flinch from the reality of Dave’s bondage even as it depicts his expressions of resistance against it. And, as much as our subsequent readings of Eloise Greenfield’s poem “Harriet Tubman” from Honey, I Love and Other Love Poems and Ellen Levine and Kadir Nelson’s Henry’s Freedom Box proved inspirational and enriching in their own right, I value the fact that Dave the Potter is a book about a person who did not escape slavery — because, as Stevie learned, so many did not. It is heartbreaking to talk with children about slavery and about other times and ways in the past and currently in which humans have behaved so inhumanely to fellow humans, and perhaps it’s more complicated in families like mine that include members of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. But to avoid such conversations, or to address them in ways that minimize their tragedy, is to engage not in heartbreak, but in heartshrink. Reading with my children has shown me that books like Dave the Potter can enrich their visions of the complex world they’ve inherited while also preparing them to, in time, perhaps write their own chapters in history, as surely as Dave penned his.
To commemorate Black History Month, we are highlighting a series of articles, speeches, and reviews from The Horn Book archive that are by and/or about African American authors, illustrators, and luminaries in the field — one a day through the month of February, with a roundup on Fridays. Click the tag HBBlackHistoryMonth17 and look for #HBBlackHistoryMonth17 on Facebook.com/TheHornBook and @HornBook. You can find more resources about social justice and activism at our Talking About Race and Making a Difference resource pages.