Booker T. Washington is best known for founding Tuskegee Institute and writing Up from Slavery. Some children might know him as the little boy with a thirst for learning in More than Anything Else. Older readers might be aware of the differences between the philosophies of W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington during their time. (Anyone who wants to read about this can find a treasure trove here. Or read the excellent Author’s Note.)
Asim and Collier tell the inspiring story of a true American hero who was born into slavery and had a burning desire to read. Of course, teaching a slave to read was forbidden, but Booker’s desire was insatiable. We follow him into freedom, to the salt furnaces and coal mines of West Virginia, and on the long road to Hampton Institute, 500 miles away, with just coins in his pocket and a big dream.
Collier’s illustrations extend Asim’s lyrical text and capture the sacrifice that Washington had to make in his dedication to learning to read and then to studying in college. We see him, still enslaved, dreaming by a tree and then, later, from the same perspective, as an older person, arms outstretched in happiness at finally reaching Hampton.
Here are some elements of the illustrations that I find distinguished:
1. The changing perspectives that allow the reader to feel Washington’s emotions.
2. His shirt, which is a map
3. The light bubbles that float in and out of the spreads. According to the Illustrator’s note, they are symbolic of Washington’s quest for and acquisition for learning.
4. Booker’s face in the window of the school for white kids (and the really BIG bubbles behind him).
5. The font, which has a neat, handwritten feel to it. I also like the sketches added to the text boxes.
6. The bird flying out the window when Booker gets the book from his mother, pulling him away to learning. He quietly repeats this motif with torn paper on a number of pages.
7. When his older neighbors give him money, the illustration is filled with trees that have faces and hands on them, reminding the reader of the sacrifices of the ancestors.
8. His use of the color blue to set the mood–look at that page when he gets to Richmond. He looks nearly destroyed–his young hands look like the hands of a grandfather.
9. And finally, the lightly-written cursive words on Washington’s face on the cover. It took my old lady eyes a little bit of time to read them, but they are the words of his most famous speech, called “Cast down your buckets where you are.” When I found a link to the audio of the speech, I don’t mind admitting that I teared up, more than a little.
Like Dave the Potter, this heartfelt story of the love of words and learning improves with each reading. The emotions come through and the story, for children who might take their schooling for granted, resonates louder with repeated readings. Whatever happens with this one, I am happy to have a new and more nuanced view of Booker T. Washington for today’s children. Now, go and read that speech and find this book!