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Dave the Potter

Dave the PotterHere’s a biography of someone we really know very little about. What do you make of Hill’s poem? Do you want to learn more? Do Collier’s illustrations fill in some gaps?

The information at the end tells us more, but in fact we are still left with a mystery. Do Collier’s collages match the tone of the text?

We’re also reading some articles about this book. You can comment on the articles on that page, but I’d love to know how they affected your appreciation of the book.

Lolly Robinson About Lolly Robinson

Lolly Robinson is the creative director for The Horn Book, Inc. She has degrees in studio art and children's literature and teaches children's literature at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education. She has served on the Caldecott and Boston Globe-Horn Book Award committees and blogs for Calling Caldecott and Lolly's Classroom on this site.



  1. Stacy Tell says:

    I always love reading about the unsung heroes of history, the ones who manage to quietly make a name of themselves, in Dave the Potter’s case, when in the midst of slavery and not just the aftermath. Dave the Potter left me with so many questions as to who this man was, and where his pots are currently located, and I was delighted to use the websites provided in the back of the book. I really liked that the text and earth-tone illustrations focused on the making of the pottery for a couple of reasons – first of all, I think pottery is a unique art form that not many students may know about if they perhaps haven’t attended a summer camp or arts and crafts fair. The swirling pictures, particularly towards the middle of the book, depict the motion of the pottery wheel and the constant growth and development of the creation that he is building. I also think that the poems Dave records on his pots, though beautifully written and meaningful, are perhaps a little too complex and cryptic to be the center of focus for Hill’s novel. While they do provide a rich background for discussion both prior to and after reading the story, the couplets on the side of the jar would not have provided the students with anything to relate to upon reading this for the first time.

  2. I have read Dave the Potter before and enjoyed reading it again. Like Megan Lambert, I appreciate that Laban Carrick Hill tells the story of a slave who did not escape, as that reality is often overlooked. And I think there is value to having a story about a slave that does not delve deeply into the horrid institution of slavery but rather invites readers to know the particular slave, Dave, on a personal level. This could probably be used nicely with kids who are already learning about slavery and therefore don’t need the historical context. It’s also a way to introduce children to the concept of slavery, as Megan Lambert does with her children (although she’d talked to them about it some before).

    But, coming fresh off of my work on the “Who Tells the Stories” group project, reading this I could not help to think, I wonder who is telling this story. For some reason I thought it was not a black person. When I read about the author at the end, I thought perhaps he is black. But my initial inclination was right: Hill is (or at least appears to be) a white man. I wonder if a black author would have felt as comfortable not talking about how horrible slavery was? I wonder how the book would be different–better or worse–if the author did weave in more information, in the story itself, about the horrors of slavery? I think about if this book, with more information on slavery, would have a greater impact on students at schools like my (predominately white) grade school, where we didn’t learn much about slavery.

    I also find it interesting that it seems like the three books we read in this class directly about other black or African people (Mirror, Stories Julian Tells, and Dave the Potter), are not written by black/ African people. I know that, statistically, minorities get fewer books published. And it seems that our class is contributing to the problem by not supporting the demand of books about blacks/ Africans that are also by blacks/ Africans. Publishers won’t supply them if there’s no demand. And I wonder why, in a class that wants students to think critically about who tells stories and wants to prepare students to share stories with kids, why we don’t look at both types of stories?

  3. Norah Rivera says:

    I think Dave the Potter is a wonderful tribute to Dave’s artiistry and spirit. The book documents Dave’s creative process as a potter by including vibrant illustrations that depict the step-by-step process of turning clay into a piece of art. In addtion, the way the book is written, which is in poetry form, also pays tributes to Dave’s legacy as a poet. I also appreciated the fact that although the book is about a man who was able to experience freedom through his art in the midst of slavery, it does not try to undermine the dehumanizing conditions of slavery. In many of the illustrations, the reader is reminded that Dave lived in a society where people were denied the right to freedom. Ashley, I do think you make a good point about who gets to write whose story. I do think that this is an important issue in children’s literature. It is also an issue that came up in adolescent lit, and it is definittely worth of further exploration.

  4. Lindsey Horowitz says:

    Ashley and Norah, you both write about the voice telling the story. I, too, was confused about the voice, but more in terms of how it pertains to point of view. The image on the first page made me think that the “us” referred to fellow slaves, so I had to realign my comprehension of the perspective when I reached the third stanza and realized that the “us” reflects people today. In this way, I did not think the images matched the text first. However, as I continued to read, I became more enamored of the images, especially the color palette. The earth tones used by Collier align with the idea that Dave worked closely with nature, and the elements of collage featuring leaves and grass complemented this nicely.
    Like Stacy, I was happy to see a bibliography and website list at the end of the book, as the poetic form of the text left me with some questions about Dave. I think my students would appreciate the opportunity to explore Dave’s life further, and I would also consider using some form of object-based learning so students could feel clay pots to make their reading of this text a truly multimedia experience.

  5. Zohra Manjee says:

    I really appreciated reading Dave the Potter because it allowed me to explore the Dave’s narrative in a way that was both historically grounded and engaging to young readers. The visuals are stunning, and the numerous recognitions this book has received are a testament to the immersive power of these illustrations. The use of collage is evident to an observer but not distracting. I also really liked how the author told Dave’s story in a way that was sequential and contextual through making connections to things that a child might be more familiar with, like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat or a carnival’s wheel of fortune. I agree with Ashley a foundational understanding of slavery is relevant for children to fully grasp the brilliance of Dave as an artist and a poet and appreciate why his work is so meaningful. Overall, I think this book highlights the importance of leaving one’s mark on the world, as Dave did through creating and signing his pots, even though it is unclear who these poems were intended for. Also, I think this could allow for a really engaging and productive conversation and activity where children produce pottery or art by getting their hands “dirty” and really diving into the process of creating something from “nothing” and transforming their perspective of what is possible through dedication and passion.

  6. Anna Weerasinghe says:

    I do not want to reiterate all the excellent points that have already been made above, so I think I’ll just comment on one line that struck me most when reading Dave the Potter: “with a flat wooden paddle large enough to row across the Atlantic.” I had to stop and stare at that line when I read it. What? We’re talking about making a pot and suddenly we have a single paddle to row across the Atlantic? I had to go back and reread the poem again from the beginning, more carefully this time. As I did so, I was surprised to see just how many stories are skillfully interwoven into a very brief poem: we (the readers) are in the poem, right at the beginning; so is Dave, of course. But so is the history and narrative of slavery, from the journey across the Atlantic to the family divided, lost and loved in the United States. Places where the poetry only hints at this hidden story are depicted explicitly in the illustrations, as on a page illustrating a pot “large enough to…hold up memories” with a sea voyaging ship sailing along the horizon. From there, story gets even grander, hinting at not only at the history of slavery, but many universal truths of human existence: the mystery of human creativity, the passage of time, the connection we have to our ancestors and our descendants. I was impressed by the complexity and open-endedness of the text and illustrations. Dave is not “merely” a potter or a slave or even a poet – he is an adventurer, a story-teller, a magician, a part of a family, a creator with the vision to spin the “wheel of fortune” to make the proud-shouldered jar he “knew was there, even before he worked the raw mound on his wheel.” I was not surprised to read that Bryan Collier’s mantra to himself while working on this book was “I wonder.” Dave the Potter is a brilliant book for introducing children to a discussion of slavery, American history or even the art of pottery. But it is also a beautiful testament to how an individual can transcend his circumstances, no matter how desperate, to wonder at greater human truths.

  7. Sarah Thompson says:

    Anna, your post resonated greatly with me. I too got “stuck” on the image of the paddle, for the very same reasons. I think that line was the one that shifted my entire perspective in reading–adding a gravity I hadn’t begun the experience with. From that point forward, I felt myself looking for more powerful imagery–imagery that alluded to both his enslaved reality (“long ropes”) and metaphorical escapes to the life he could have lived (“he would have been embraced”). The other image than really gave me pause was that of the walls of the pot rising up “like a robin’s/puffed breast–/but only so far/before its immense weight/threatened collapse.” It seems to me that this feeling may have plagued Dave throughout his life, especially as his talent swelled.

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