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Freedom in Congo Square

freedom-in-congo-squareDo you ever think you know a lot about a topic and then open a book to read something completely new? That’s what happened when I read this offering from Carole Boston Weatherford and R. Gregory Christie. I thought I knew just about everything about slavery in the 1800s in our country, at least all that could be told to young children in the format of a picture book. I studied African American history in college and I live in the South, even teaching school on land that was once a plantation housing slaves. I’ve been to New Orleans. But I never knew about Congo Square or anything like a Congo Square. It is such a satisfying feeling to learn something new…and to have it presented in a way that makes it accessible to the very young students I teach.

When I was on the Caldecott committee, I would find books that I liked, but a few months later I could barely remember a thing about them. Not so with Freedom in Congo Square. The first time I saw this book was in December 2015, shortly before the 2016 publication date. I was haunted by Weatherford’s couplets, which reminded me of nursery rhymes that followed the days of the week. Easy to read but full of emotion, her couplets move the reader from Monday to Sunday. (“Mondays, there were hogs to slop, mules to train, and logs to chop. Slavery was no ways fair. Six more days to Congo Square.”) The story continues to move through the labors of the week until the delicious celebration on Sunday in Congo Square: “half day, half free in Congo Square.”

The Caldecott committee will be rewarded when it looks at Christie’s art through the criteria, for here is where the book, like the characters in Congo Square, really soars. The delineation of plot, theme, characters, setting, mood, or information is clearly evident in the pictures. At first, perhaps with tender memories of Sunday in their minds, the enslaved workers are shown, nearly blending in with the brown of the earth, with facial features nothing more than a suggestion. Even the pigs are shown in more detail. Could there be any clearer illustration of how a slave was seen by his master? The days move relentlessly on and still the slaves are shown in little detail, each the same as the one next to him or her. But a closer look brings a necessary chill: the “dreaded lash” and white slave hunters on horseback, a frightening tree takes over a few foregrounds, and one sleeping scene looks a lot like the images from slave ships. Only on Sundays do the enslaved people come into real focus, wearing their own colorful clothing, playing instruments, and, finally, dancing, almost like birds, on top of warm yellow backgrounds. The joy in these spreads is where the reader is left, not back in the fields or working in the house, but free. It’s nothing less than exhilarating.

Every spread reflects Weatherford’s text yet extends it in ways that only art can do, reaching the reader wherever he or she is. Young children could hear this story on a basic level, and older kids could dig into the historical foreword and author’s note. The next time I am in New Orleans I will certainly take a trip to Congo Square. I hope I can feel the dancing spirits of all those who savored those few hours of freedom each Sunday there.

What else will the collective mind of the Caldecott committee find when they open the cover of this fine book? I cannot imagine this will not be discussed in January!

 

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Robin Smith About Robin Smith

Robin Smith is a second-grade teacher at the Ensworth School in Nashville, Tennessee. She is a reviewer for Kirkus and The Horn Book Magazine and has served on multiple award committees.

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  1. Susan Dailey says:

    Robin, I didn’t catch the addition of details to the characters in the Congo Square pages. Thanks for pointing this out. I think Christie does a wonderful job of capturing the sense of movement in these pages, which contrasts with the more static figures in the earlier spread. Almost all the characters are looking to the left–looking forward to Sunday. Nice touch.
    I have a couple questions though that I hope a more astute person can answer. In the Monday page, are the two characters on the left page training the mules? If so, why no mule? Also, the double-page spread with the instruments has such a different “feel” to me. It’s very striking just so unlike the other spreads. Any ideas why?

  2. Susan Dailey says:

    It’s been a long day–apparently so long that I no longer know left from right. In above comment, characters look to the right and the characters that might be training mules are on the right side of the spread. Sheesh!

  3. Eric Carpenter says:

    I posted this comment on the RWW post about Freedom in Congo Square but in the off chance not everyone here is following RWW…..

    Anyone who will be traveling to Atlanta for NCTE or ALA Midwinter should plan on checking out Greg’s original art for this book while in town. The exhibit runs through the Sunday of Midwinter (January 22).
    Details from the Auburn Avenue Research Library’s website are copied below.
    “Freedom in Congo Square
    The Illustrated Children’s Literature of R. Gregory Christie
    Fine Arts Exhibition
    Thursday, August 4, 2016 – Sunday, January 22. 2017
    The Auburn Avenue Research Library and Hammonds House Museum, in collaboration with GAS-ART GIFTS (Gregarious Art Statements), Little Bee Books, and Georgia State University, will host Freedom in Congo Square, a compelling new exhibition featuring the illustrated children’s literature of award-winning artist R. Gregory Christie. This exhibition, made possible by the generous support of the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library Foundation, showcases the original art created for the illustrated children’s book, Freedom in Congo Square. Accompanying these absorbing images is the lyrical prose of renowned author Carole Boston Weatherford, creating a powerful exploration into the lived experiences of enslaved Africans, as they struggle to preserve their dignity and African heritage.
    This exhibition is on display in the Chidren’s Gallery at the Auburn Avenue Research Library, 101 Auburn Ave NE, Atlanta, GA 30303.”
    http://www.afpls.org/aarl

  4. Robin Smith Robin Smith says:

    Eric,
    Thanks so much for that information. I had seen it at the Reading While White blog and was about to copy the information over here.
    I was showing this book to a friend today and she noticed, on the Thursday page, there was a reference to “babes to wean” that she found interesting. The little child is clearly might lighter skin than the mother and she felt it was a reference to being the master’s child. I was able to ask Mr. Christie that question and he said, “Yes. Though I did not want to show faces in detail, I did want to refer to that in the illustration.” It made me want to walk through the book page by page with him to see what else was tucked into the drawings!

  5. Allison Grover Khoury says:

    Thanks for the good review, Robin. I appreciate the careful analysis of the art especially. I really like this book and have been mulling over how to use it at our school. I so admire both illustrator and author, nothing but excellent work comes from either of them. This seemed like a match made in heaven.

  6. I remember this book, too, even though I first read it in January. One thing that stuck out to me: even the illustrations are pointing to Sunday like the text. Everything is static and facing to the right until Saturday night. When Sunday comes, there is joyous movement in both text and illustrations. It looks like I need to get it again, though, because you all have mentioned details I don’t remember!

  7. Brenda Martin says:

    I’m not sure how much the text and illustrations’ interplay count toward the Caldecott, so my comments may not be entirely on-target. But I had a few issues with this book that I want to be sure to mention now that I have a copy in front of me again (after having read it many months ago!)

    Christie’s artwork is stunning, there is no doubt about it. And this is the rarely-told history of a slice of the slavery experience in Louisiana that I was utterly and somewhat shamefully unaware of. However, for the age group, the text concerns me. When I showed it to a group of kids there were a few that got the sense that slaves did certain tasks each day of the week, such as the hog slopping on Mondays, the cow feeding on Tuesdays, the bed making on Wednesdays. Of course I clarified that, but they weren’t sure why it read as it did even after my explanation. Some of the phrases scan a bit clumsily, too (“slavery was no ways fair”; “always more chores to be done”; “gauze, silk and percale”). The one spread where there is a lack of interplay between the text and art is on Thursday, when spirituals rose, though there is nothing in the art that indicates singing.

    All that said, I wouldn’t be surprised to see this receive attention in January, despite the concerns I have about it.

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