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Freedom Over Me

freedom-over-meWhat a thrill to see the finished copy of Ashley Bryan’s Freedom Over Me and to get the opportunity to write about it here. The book is a finalist for the Kirkus Prize and ought to get attention for both the Newbery and the Caldecott.

Robin and I have been fortunate over the last few years to visit Little Cranberry Island — “Ashley’s Island” — for three weeks each July. A highlight has been to see Ashley Bryan’s works in progress. A couple of years ago, he was working on illustrations for Sail Away: Poems by Langston Hughes. Two summers ago, he was working on illustrations for Freedom Over Me. Robin and I would walk over to his house and see these gorgeous individual illustrations in progress sitting out on his table, and he would read us drafts of his poems and tell us what he had in mind for the finished book. He works on a yearly cycle: the illustrations and poems he was working on that summer would be a finished book a year later. And here it is!

So my comments are not exactly unbiased. I’m a member of next year’s Caldecott committee, where these personal anecdotes don’t have a place, but for now, I can write as a fan of a book I loved from the start. I’m also a reviewer for Horn Book and Kirkus, so I’ll put on my reviewer’s hat for the moment.

“A name. An age. A price. People like you. Like me. For sale!” The book works in three ways — painted portraits (in pen, ink, and watercolor), first-person free verse poems of eleven slaves telling their stories, and poems in which the slaves relate their dreams. Each dream poem is printed on a background different in color from the prior poem to differentiate dreams from the harsh realities of existence on the Fairchilds estate. In the dream poems, Peggy, Bacus, Charlotte, and others reveal their true lives. As Bacus says, “No matter what the tasks, our lives are within.” And Athelia says, “As slaves, we do what our owners expect and demand of us. As human beings, our real lives are our precious secret.”

I have a clear memory of the painting of Peggy, the Fairchilds’ cook, sitting on Ashley Bryan’s table that summer two years ago. To see Peggy now in this book is remarkable. Her portrait is collaged on top of a photo-reproduction of a slave auction document. This technique, used throughout the book, literally puts a human face on history. I love the woodcut-like effect of this art — the swirling ink lines on watercolor. Such character in that face…and then that stark price tag under her face!

Every double-page spread includes an illustration and a poem opposite it, and (as in any good picture book) there is interplay between illustration and text created by the voices of the characters, who come alive as we read their poems. It’s easy to imagine those pictures almost alive, the people welcoming us into their lives, into their stories, imagining their voices in the poems we read.

What Ashley Bryan does so well here is to create fully realized human beings. They might be enslaved, but they also have their “real lives,” their “precious secret” lives as human beings. And they might be in America, but Africa lives in them, too — in the beautiful clothes Jane weaves, depicted in the vibrant illustration opposite “Jane dreams”; in Charlotte’s use of colored rushes in African patterns in her baskets; Qush’s handmade instruments that come alive in the illustration facing his dream poem; in the illustration of Athelia in her dream poem, her face in the midst of tribal ceremonial masks of Africa.

Front and back endpapers are reproductions of the actual documents on which these eleven people were listed for sale, used effectively to portray how slavery circumscribed their lives. But open the book and real lives — real human beings — burst forth in the full power of Ashley Bryan’s tapestry of color. Mr. Bryan powerfully demonstrates that a picture book about slavery can be serious, dignified, and beautiful as it speaks to children and adults alike.

About Dean Schneider

Dean Schneider teaches seventh and eighth grades at the Ensworth School in Nashville, Tennessee.

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Comments

  1. I am so happy to see this up for discussion on Calling Caldecott. I think it is an extremely strong consideration for a Caldecott (and wouldn’t it be marvelous to see both this and Congo Square nab Caldecott nods?). The art in this is beyond amazing – each portrait is so lovingly rendered, so strongly delineated from the one before it, so beautifully executed. The swirling paint (http://d28hgpri8am2if.cloudfront.net/book_images/onix/interior_spreads/9781481456906/freedom-over-me-9781481456906.in06.jpg) reminds me a bit of Vincent Van Gogh, and the powerful gazes of the portraits (http://d28hgpri8am2if.cloudfront.net/book_images/onix/interior_spreads/9781481456906/freedom-over-me-9781481456906.in03.jpg) humanizes the subjects.

    The poems were a bit same-y and lacked voice and tone, so this, to me, is a far stronger Caldecott option.

  2. Barb Gogan says:

    Yes Joe–I definitely get a Van Gogh vibe from this. It seems distinct from his other work that I am familiar with. Very appealing.

  3. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Do we think the Caldecott Committee will care that while Bryan writes in the afterword that he took the names of his eleven subjects from an actual document, the document (included as appended material) only lists ten? The character John is not included therein. I wonder if Bryan wanted a male teenaged character to round out his cast?

    In any case I love this book, which would be my personal choice for the Medal. Think Lobel’s FABLES.

  4. Allison Grover Khoury says:

    I’m writing late (sorry) after spending some time with this beautiful book. Thanks for the excellent review and analysis! One of the pleasures of this blog. I have high hopes for the book. Just amazing.

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